Blackface in Our Space

So, here we are…the 21st Century, during Black History Month in the year 2019…and we’re actually having a debate about blackface. There are serious pieces of journalism out there that are attempting to explain why it’s offensive— I’m assuming these writings are for the benefit of white people. I mean, who else is it for? It seems to me that when it comes to race issues in America, the folks who are the most responsible for the problems are the ones avoiding them. How ironic, eh?

Look, this is not a problem with everyone, to be sure. Most white people are not ignorant about race issues, and I don’t think this is expressed enough. This is not a problem with ALL white people, BUT…this is a problem that ALL white people must deal with. You’ll notice that whenever there happens to be some sort of riot or disturbance involving people of color (mostly Black and Hispanic), there are white folks that will ask “where are the parents?” or “why is this happening?” All things being equal, I think it’s about time that we ask white folks these same questions regarding race: “where are the parents? Did they teach you these things?”, “why do you people still believe this nonsense?”

I grew up in a predominately white suburb in New Jersey. It got to the point where white people felt comfortable enough around me that they would let things slip. In my experience, yes— these things are picked up by the parents. The first time I ever got into a fight was when I was in 4th grade. A kid named Stephen Rosen shoved my cousin Ayanna to the ground. So, I shoved him back, and told him not to do that again. As I walked away, he shouted “YOU STUPID BLACK APE!” Well, sir…let’s just say that it took 3-4 other kids to pull me off of him. As word got around about this, one of the teachers— Mrs. Anderson (white lady)— stepped up to me in the hallway, grabbed me and slammed me up against the lockers. She got in my face and shouted “WHY DID YOU HIT HIM? WHY DID YOU HIT HIM?” I yelled back “HE CALLED ME A BLACK APE!” She froze. Completely and totally froze. She let me go, looked down to the ground, and walked away saying, “Well….you shouldn’t have hit him.” I tell that story to paint the picture of what my life in a predominately white school in the 1980s was like.

Back in the 80s, Saturday Night Live (SNL) was huge- especially when Eddie Murphy got there. You knew that every time he appeared on the show, you were going to see something incredible! This was especially the case when he appeared in a short film on the show called “White Like Me,” when he decided that he wanted to see what his life would be like as a white man:

Believe it or not, not everyone loved that sketch. One of my friends, John (white), hated it. HATED IT. I remember bringing it up to him, talking about how hysterical it was. He wasn’t amused. In fact, he was offended. “Eddie Murphy is an asshole!” he said. He was offended by the fact that Eddie Murphy was not only made up to look white, but that he was “pretending” to be white. Even then, I couldn’t believe the irony of what I was hearing. The sketch was CLEARLY lampooning very real issues that Black folks dealt with on a daily basis. It was a parody in every way! John did not see it that way. He thought it was racist towards white people.

To this day I find that to be an insane notion. And maybe I’m spoiled in that the white folks that I associate with on a regular basis just “get it.” They don’t contribute to the problem. They’re as outraged by displays of racism as any other sane people would be. They see through, and acknowledge, the micro-aggressions and overt behaviors, and have no problem with addressing and confronting them. When it comes to blackface, this idiocy is being condemned and called out in ways that I haven’t seen in previous years.

Speaking of the 80s, there was a moment in celebrity news when Whoopie Goldberg was dating Ted Danson. This was around the time when Whoopie was roasted by the Fryers’ Club. Ted Danson even made an appearance at the end of the event:

What an idiot.

What an idiot.

Yep, he did. He appeared, in front of the entire crowd, in blackface. Not just the black makeup, but the white lips too. The ONLY people who I remember being outraged about this were Black people. You didn’t hear much from white folks about this. He did end up apologizing for it, and admitted that he went too far- even for a roast. But that’s why when you hear people talk about these politicians appearing in their 80s yearbooks in blackface expressing SHOCK that this happened in the 80s…I’m not shocked.

It’s clear to me that Americans have absolutely no concept of history. There is a minority of white Americans who not only have no concept of their history, they don’t care. All they know is that they’re sick of “being blamed for everything.” They are triggered by basic criticism of behavior that they would deem unacceptable if it were directed towards them. These are folks that would describe President Trump’s racist rhetoric as “telling it like it is.” They don’t understand that it’s not that way at all. The irony, once again, is when confronted by what their behavior presents to everyone else (telling it like it is), they are triggered into a frenzy of outrage and shock.

There are photos all over the internet of white folks in blackface, and not just from 150 years ago when Minstrel Shows were the top form of entertainment. Some go all the way back to…the early 2000s.

California Christian School Apologizing After Teacher Wore Blackface During School Presentation

California Christian School Apologizing After Teacher Wore Blackface During School Presentation

Salon owner defends employee wearing blackface for Michael Jackson costume, says she didn't know 'it was a thing'

Salon owner defends employee wearing blackface for Michael Jackson costume, says she didn't know 'it was a thing'

Florida Secretary of State resigns after reveal of blackface photos

Florida Secretary of State resigns after reveal of blackface photos

School Responds After Student Is Found On Social Media Wearing Blackface To Troll Another Student

School Responds After Student Is Found On Social Media Wearing Blackface To Troll Another Student

UNCP investigates student in blackface on social media

UNCP investigates student in blackface on social media

I think the only thing that’s truly shocking here are claims of ignorance from the people going out in public and allowing themselves to be photographed in blackface. “I didn’t know!” “I had no idea it was offensive!” I guess we are to truly believe that there are people out there who are just plain stupid, oblivious, and lacking in emotional intelligence to realize how fucked up this behavior is. Ignorance is never an excuse. It’s amazing how people would just rather admit that they are dumb, rather than take responsibility for their behavior— and doing so ONLY because they got caught and are being condemned for it. If no one said shit, the wouldn’t say shit— and would likely go out and do it again!

Some people will even try to add qualifiers to this behavior! “They do this in other countries!” It’s true, in Asia and Europe there are mental defectives participating in blackface as well. No excuse. Other countries have higher math scores and universal healthcare, why don’t you want to emulate that instead?

Know your history, people. That’s what this all comes down to. Take a moment to stop huffing your own flatulence, and actually learn why your self-indulgent idiocy is toxic. Read. Learn. Educate yourselves. Then maybe you won’t have to get defensive about doing stupid shit.

A recreation of the Jump Jim Crow refrain; ("Wheel about and turn about and do just so, every time I wheel about I Jump Jim Crow") the way it was performed by Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice (1808-60). This clip is so short I repeated it three times so you can get a good look.
Even by minstrel show standards, Cotton Watts was far more extreme and offensive than most blackface comedians of his time. This clip includes the classic "Lion Tamer" bit and an excellent dance routine in "slap shoes."
"Backstory with the American History Guys" examines D.W. Griffith's 1915 film "The Birth of a Nation" LIVE on Sunday, November 22 at 5pm ET. For More Information: http://www.c-span.org/series/?ahtv
One of Old Joe Sweeny's repertoire songs, first published in 1842. www.earlybanjotraditions.com
Slim Williams delivers a stump speech in blackface. This was an important part of nearly every minstrel show -- a performer delivers a political speech filled with puns and malaprops. The speaker's demeanor is reminiscent of the pomposity of Zip Coon; he aspires to great dignity, wisdom and intelligence, but his hilarious mangling of language always makes him appear foolish and ignorant.
Al Jolson plays blackface minstrel performer EP Christy in "Swanee River" (1939). Jolson got his start in minstrel shows and was the most famous minstrel artist of his era. In this clip, Jolson sings Oh! Susanna and Swanee River. Read about the history of blackface and minstrel shows at http://black-face.com
 
Charles ConyersComment