Beyond Halloween: What’s really scary about ‘blackface’

October 31, 2013

Let’s settle this. Blackface is forbidden cultural territory to me. It’s as insulting as black comedians portraying white girls and as degrading as a white man (with darkened face) playing President Obama. Blackface falls right alongside deplorable words, whether it’s the n-word, or referring to people immigrating illegally as “aliens,” or slurring Native Americans with the name of a football franchise.

Let’s also be clear. Blackface isn’t like opening a box of crayons and playing pretend. The fact that blackface reemerges throughout American culture like a virus is alarming, but not for the obvious reasons. Who benefits if racist images pollute the American population? Who cheers when people vanilla-coat slurs as harmless play?

Does an atmosphere that clings to racist imagery distract people from focusing on more nefarious challenges to social problems? They do. Consider the livelihoods of millions of families struggling to reconstruct their lives after the Great Recession, the demand for more liveable cities, pernicious food deserts, health-care issues, and the renewed battle over voting rights. Beneath the racist chatter, something else goes bump in the night.

My skin crawled when I listened to a 1929 recording from a minstrel show. I remember my grandparents sharing their experiences in the Jim Crow South. They fought for self-determination in a world that accepted blackfaced-minstrels, where African Americans were viewed as cultural prey, objects of laughter, inferior and witless.

Author Donald Bogle writes in his classic work, “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films,”  that the “blackface tradition” emerged during slavery because  restrictions kept blacks from appearing on the stage:

“Troupes of white minstrels blackened themselves with burnt cork better to mock and caricature the plantation slaves they imitated. After the Civil War, freed slaves could form their own minstrel companies, but they too were required to darken themselves with burnt cork. … The tradition was ridiculous and unnecessary certainly, but it was merely one of any number of ways in which the entertainment world bowed to prejudice.”

On Black-Face. com, Ken Padgett writes that although minstrel shows evolved, the blackened faces and the caricatures remained:

“Prior to the Civil War (1861-1865), pro-slavery Whites used the racist stereotypes as a way of countering the abolitionist movement. Performers defended slavery by presenting denigrating stereotypes of Blacks who supposedly needed the civilizing influence of slavery to keep them in check. Black slaves were portrayed as happy and content with their lot in life and fearful of life outside of the plantation.

“With the dramatic increase in the popularity of minstrel shows in the years following emancipation, Whites continued to wear the blackface mask in performances that would serve to define the meaning of blackness for many Americans who by choice or geography had little contact with Blacks.”

To reason that today’s Halloween festivities untangle and redeem blackface from that history is ludicrous; it’s revisionist history at its worst.  Blackface disturbs even when the wearer intends to pay tribute – as with actress Julianne Hough’s recent Halloween costume in homage to a TV character, and the Utah Jazz’s retweeted photo about former NBA players Karl Malone and John Stockton. Blackface also divides, like the story about the San Diego high school football coaches who donned blackface to mimic a Jamaican bobsled team.

But blackface appears more ghoulish when two Florida men find humor in costumes featuring George Zimmerman and the late Trayvon Martin, complete with bloodied hoodie and darkened face. The idea that someone wants to immortalize a black teen’s death in costume is as irreverent of human life as trick-or-treaters donning costumes depicting the shooters and victims at Aurora, Colorado and Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

Maybe those who wear blackface perceive it as a funny-bone moment, like the throwaway line by the Nevada lawmaker who said he would vote for slavery if his district asked him. (He has since said he wouldn’t.) Perhaps those who don blackface didn’t study its origins in U.S. history. They skipped a meaningful lesson — an omission as glaring as the absence of abolitionist Frederick Douglass from the powerful 2012 film “Lincoln.”

For sure, coexisting with the ghosts of the past incites danger, but falling for racially charged bait hides another threat. A revived ugly past may conceal what’s being snatched away in the present.

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Keli Goff | October 31, 2013