The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Blackface, lynching in effigy, and the unbearable awfulness of Halloween

Perhaps the best way to deal with blackface on Halloween is to just know that it’s going to happen and to steel yourself.

Forget trying to explain why blackface is horrible or why it’s not okay to lynch a black family in effigy on your front lawn and call it celebrating Halloween. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that deep down, the people doing these things know better. They know it’s wrong. This is basic American history here, not the specifics of the Peloponnesian War.

So is the problem that people simply don’t care?

In 2007, Andrea Rubenstein coined a phrase for the underlying racism that colors everyday life in America, the stuff we just sort of blithely accept, such as television shows set in New York that are unrealistically white (See: “Friends,” “Girls”).

She called it the “usual amount of racism.”

But then a funny thing happened. Unlike with “Friends,” people called Lena Dunham on the carpet for creating an all-white universe in Brooklyn, of all places. They did it loudly. And it captured people’s attention — even Dunham’s.

Recent television seasons have brought a comparative flurry of shows led by minorities and women — shows that are actually good, popular, and don’t rely on tired Black Best Friend tropes. “Black-ish,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Cristela,” and “Sleepy Hollow” are triumphantly disproving the notion that leading characters must be white and/or male to anchor hit shows.

Marvel has become the reigning house of diversity in comics, with a black Captain America and a female Thor, and in film, where Chadwick Boseman has a five-picture deal to play Black Panther and there are plans for a female Captain Marvel.

Diversity in media at this point, has become a necessity, not just a feel-good choice.

But this has come at a price: it seems the toll for (painfully slow) progress on such fronts is that the threshold of the usual amount of racism gets ratcheted upward as we make room for new realities.

If you’re Susan Faludi, and you’re talking about feminism, you’d call it a backlash.

It turns up in the form of people who dress, in blackface, as Ray Rice — often accessorized with a black doll held face down to symbolize his wife, Janay Palmer — for Halloween.

The people doing it simply don’t care. And unlike television or movies, you’re talking about individual actors. There are no checks and balances, no plummeting ratings, no advertisers to boycott, when it comes to individuals.

Sure, you can give people a pass for being “white and oblivious,” as comedian Hannibal Buress in his stand-up show described how his girlfriend failed to recognize an instance of less-than-overt racism.

That said, let’s examine the case of Scottish singer Annie Lennox.

In a recent interview with Tavis Smiley, Lennox managed to spout nearly 500 words about “Strange Fruit,” a song she covered on her new album, “Nostalgia.” She did so without once uttering the word “lynching,” despite the fact that “Strange Fruit,” recorded and made famous by Billie Holiday in 1939, is specifically and unequivocally about lynching. The titular “strange fruit” refers to the body of a black man hanging from a tree.

Smiley asked Lennox about the decision to include the song “Strange Fruit” on her new album, “Nostalgia.” Lennox gave a very thoughtful answer, and she said a lot of words, none of which were “lynching.”

“Strange Fruit” is a protest song and it was written before the Civil Rights movement actually got on its feet, got established. And because of what I’ve seen around the world, I know that this theme, this subject of violence and bigotry, hatred, violent acts of mankind against ourselves. This is a theme. It’s a human theme that has gone on for time immemorial. It’s expressed in all kinds of different ways, whether it be racism, whether it be domestic violence, whether it be warfare, or a terrorist act, or simply one person attacking another person in a separate incident. This is something that we as human beings have to deal with, it’s just going on 24/7. And as an observer of this violence, even when I was a child, I thought, ‘why is this happening?’ So I’ve always had that sense of empathy and kind of outrage that we behave in this way. So a song like this, if I were to do a version of “Strange Fruit,” I’d give the song honor and respect and I try to bring it back out into the world again and get an opportunity to talk about the subjects behind the songs as well.

When Smiley politely pressed, “When you hear Billie Holiday sing that, what do you hear?” Lennox nattered on about Holiday’s early death and self-destruction before saying that she thought if the singer was still alive today, they could talk about lipstick:

I feel that I want to kind of be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her. If she was here now, we would have a lot in common, there would be a lot of things that we could talk about… Like female empowerment, women’s rights, bigotry, racism. What is it? What? You know there’s so many things we could talk about, we could talk about lipstick, too. We could talk about clothes. But we could talk about the things that are still going on in this day and age that haven’t changed one iota and the sort of pain that I feel because I would like to see a world that could transform. 

In fairness, to many outsiders, American racial politics resemble an MC Escher maze of taboos, loaded phrases and words, and racially coded foods. But to many, Lennox’s attempt to whitewash and make universal a song that was written specifically about the epidemic of lynching that took place across the postwar American south was more than just another innocuous case of someone being “white and oblivious.”

In awkwardly circumventing the origins of “Strange Fruit,” Lennox finds herself in the company of tone-deaf actress Blake Lively, who thought it appropriate to dedicate a fall fashion spread of her new lifestyle site, Preserve, to waxing nostalgic about the antebellum South. Lively conveniently neglected to mention that said lifestyle was made possible by the free labor and attendant terrorizing of slaves, but why should that obstruct fawning over the ways of women with an “inherent social distinction who set the standards for style and appearance”?

Thankfully, the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates was there to remind us just how cruel and inhumane southern belles could be.

“As always worth asking the enslaved what they thought about the allure of ‘Southern Belles.’ Turns out they had a lot to say,” Coates tweeted. He continued in a series of tweets, all quoted from Thavolia Glymph’s “Out of the House of Bondage”:

Alice Shaw was given the task of fanning flies and clearing the dinner table. When she dropped a dish, her mistress “beat her on her head.” Lila Nichols failed to gather enough eggs. She was beaten by her mistress. This same mistress later set upon an enslaved woman whom she suspected of poisoning her, “leaving her back ‘in gashes.’

“Strange Fruit” was a pivotal song that inspired more art surrounding the topic of lynching — Gertrude Abercrombie’s “Charlie Parker’s Favorite Painting (1947)” being a primary example. It takes an incredible amount of verbal gymnastics to talk about the song without mentioning the subject at all.

And when you reduce it to “violent acts of mankind against ourselves,” you erase the pain from which it was born. A protest song it may be, but “Strange Fruit” is not “We Shall Overcome.” It’s not a song you hear people singing at rallies. It is full of mourning and reserve. I’ve heard “Strange Fruit” once in my life: while watching Ken Burns’ documentary “Jazz” while I was a junior at boarding school.

I remember sitting quietly alone in front of the television as tears streamed down my face. Finally, I called my mother at home, overcome with grief at the horrors committed against people simply because they were black. One of the worst cases is Mary Turner’s. Turner was eight months pregnant when she was lynched in Valdosta, Ga. — she was hanged and burned alive, her baby was cut from her womb and its head was stomped, and then her torturers filled her body with bullets.

That is the sort of memory “Strange Fruit” evokes. Many singers who followed Holiday including Nina Simone, Tori Amos, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Nona Hendryx, have recorded it. It costs nothing to acknowledge the lost lives and blood spilled that led to its creation in the first place.

America doesn’t need ghouls and goblins to scare. It’s got its past, and in some cases, its present. If someone as well-intentioned as Lennox doesn’t know better, or just doesn’t care, we needn’t look very far for a fright-fest.