The photos were snapped on Halloween, but began circulating on social media last week, when Bonner’s blackface morphed into a black eye for his community.
“I’m really embarrassed about the whole situation,” Blevins School Superintendent Billy Lee told The Washington Post.
Lee oversees the three schools in Blevins, a town of 315 people, 100 miles southwest of Little Rock. In this town, 17 percent of the population is black.
“It’s not the way I was raised. It’s not the way I am. It’s not the way our students are or our schools,” Lee said.
Bonner offered a “very sincere apology” at the county school board meeting Monday night, Lee said.
But many people in the community want him off the board.
Lee didn’t say whether he thought Bonner should resign. But as superintendent, Lee can’t force a school board member to do anything.
“He’s actually my boss,” Lee said. “Neither the school board nor the administration holds the power to discipline or remove a school board member. Only the voters have the power during the next school board election.”
Bonner is up for reelection in 2018, Lee said.
No one answered the phone at a number listed for Bonner.
The Arkansas NAACP demanded that Bonner resign immediately.
“Ted Bonner’s services as a school board member that oversees a district of racially and culturally diverse students is an egregious act,” President Rizelle Aaron said in a statement to local media.
Bonner “has conducted himself in a manner that is unbecoming of an elected official and has brought embarrassment and negative national attention to the Blevins School District and the great state of Arkansas.”
Faye Smith, who has two sons attending Blevins High School, told Little Rock’s NBC affiliate KARK that Bonner’s actions send the wrong message to black children in the schools he oversees.
“It’s a little bit hurtful . . . to think my children are being supervised by a person who feels like that is all they’re worth,” said Smith. “I don’t appreciate the fact that you’re mocking the thing that I’m teaching my boys is something to be proud of — being a black man — and then you do this to make them feel like ‘well, you’re a joke.’”
Across the nation, this school year “opened with an onslaught of racially charged incidents at colleges across the country,” The Post’s Susan Svrluga wrote.
“A professor at Eastern Michigan University found a racial slur spray-painted on the side of a building on campus along with ‘KKK’ in large letters. A former Kansas State University student shared a photo of herself and a friend with their faces painted black, and a racial slur,” Svrluga wrote. “Students at the University of Michigan found posters on campus warning white women not to date black men. On a wall at Ohio University, someone painted a person hanging from a noose.”
College campuses advised students to think twice before wearing culturally insensitive Halloween costumes, amid an ongoing debate about the balance between free speech and cultural sensitivity.
“Our thing is about teaching students about how to enjoy the holiday without being extremely offensive,” said Carolyn Barber-Pierre, assistant vice president for multicultural affairs at Tulane University.
At the University of Oregon, a law professor missed that lesson: The professor was placed on administrative leave after wearing blackface to a Halloween party attended by faculty and students.
Blackface minstrel acts were popular in the 1800s, when white audiences weren’t interested in seeing real black entertainers and instead preferred performers who were pretending to be black.
“The audience for these shows was largely working-class whites, and at first the blackface character was actually a smart and sympathetic one,” “The Tavis Smiley Show” once observed. “But as time went on, the minstrel show took on a more racist tone.”
These shows “presented the black character as being stupid, as being comical, as being basically a frivolous character,” cultural critic Mel Watkins told PBS. “Now, how that impacted upon society itself was that they embraced it. They loved it. This was what people had thought about blacks all along. So [that] characterization of blacks then reaffirmed what mainstream America had been thinking all along.”
“Minstrelsy desensitized Americans to horrors of chattel slavery,” wrote Blair L.M. Kelley, an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University. “These performances were object lessons about the harmlessness of southern slavery. By encouraging audiences to laugh, they showed bondage as an appropriate answer for the lazy, ignorant slave. Why worry about the abolition of slavery when black life looked so fun, silly, and carefree? Even the violence of enslavement just became part of the joke.”
Noting that “blackface became a mainstay of stage and later film performance,” Kelley wrote that “most often blackface was used as a comic device that played on the stereotypes of black laziness, ignorance, or crass behavior for laughs.”
She added that “the history of blackface minstrelsy isn’t talked about regularly today, but its cultural residue is all around us. . . . Until we actively remember the ugliness of this history, people will continue to blacken their faces without recognizing the horror hidden beneath the paint.”