La La How The Life Goes On

Blackball the Blackface

Posted on: October 27, 2015

Tis the season where we once again celebrate All Hallows Eve, descended from the ancient harvest festival of Samhain; a night when the worlds of the living and the dead overlap.

Or something like that.

Because more recently it has become the night where grown adults make entire fools of themselves. It is the one time of year where women who are so inclined can dress inappropriately (Hey guys! I’m a sexy M&M!). And, unfortunately, where misguided white folks think they have a special dispensation to don some Blackface. The following missive is for them:

Dearest Friends of the Caucasian Persuasion,

DO NOT DRESS IN BLACKFACE. Thank you. The End.

But it’s “all in good fun!” Well, as we all learned in freaking kindergarten “it’s only fun if we are ALL having fun” and you mocking my family and loved ones is a disqualification. So NOPE. Try again. IMG_5311

Um, well. It’s okay at Halloween.  So can I call your mom a whore on Arbor Day? You know, it’s that one day of the year when disrespecting others is totally fine! Besides, calling your mom a whore is “all in good fun”! No?

Hmm.. Okay then. How about “people need to stop being so sensitive!” I would caution you that perhaps YOUR feelings are not the best indicator for the feelings of others. You do not get to tell other people what they should and should not find hurtful and degrading especially if your history does not include that degradation. IMG_5340

But I don’t see color! I have never judged someone’s color in my life! My Black friends will agree! Well, if you don’t see color, why did you just cover your face in it? And trust me, your One Black Friend does not know what to do with you. IMG_5312

I am doing it to honor my favorite actor/basketball player/historical figure!  Shall we honor great Jews through history by donning some horns and hook nose masks?  I’ll wait while you explain to me how mocking and degrading another human’s essence is in any way a compliment.

It’s ancient freaking history! Oh my god! These people are just perpetual victims! Get over it!  The Grio has a great and sobering history of minstrelsy and its devastating role in our American system of apartheid:

Blackface minstrelsy first became nationally popular in the late 1820s when white male performers portrayed African-American characters using burnt cork to blacken their skin. Wearing tattered clothes, the performances mocked black behavior, playing racial stereotypes for laughs. Although Jim Crow was probably born in the folklore of the enslaved in the Georgia Sea Islands, one of the most famous minstrel performers, a white man named Thomas “Daddy” Rice brought the character to the stage for the first time. Rice said that on a trip through the South he met a runaway slave, who performed a signature song and dance called jump Jim Crow. Rice’s performances, with skin blackened and drawn on distended blood red lips surrounded by white paint, were said to be just Rice’s attempt to depict the realities of black life.

Jim Crow grew to be minstrelsy’s most famous character, in the hands of Rice and other performers Jim Crow was depicted as a runaway: “the wheeling stranger” and “traveling intruder.” The gag in Jim Crow performances was that Crow would show up and disturb white passengers in otherwise peaceful first class rail cars, hotels, restaurants, and steamships. Jim Crow performances served as an object lesson about the dangers of free black people, so much so that the segregated spaces first created in northern states in the 1850s were popularly called Jim Crow cars.  Jim Crow became synonymous with white desires to keep black people out of white, middle-class spaces.

Blackface is inextricably linked to the dehumanization of our Black brothers and sisters. There is no nice way to do Blackface. There is no humorous way to do Blackface. And just as there is no okay way to do hook-nosed Jew or Ha Ha I’m a concentration camper!, there is no justifiable way to do Blackface.

IMG_5431 So why does it keep happening? I submit that it is because our culture is saturated in White Entitlement. Why can Blacks say N****r but I can’t?! Why can’t I put black color on my face if I damn well please?! Why can they have a “history month” but whites don’t? Oh dear. Where to begin. But I’ll sum it up like this: White people don’t like to be told what they can and cannot do in the culture. Like, there are more than one million words in the English language (1,025,109) and white people are being asked to refrain from using ONE, and that’s a no-go. We have 1, 025, 108 other words at our disposal but damn if we don’t feel entitled to use them all, eff you and your history.

The question we really need to be asking ourselves (rather than why can’t I wear Blackface while saying N****r, while shucking and jiving-all in good fun!) is why we so desperately need to devalue and discount what Black people are telling us about their experience in this world. Why do we so desperately need to believe that the issue is not our country’s tortured, painful history that visits the sins of the father upon the sons, but that millions of people are just oversensitive?

There are so many ways in which we need to do better. Blackface is such a small one that it seems we ought to be able to achieve it. When you know better, you do better. It’s time for us to do better.IMG_5033

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