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The Weight of a Blackened Face

Lifestyle & Opinion

The Weight of a Blackened Face – A student opinion

By Joshua Lamb

In February there was the emergence of an image, featuring a man in blackface alongside a man dressed in the sheets of the Ku Klux Klan. We officially have no certainty as to who either of the men are. Initial speculation however was that one of these men, particularly the one in blackface, was Virginia Governor, Ralph Northam. After initially apologizing for appearing in the racist image, Northam reversed course, and denied being part of the photo.

Whether or not the Governor was in the photo to me is inconsequential. What the reaction to someone who partook in blackface, for whatever their reasons may have been, is too complex for me to play judge and jury. However, I do believe that recognizing the historic aspects and the ramifications of such acts could potentially offer a more nuanced and productive perspective on the matter and an understanding of why this can cause anger and pain still.

The Old Days

In 1830, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, or “The father of minstrelsy,” created his most popularly known blackface character. This character and his name would not only prove to have reverberations through American history and become a symbol of white superiority over blacks, but it would also come to numb, disguise and permit the perpetual indignation of racism and bigotry. Mr. Rice, according to the University of South Florida Library (USF), donning tattered clothing and a burnt-cork blackface mask, entertained countless patrons with song, and what he claimed to be authentic African American slave dance, under the name “Jim Crow.”

Following the financial success of Rice, according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC), by 1845, there was an entire entertainment sub-industry formed around manufacturing songs, sheet music, makeup, costumes, and ready-set stereotypes. These performances, while mimicking what was perceived to be a black dialect, characterize blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice (NMAAHC). These portrayals confirmed the beliefs in the racial superiority of whites (CNN), and would compound the challenges that were to come from the “Jim Crow Laws” and during the war for civil rights.

Minstrelsy and these negative portrayals persisted in the U.S., perhaps climaxing with Al Jolson. Jolson, a popular Broadway star known for his use of blackface, filmed the first full-length talking movie The Jazz Singer, in 1927 (USF). The film was released to absolute adoration. The film’s debut broke all previous box office records and catapulted Jolson into international stardom (USF). Though blackface continued for decades after this moment, there was a steady decline in use after the 1930’s (USF).

Modern Enlightenment

The Civil Rights Movement had a profound effect on the perception of blacks within the American context. However, the pervasive stereotypes that were forged by minstrels persisted, and to even persist to this day. There is an increasing number of people who now believe that wearing blackface is either rarely acceptable or never acceptable. According to the Pew Research Center, 53% of Americans believe that it is generally unacceptable for a white person to use makeup to darken their skin to appear to be a different race for a Halloween costume. There is also 37% who believe that it is never acceptable. However, about 34%, or approximately one-in-three Americans, believes that it is always or sometimes acceptable.

While there has been a degree of progress made within our society on matters such as this, the real issue, I would argue, has never been primarily the simple act of painting ones face black. Witnessing a white man with a face painted black in the abstract for no particular reason would strike me personally as strange. But not with anger. Not with pain or a sense of degradation. The true problem which is represented by blackface, but not blackface alone, is the issue of negative representation of black people within our society by white people.

The main entertainment draw for minstrelsy was the depictions of black people as inferior. In movies such as The Birth of a Nation (1915), it relayed to white America that black people were dangerous and needed to be dealt with as such. The issue that arises with the usage of blackface today, aside from acting as a reminder to these times in our history, is that they often are accompanied by the wearer offering a portrayal of what they think it means to be black. In whatever manner they imagine LeBron, Barack or Tupac to behave, and though they may be imaginatively talented, a white person attempting to act the role of a black person for any reason will ultimately be limited, will lack perspective, and because it’s typically been used for humor sake, it will potentially be racially insensitive and offensive.

In February of 2010, per The Triton, some University of California, San Diego students arranged a celebration to mock Black History Month. The party was titled “The Compton Cookout.” The university stated that this was an unsanctioned event and because of this the party hosts would not receive any penalty. Excerpts from the party invitation read as such:

“We will be serving 40’s, Kegs of Natty, dat Purple Drank- which consists of sugar, water, and the color purple, chicken, coolade, and of course Watermelon.”

The hosts explained that guests would experience:

“the various elements of life in the ghetto,”

They encouraged attending women to:

“act similar to Shenaynay, and speak very loudly, while rolling their neck, and waving their finger in your face.”

And in conclusion:

“So come one and come all, make ya self before we break ya self, keep strapped, get yo shine on, and join us for a day party to be remembered- or not.”

Representation

To my knowledge, no one at the party was wore blackface. Which means everything is okay, right? No offense has been committed. Right? This I feel is the crux of the issue. Blackface portrayed negative stereotypes of black people to the amusement of predominantly white audiences. Though blackface has significantly declined within our society, these negative portrayals of black ignorance, black violence, black alcoholism and drug abuse, and black laziness have checked all of the boxes initially checked by blackface. It contributes to false understanding of black culture, continues long held beliefs in inferiority, perpetuates harmful narratives which some people may accept as reality, and reduces black people to caricatures and not people.

So a soot covered face or a party, by themselves, ought not be overly concerning. It’s when those donning blackened faces or the guests of said party begin to shrink minorities into painful cartoons for the sake of amusement, while leaving those minorities a mountain to climb to try and rectify the record of truth in their humanity.

Header photo from CNN.

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