Black Face


Recently we have learned about Blackface as a result of the controversy over revelations that the current Democratic governor of Virginian, was photographed about 30 years ago for his Medical School Yearbook, with his face in “black face.” His face was painted black. What made it worse was the photograph of the student next to him wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood.  The Governor handled it in a clumsy manner. First he apologized, then the next day he thought it was not a picture of him at all, but he admitted that on anotheroccasion he was in a dance contest where he imitated Michael Jackson and had a little bit of shoe polish on his face.

I really don’t think politicians should be hanged out to dry for dumb things they did in their college years, for then most of us are in big trouble. Who did not do stupid things in the days of youth? Now that does not excuse egregious behavior like US Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual assault for example, but we have to give youth, even college students, some slack. I know I need some.

One of the factors in decided whether or not to “forgive” the conduct is contrition. The perpetrator must demonstrate remorse and that he/she has learned to be a better person since the incident occurred. However, I am not sure that the Governor appreciated the seriousness of what he had done. I know that I did not understand it properly until recently. I had seen it occasionally years ago on televison and never thought it was a big deal. The key is, I did not really think about it

CNN host Van Jones recently interviewed 2 academics on the subject of what they called “Black Minstrelsy”.  I had never heard that expression before.

From the three of them I learned that you have to know a little of the history of black minstrelsy or black face to understand the issue.  Starting in the 1830s already it was common for white actors and performers to paint their faces black in order to entertain white audiences by caricaturing blacks. Typically the African-Americans were caricatured as stupid, lazy, and silly. They continued racial stereotyping and discrimination. They were not “merely” entertainment. They were more than that. They were part of a pattern of discrimination.

The white actors would use grease or shoe polish or burnt cork or anything handy to create stereotypical characters like ‘Mammy’ or ‘the trickster’ or ‘thief’ to make African-Americans the subject of their comedy routines.

What whites did not realize, or if they did what they did not care about, was that this was awfully demeaning to the African-Americans. The practice  clearly denigrated them. Really it denied them their humanity!  And that really is the point. It robbed an exploited group of their humanity. Frankly, it was deeply racist.  Many of the audience members, including myself when I watched it on television, were not aware of the denigration, or chose to ignore it as irrelevant. The best that we who watched it can hope for is that we wee ignorant. The entertainment though was very popular.

According to the academics, it is deeply engrained in American society. They said it was the first form of popular entertainment in America. As Professor Rae Lynn Barnes, Assistant Professor at Princeton University said, “they were meant to humiliate African-Americans.” In particular it was often done to humiliate black women, a double exploitation.

Dwandalyn R. Reece of the National Museum of African American History was asked by Jones how she reacted when she first saw black minstrelsy and she replied that she had a “visceral response”. It was painful and humiliating. That is the key. We have to realize how our actions affect others. We have to walk in their shoes.  Not just the shoes of our friends who can easily laugh about it and don’t consider it “a big deal”. To us it is not a big deal. To African-Americans it often is a big deal. Reece felt sadness at the lack of empathy that made it possible for the whites to fail to understand why the images were painful to African-Americans.

Some whites, like Megan Kelly, former Fox commentator and broadcaster, claimed that they put on black face to “honor African-Americans.” Really that is an absurd rationalization. Whites have to realize that by putting on blackface they are evoking memories of painful, dark oppression. They are not funny to African-Americans. How would we feel if we were in their position? That is what we must always consider.  It is not honoring anyone. It is bludgeoning them. As Van Jones said, “Half the time, we live in the United Shame of America.”

Interestingly, in a recent poll Virginians were asked if the Governor should be forced to resign. 47% of all Virginians said yes. But 57% of African-Americans from Virginia said no!

I am not sure that the Governor should be forced to resign. He should demonstrate that he has learned from this experience, but ultimately the voters in the next election should decide his fate. Let them decide if the Governor has the courage to run again.

I  want to add that Canada is no better. Soon I intend to blog about racism in Canada. It is just that living here in the U.S. for 3 months their issues keep coming up. Ours have to be dealt with too and I intend to blog about it.


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