Bert Williams and George WalkerPUBLIC DOMAIN/WIKIPEDIA
With Halloween approaching, we’ll soon see a rash of stories about young white college students who feel compelled to apologize for an unfortunate Instagram photo that depicts them in blackface at a campus party. The kind of real-life incidents that inspired the new film Dear White People.
Yet despite the ambivalence, awkwardness and, sometimes, revulsion that blackface continues to inspire in whites as well as blacks, there is very little public discussion of the historical contexts that led to the emergence of blackface minstrelsy as a most American form of popular culture.
A new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art offers a contemporary assessment of blackface performance in the discovery of an untitled silent film that starred the biggest star of blackface, Bert Williams.
The first major black crossover star of the 20th century was a light-skinned black man, born in the Bahamas, who donned shoe polish for the desired effect of being clearly identified as a so-called darky. His popularity spoke volumes about the state of American popular culture at the time and mocks the hyperbole of those who would claim that any number of contemporary black comedians or reality-TV stars are blackface “minstrels.”
Blackface minstrelsy was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the late 19th century—the reality TV of its era—which, until the emergence of Williams and his partner George Walker (who was darker-skinned and didn’t apply face paint), was dominated by white men pretending to be “darkies.” To make clear the distinction, Williams and Walker billed themselves as “Two Real Coons.”
Onstage and on-screen, Williams’ humanity might have been limited to the mask he wore—Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” is a reminder that the mask was, in fact, the public face of blackness—but no such limits were placed on his talents. Finding his success before the emergence of “talkies”—motion pictures with sound—and at the nascent moment of sound recordings, Williams’ genius was in his movement, in the facial and physical gestures that approximated what his audiences perceived as authentically Negro.
The mask was a means for Williams and many black blackface performers to push back and reclaim the “darky” on their own terms—which they did in such a way that by the time Al Jolson starred in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, the first full-length talkie, his blackface performance was nothing but caricature.
The depictions slowly faded in popular culture—though they still made appearances in any number of cartoons well into the 20th century, and perhaps forced black performers like Lincoln “Stepin Fetchit” Perry and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson to overemphasize the physicality and sounds of blackness to make up for the absence of blackface. By the time of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s, Williams became largely forgotten or even actively ignored, as a reminder of the times when black performers didn’t have the freedom of expression that they had in later years. As Camille Forbes notes, “The artistry of his work—and the manner in which he had taken a stereotype and transformed it—took a backseat to the means in which he was compelled to present it.”
To be sure, there is ample reason now to indict those young white students who put on blackface to dress as Bey and Jay for Halloween, on the basis of their own ignorance. But that same ignorance is at work among those of us who dismiss the history of black blackface performers without fully understanding and appreciating the genius of performers like Bert Williams.
Of course they did.
In the weird world of adult Halloween, tackiness pegged to current events is the name of the game. So, this was as predictable as the availability of a “sexy Ebola nurse” getup.
Equally unsurprising: People from all corners of the internet agreed that the Rice costumes were, as Deadspin‘s Tom Ley put it, “the worst idea.” Commenters didn’t just criticize the insensitivity of the domestic abuse theme (Rice, of course, was kicked out of the NFL after he knocked his wife unconscious). They chastised the white revelers for painting their faces and bodies black to mimic the Rice’s darker skin.
To some of us, it’s obvious that wearing blackface is an offensive, bad idea.
People have even made very simple visual aids to communicate this.
This one gets into even more detail:
But the public service announcements haven’t worked. If this season’s costumes are any indication, a giant gulf remains between people who understand that blackface is in bad taste, or are willing to defer to black people who tell them so, and people who are still asking “But why?” (You know, the ones who are thinking as they read this, “You say it’s racist but I can tell you right now I’m not racist, so it’s fine if I wear it! Come on, get over it! Stop with the political correctness! I don’t understand how this is offensive! It’s a joke!”)
For the “why” crowd (and for anyone who feels moved to have a dialogue with one of its members), here’s an explanation of what, exactly, is wrong with wearing blackface, on Halloween or ever:
The history of blackface
Blackface is much more than just dark makeup used to enhance a costume.
Its American origins can be traced to minstrel shows. In the mid to late nineteenth century, white actors would routinely use black grease paint on their faces when depicting plantation slaves and free blacks on stage.
To be clear, these weren’t flattering representations. At all. Taking place against the backdrop of a society that systematically mistreated and dehumanized black people, they were mocking portrayals that reinforced the idea that African-Americans were inferior in every way.
The blackface caricatures that were staples of Minstrelsy (think: Mammy, Uncle Tom, Buck, and Jezebel) took a firm hold in the American imagination, and carried over into other mediums of entertainment.
Blackface has also been seen in Vaudeville Shows and on Broadway. Yes, black actors sometimes wore blackface, too, because white audiences didn’t want to see them on the stage without it.
We have blackface performances to thank for some of the cartoonish, dehumanizing tropes that still manage to make their way into American culture.
Beyond that, blackface and systematic social and political repression are so inextricably linked that, according to C. Vann Woodward’s history The Strange Career of Jim Crow, the very term “Jim Crow” — usually used as shorthand for rigid anti-black segregation laws in force between the end of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement -— derives from an 1832 blackface minstrel number by Thomas D. Rice.
There’s no way around it: this particular costume choice has a terrible track record.
No, minstrel shows don’t really happen anymore, but keep in mind that it hasn’t been all that long since blackface in its original form existed. And it was regularly seen on television as recently as 1978 in The Black and White Minstrel Show.
If respect for people who had to live through a time when blackface went hand-in-hand with day-to-day hateful and discriminatory treatment isn’t enough to keep you from wearing it, consider this: there’s a case to be made that it’s tied up with some of America’s worst racial dynamics.
David Leonard, chair of Washington State University’s department of critical culture, gender, and race studies, explained it this way in his 2012 Huffington Post essay, “Just Say No To blackface: Neo Minstrelsy and the Power to Dehumanize”:
Blackface is part of a history of dehumanization, of denied citizenship, and of efforts to excuse and justify state violence. From lynchings to mass incarceration, whites have utilized blackface (and the resulting dehumanization) as part of its moral and legal justification for violence. It is time to stop with the dismissive arguments those that describe these offensive acts as pranks, ignorance and youthful indiscretions. Blackface is never a neutral form of entertainment, but an incredibly loaded site for the production of damaging stereotypes…the same stereotypes that undergird individual and state violence, American racism, and a centuries worth of injustice.
See the connection?
He told Vox that, today, blackface reinforces the idea that black people are appropriate targets of ridicule and mockery and reminds us of stereotypes about black criminality, and danger. This, says Leonard, can serve to support implicit bias and discriminatory treatment and in areas from law enforcement to employment.
Plus, in a society that allegedly values racial integration, isn’t there something unsettling about the idea that the closest thing to an actual black person at your party could be someone smeared with face paint and wearing an Afro wig? Leonard says this creates a false sense of diversity in at atmospheres that include “everything but the actual person, the community, and the culture.” Does that sound like somewhere you’d be proud to be?
It makes no difference whether you feel racist in blackface
A common refrain in defense of blackface is that it is all in good fun, a joke, harmless, or not done with the intent to bother anyone. Some have even gone farther. Reason‘s Thaddeus Russell wrote that the practice could be understood as a positive thing:
“We will likely never know what motivates contemporary blackface performers. But those who reject the beliefs planted in our culture by Puritans and Victorians might consider the possibility that, like the originators of the practice, they are joining a 200-year, unconscious struggle for freedom.”
But here’s the thing: not feeling racist when you’re wearing blackface does nothing to change how it affects those who see it (and today, thanks to social media, that doesn’t just mean your trick-or-treaters, or the guests at the party you attend — it means the world).
Your innermost thoughts don’t change the impact blackface has on the people of all races around you, or the way it reinforces stereotypes and the idea that blackness is, at best, a joke.
“In many ways, one’s intent is irrelevant,” said Leonard. “The harm, whether it’s harm in terms of eliciting anger, or sadness, or triggering various emotions or causing [black people to feel] both hyper-visible and invisible at the same time, is there. When someone says, ‘I didn’t mean it that way,’ well, their real question should be not ‘Did I mean it?’ but, ‘Am I causing harm?'”
Not getting what’s wrong with blackface isn’t an excuse
In “Just Say No to Blackface,” Leonard wrote that some people feel they should have the option to live in ignorance about what’s wrong with blackface. That itself, he argued, says a lot about how racism works:
“The ability to be ignorant, to be unaware of the history and consequences of racial bigotry, to simply do as one pleases, is a quintessential element of privilege. The ability to disparage, to demonize, to ridicule, and to engage in racially hurtful practices from the comfort of one’s segregated neighborhoods and racially homogeneous schools reflects both privilege and power. The ability to blame others for being oversensitive, for playing the race card, or for making much ado about nothing are privileges codified structurally and culturally.”
So, maybe you don’t know anything about the history of minstrelsy, and maybe you don’t know anything about the pain and trauma of living in a society that imagines blackness as comical or criminal.
That, according to Leonard, is the problem.
The question, to ask yourself if you claim ignorance is, he said, “Why do you not know, and what have you done to make sure that you continue to not know?”
After all, embracing the chance to mock, dehumanize, and to dismiss the feelings and demands of others, all while re-imagining history so that only things you deem wrong are wrong, is a pretty great way to perpetuate a racist society that treats black people like crap.
Finally, if you really cannot understand what’s wrong with with blackface, challenge yourself to figure out what seems so right about it. Leonard suggests that blackface fans ask themselves, “Why do I derive pleasure from this? What’s the investment in doing it, and what’s the investment in defending it?”
If you can’t answer that, but you’re still set on doing something predictably offensive, why don’t you just go ahead and choose the sexy Ebola nurse outfit instead?