Blackface

Mr. Spike Lee and I crossed paths while I was on tour in North Carolina, and I finally got the chance to thank him in person for the lessons, and for the validation.

“Bamboozled: All Up In Your Black Face with Blackface”

By Bryan Paul Thomas. October 29, 2000. 4:00 a.m.

Okay: this is how it happens.

I’m at a club. In Albany.

An evening of progressive music.

Some friends are on the bill tonight.

It’s the Saturday before Halloween.

So some people in the club have come in costume. Most haven’t.

And except for me and a friend who is also African-American, everyone in the club tonight is white.

Unless you want to count the three white people who showed up in blackface.

Blackface.

blackface imagery

Coincidentally, the Spike Lee joint Bamboozled was released just a few weeks before this blackface Halloween incident. Same theme - are we racist for perpetuating racist stereotypes or is it all just one big happy joke? You decide.

A man. And two women. A second man wasn’t bold enough to wear the blackface, but like the other three, he has the costume – the jungle savage. Grass skirt. Necklaces and bracelets of animal teeth.

Jungle savage.

I was having a great night. Good music. Good friends.

All good until a group of people start parading around the room as ugly racist caricatures. Like nothing’s wrong. Like it’s all just a fun joke.

So what do I do?

Sit here and stew?

Leave?

Wonder why no one else is saying anything?

Let them ruin my night?

As the second band plays, I’m sitting at a table at the side of the room with some friends. The man in the blackface comes over. Starts asking the white friend next to me about the bands playing tonight. Who they are. What type of stuff they play. Covers or original music? Just stands there. Nods, asks a question, nods again. Never acknowledges me. I can tell my friend is a little uncomfortable about it.

The man in blackface is still acting like nothing’s wrong.

Can he possibly be this ignorant?

I’m stewing.

Not angry. But getting there.

This kid is just ignorant.

He has no idea how wrong this is.

So I let him know.

Because otherwise I won’t be able to live with myself.

“Hey – what’s your costume?” I ask.

He looks at me. Smiles. Innocent. But a pause.

“I’m a headhunter.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really.”

Another smile. Innocent. Another pause.

“You like it?” he asks.

He’s clueless.

Ignorant.

I’m annoyed.

I’m curt.

“Actually, no, I don’t like it at all, man. I think it’s pretty offensive, and I know a lot of people who would find it offensive.”

So his smile vanishes.

He drops the innocent bit.

He’s been messing with me.

Waiting for me to say something.

“Look, I’m not stupid,” he says. “I thought about this before I wore it out tonight. I don’t see what the big deal is.”

Yeah the smile’s gone, but the teeth are still there.

Bared.

Angry teeth.

“Obviously you didn’t think hard enough,” I say. “Do you understand the history of blackface? Its origins? Did you picture yourself running into any African-Americans tonight who might be offended by your appearance?”

“What’s so offensive? I don’t get offended by anyone, I don’t hate anyone unless they give me a reason to hate them.”

We’re shouting.

Because the music is loud.

But perhaps we’d probably be shouting even if there were no music.

He continues.

“There are people who are offended by the kind of music that’s being made right now. You know what they can do?┬áLEAVE!”

He’s not making much sense.

But he’s trying to lecture me.

He’s angry at me.

HE is angry at ME.

I seem to have ruined his fun.

Because I’m so damn sensitive.

So damn politically correct.

“What are you gonna do now, take me outside to settle this?”

“Take you outside? Are you serious? I’m just letting you know that there’s a history behind what you’re doing, that you’re offending –”

“Who am I offending, Al Jolson?”

Wow.

“I don’t care whether you’re black or white or brown or green or orange, I love everybody. Tomorrow if we met, we would be FRIENDS,” he says.

This is ridiculous. Surreal.

“If you can’t even understand why I might be upset, then I don’t think we could ever be friends.”

“Last year I went out for Halloween as a woman. Dressed as a woman! I didn’t offend any women. You know who was the only woman who got offended? My wife! Cuz more guys were hitting on me than her!”

I am not certain what this means.

The look on his face says that he isn’t so sure either.

“Come on! I mean, it’s Halloween! It’s just a costume!”

I’m through with this. I’ve let him know how I feel. But he ain’t budging.

He’s got every right to wear what he’s wearing.

But he can’t understand that I have a right to feel the way I’m feeling.

His wife walks over.

She has the blackface, too.

And a bone through her nose.

A BONE through her NOSE.

He leans to her, points toward me, mockingly.

“Apparently this guy wants us to know that our costume OFFENDS him.”

He says the word “offends” with his entire mouth.

She looks over toward me.

Shrugs her shoulders.

“Oh. Sorry.”

She sips her drink.

I’m done with this.

“Look, man, the fact that you’re so immediately defensive about this and completely unwilling to put yourself for one moment in the shoes of someone who might feel uncomfortable by what you’re wearing tonight – I’m frustrated, you’re not listening, and I’m done talking to you.”

Another pause. He smiles. Those damn teeth.

“You went to college, didn’t you?”

Post Script

If anyone is acquainted with the gentleman who showed up in blackface at Valentine’s Halloween party, please please please refer him to this page. Hopefully he’ll see just how ignorant he sounded, and how many of his true negative and racist feelings about blacks were revealed while he tried to argue that he’s not racist: e.g. his assumption that I was about to get violent, the condescension and surprise in his voice when he asked if I went college, and the list goes on. My intention is not to single him out: we’ve all got our prejudices deep within. I have mine. It’s hard to grow up in America and not have them. My point is that nothing can change until we recognize it in ourselves first. (To me, the scariest thing about last night was the sense I got that if he and his people had not left the club so soon after our discussion, they would have won the costume contest. To the cheers of everyone in the room.)

TO THE GENTLEMAN HIMSELF: Hey man, you’ve found this page. You’re famous. Congratulations. Now keep reading to learn a little bit of the history you didn’t want hear from me that night.

Better yet: see the flick when it comes to town and THEN ask yourself if blackface was such a great, unoffensive idea for a Halloween costume.

And as for the “can’t be friends thing” I said? I meant it. I don’t expect you to understand how the sight of you made me feel last night. But I’d at least expect you to try to understand. Meet me halfway. It’s the not trying that kills me.
Peace.

A Brief History of Blackface

Used sans permission courtesy of the web site for the Spike Lee film Bamboozled. Please follow the link above for more information.

In Spike Lee’s new film “Bamboozled,” a television writer reinvents the black-face minstrel show as a 21st century network hit. In reality, television’s first real view of African-Americans came from that same minstrel tradition. It was 1951 when two black actors became television’s first African American stars in “The Amos and Andy Show,” which actually began as a radio show — with two white actors playing a pair of comically uneducated southern black men. “Amos and Andy” was America’s highest-rated radio show and became equally popular on television – without ever altering its crudely racist content.

“Amos and Andy” arose out of an even earlier tradition of stereotypical entertainment that started in the 19th century: the minstrel show. The tradition began in the early 1800s on stage, with white actors using burnt corks to darken their skin – a method that became known as “black-face” – allowing them to portray African-American slaves, usually as lazy, child-like providers of comic relief. This evolved into Vaudeville-style parody shows consisting of songs, dances and comic repartee performed by white actors made up as blacks.

The father of the American minstrel show was Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice, who in the 1830s drew immense popularity with a song-and-dance routine in which he impersonated an old, crippled black slave named Jim Crow. In New York City, the act of “Tambo and Bones” was one of the Manhattan stage’s biggest draws. These shows introduced some of Africa’s musical instruments – especially the banjo – to white audiences for the first time.
After the Civil War, black entertainers themselves began to enter the tradition — appearing in black-face makeup themselves and forming their own minstrel theatres – taking with them the caricatures and stereotypes created by the white performers. Perhaps the first major black minstrel success was Brooker and Clayton’s Georgia Minstrels, who hailed themselves in their advertising as “The Only Simon Pure Negro Troupe in the World.” In 1876, the black group known as Callendar’s Minstrels broke the mold, and became the first African-American minstrel band to perform without black-face.

Although the minstrel shows began to decline at the turn of the century, the tradition was continued in the newfangled entertainment forms of movies and radio. Early silent films continued to cast white actors in black-face as shiftless, lazy, comical characters. One of the most popular characters of the silent film era became the “Uncle Tom,” a head-scratching old black man portrayed by white actors in such films as For Massa’s Sake, Ten Pickaninnies and The Wooing and Wedding of A Coon . Other popular film stereotypes included the big, waddling black woman, often known as Mammy, who chased her man with a cast-iron skillets; and the chicken-stealing, shifty-eyed black hooligan, frequently named Rufus or Rastus. One of the most shocking examples of black-face in the silent era came in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, in which cinema’s largest early audiences were subjected to vivid images of white actors in black faces raping, stealing and threatening the people of the South.

The “Talkies” saw the rise of Stepin Fetchit, a black comic named Lincoln Perry who became Hollywood’s first major African-American star, joining the ranks of other early film millionaires. Stepin Fetchit’s brilliant comic timing won the admiration of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin among others, but he was also criticized for perpetuating the stereotyped images of the day, playing what became known as “the laziest human being in the world.” His films included Hearts of Dixie, The Galloping Ghost and Helldorado – and Stepin Fetchit often received top billing with white actors.

During the 1940s, Mantan Moreland (the inspiration for Savion Glover’s character Mantan on the New Milliennial Minstrel Show”) became one of America’s top black stars. Although he starred in several of the era’s black-directed “race” movies – which were shown to segregated audiences in major urban centers – he became best known for his portrait of the wide-eyed, scared-to-death chauffeur, Birmingham Brown, in the Charlie Chan movies.
It took decades for the scope of black life on film to begin to expand, but at the same time the rise of television provided a new outlet for images of African-Americans. Following a cry of outrage over “Amos N Andy,” the networks handled the controversy by staying away, rarely creating black-themed shows for several decades. Black television shows resurged in the 70s with such hits as “The Jeffersons,” “Benson,” “Diff’rent Strokes” and “Good Times” – but the one-dimensional and sometimes degrading comedy caused another backlash, with sit-coms showcasing upper-middle class African Americans like “The Cosby Show” taking off.

Today, in a world of some 900 channels all competing for media-hungry audiences, diversity remains an unattained ideal. Some media scholars posit that urban talk shows – which often present troubled minorities for public consumption – are a direct descendent of minstrel stereotypes. Others point to the detrimental depictions of African-American characters in currently-running sitcoms as signs that the minstrel show continues to exert its influence. And, like poor Pierre Delacroix [the lead character in the film Bamboozled], lots of people have been looking for a change.

Elsewhere

Tolerance.org is a web project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. I’ve long been a fan of Mr. Dees and his deeds – my wife and I contribute – so it was a giant honor for the SPLC folks to ask permission to reprint this piece on their site to help illuminate this issue. There’s so much to learn at tolerance.org, and then some. Check it out.