Blackface is Back – Again, and Again, and Again
Like an antibiotic-resistant STD, an incurable and reoccurring infection that itches and, when scratched, sometimes blisters and bleeds, the use of Blackface just never seems to go away. This opportunistic infection rages through the nation and also predominates in other populations of European descent around the world. The smear of greasepaint marks the people who have been poisoned, suggesting to the uninfected that the disease has taken over not just their bodies, but also their minds. If left untreated, as Blackface often is, it also destroys souls.
What is it about Blackface? What is it that attracts these sick, soulless people to do it? Could Blackface be the equivalent to smoking crack, to pedophilia for some people? You know that it’s terribly wrong, but it damn sure feels good. It’s the 21st century: Can somebody help me out? Calling Dr. Frances Cress Welsing! Calling Dr. Frances Cress Welsing! Come in Welsing!
The latest example of Blackface isJulianne Hough dressing up to play Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black as she attended a Halloween party in Hollywood on Friday. Her publicist should have warned her that Blackface is the Old White.
After the internet went all 4 alarm fire over her costume choice, Hough apologized.
“I am a huge fan of the show ‘Orange is the New Black,’ actress Uzo Aduba, and the character she has created,” Hough tweeted. “It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way. I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize.” I don’t believe she smeared her face and neck in the most offensive tradition of her own profession with malicious intent, but how does she not know that wearing Blackface is wrong? Is there some secret club I don’t know about?
Next up is a troop of laugh-a-minute straight outta Florida pranksters.
In a Halloween party as festive as open-air 19th century rallies of the Old South, Greg Cimeno portrayed George Zimmerman and William Filene dressed up as Trayvon Martin, covering his face in black paint and wearing a bullet hole, blood stained hoodie. Then they took a picture of themselves. Then they posted the picture. On the Internet. Somehow this modern-day minstrel troupe thought this was the funniest thing since Strange Fruit (insert laugh track).
Earlier this year we, meaning all of us, Black, White, and Brown, had to suffer the psychological damage of international magazine Numero publishing an “African Queen” fashion spread. Wow, talk about hyperbole. Most royals only get a country.
The magazine was not satisfied with making the sixteen-year-old blonde-haired blue-eyed model the Queen of Tanzania, or the Queen of Kenya, or the Queen of Ghana. The editors had to make the Blackface model the Queen of all of Africa, the modern-day Jane.
The most obvious and most frequently asked question is: Of all the beautiful Black models, why couldn’t the editors find one? The more insidious question is: Did Numero use Blackface as a marketing tool? These magazines seem to get more bang for their buck from the notoriety of Blackface than they would actually get from using a model of color, whether Black, Asian or Latina. Is it possible that these media companies have a playbook for using Blackface? Without this controversy did anyone know about Numero magazine? I know I didn’t.
And then you have Dov Hikind, the well-known politician from my beloved borough of Brooklyn. Dov, a powerful democratic state assemblyman, hosted a party to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim, and Dov decided to honor this holiday by donning an afro wig, sunglasses, an orange jersey, and of course Blackface as part of a costume that he said represented a “Black basketball player.”
Wow! What is it with people and Blackface?
“I know what dude I am. I’m the dude playing the dude, disguised as another dude!”
Those are the words spoken by Kirk Lazarus, Robert Downey’s Blackface character in the blockbuster movie Tropic Thunder(2008). Why didn’t people go crazy over this portrayal? Why weren’t there any protest?
Years earlier, in Silver Streak (1976), Richard Pryor has Gene Wilder wear Blackface to escape the cops. Why did Blackface work this time?
Blackface is based on of the myth of the trickster, Jim Crow, an escaped slave. In the early 19th century, a young white actor named Thomas D. Rice learned a popular African-American song-and-dance routine (Miley Cyrus anyone) based on the myth of this trickster figure. But before he would go on stage in New York City, Thomas would black out his face with burnt cork. His audience loved it, and Thomas became an instant sensation, and thus sparked the minstrel act.
Now, fast-forward 148 years from the end of slavery and Thomas Rice, and everywhere around the world people are performing in Blackface.
In April 2009, Gokhan Taskin, a news anchor on the Flash TV network in Turkey, reported on Obama wearing Blackface Looking straight into the camera Taskin says, “Welcome, Mr. Obama. You took our hearts with your hospitality. We appreciate your kindness. We will do whatever America asks of us, as friends. Now, we ask the same of you.” The anchor is playing off a Turkish proverb “Isteyenin bir yüzü kara, vermeyenin iki yüzü,” which means, roughly, that a person who asks for a favor darkens his face, but a person who then refuses to grant that person a favor has an even darker face.” Regardless of the cultural implications in Turkey, to Americans, particularly because Obama is our first African-American president, this use of Blackface was vile and disgusting. Anybody in Turkey, or anywhere else for that matter, who needs a good history lesson in Blackface should just rent Spike Lee’s Bamboozled.
In Australia, a troupe of Aussie professionals performed on that country’s version of The Gong Show as the “Jackson Jive” in really, really, black Blackface, with the lead playing Michael Jackson in “Whiteface.” They all wore huge Afros. The crowd loved it, but an American judge, Harry Connick Jr., knew better. Harry stopped the show until somebody apologized.
Steven Klein shot Dutch supermodel Lara Stone in Blackface makeup for a spread styled by French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld. Not only did French Vogue use racist Blackface, the highly regarded publication continued racist hiring practices. Not one of the supermodels in this editorial spread was a woman of color. No Joan Smalls. No Chanel Iman. No Jourdan Dunn. No Sessilee Lopez. This is a horrific slap in the face of all woman of color. Is there a sign on French Vogue’s office, “Aucune femme de couleur ne doit s’appliquer”?
Let me tell you why Blackface in Tropic Thunder and Silver Streak worked. Very simply, they had a Black person in the room.
When a Black person is in the room with a white person in Blackface, the pathology of the white person becomes the focus. The audience is compelled to ask, “What is that person‘s problem? Why are they wearing a mask?” When a Black person is in the room with a white person wearing Blackface to exaggerate stereotypes of the “exotic other,” the Black person prevents the minstrel from getting off scot-free. He forces the masked white person to confront his issues head on. The use of Blackface becomes symbolic and initiates a discourse about race:
Alpa Chino: You know what? Fuck that, man! I’m sick of this koala-huntin’ nigga tellin’ me-
[is cut off as Lazarus slaps him; goes to punch back]
Kirk Lazarus: [blocking the punch and pulling Alpa into an embrace] For four hundred years, that word has kept us down.
Alpa Chino: What the fuck?
Kirk Lazarus: Took a whole lotta tryin’ just to get up that hill. Now we’re up in the big leagues, gettin’ our turn at bat. As long as we live, it’s you and me, baby…
Alpa Chino: [pulling away] That’s the theme song to The Jeffersons. Man, you really need help.
As President Obama would say, let this be a teachable moment. This is the 21st century, and we are one world, one people. Let us wash those destructive and malevolent, divisive relics into the mental and spiritual sewer, so that we will become a more perfect world.
But, no matter how ridiculous the modern-day use of Blackface is, unfortunately it’s probably just a matter of time until the next idiot smears their reputation with Blackface.