Masking, Mockery, Meaning: Shedding light on the blackface

2014-08-07 01:23

Time has a habit of witling complicated concepts down into manageable handful of images, often sufficient in themselves to convey the desired notion of those who chose to use them.

Take blackface for instance.

What's a little giggle at a white dude dressed up like Mandoza, a white woman decked out like an inmate or a group of kids chained and shackled like slaves?

Or better yet, what's a little giggle at the White American donned in dark paint on his face,singing: "first on the de heel tap, den on the toe. Every time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow" in an attempt to portray a buffoonish, lazy, superstitious, cowardly and lascivious character (a black person) who stole, lied pathologically and mangled the English language? Or a cross-dressing white man playing a black woman and portraying her either as unappealingly and grotesquely mannish or highly sexually proactive?

What is blackface: inside the minstrel mask

Blackface minstrelsy first became popular in the late 1820s when white male performers portrayed African-American characters using burnt cork to blacken their skin. Drapped in tattered clothes, the performances mocked black behavior, playing racial stereotypes for laughs. Although Jim Crow was probably born in the folklore of the enslaved in the Georgia Sea Islands, one of the most famous minstrel performers, a white man named Thomas “Daddy” Rice brought the character to the stage for the first time. Rice said that on a trip through the South he met a runaway slave, who performed a signature song and dance called jump Jim Crow. Rice’s performances, with skin blackened and drawn on distended blood red lips surrounded by white paint, were said to be just Rice’s attempt to depict the realities of black life.

The gag in Jim Crow performances was that Crow would show up and disturb white passengers in otherwise peaceful first class rail cars, hotels, restaurants, and steamships. These performances served as an object lesson about the dangers of free black people.

Minstrel shows became hugely popular in the 1840s exposing white audiences in the North with their first exposure to any depiction of black life. They would often feature a broad cast of characters; from the educated free black man who pronounced everything incorrectly, to a fat, black faithful slave who was really just obviously played by a man in a dress. Black children were depicted as unkempt and ill raised. The running joke about kids was that they were disposable; they were easily killed because of their stupidity and the lack of parental supervision.

Minstrelsy desensitized Americans to horrors of chattel slavery. These performances were object lessons about the harmlessness of southern slavery. By encouraging audiences to laugh, they showed bondage as an appropriate answer for the lazy, ignorant slave. Why worry about the abolition of slavery when black life looked so fun, silly, and carefree? Even the violence of enslavement just became part of the joke.

These erroneous portrayals of black life lived on long after the Civil War in America, with African-American performers donning blackface to perform as minstrels on stage. In horrifying irony, white audiences would reject black performers not wearing blackface as not appearing to be black enough.

Blackface became a mainstay of stage and later film performance in the twentieth century. Most often blackface was and is still used as a comic device that playw on the stereotypes of black laziness, ignorance, or crass behavior for laughs.

The cultural residue of blackface is all around us. Until we actively remember the ugliness of this history, people will continue to blacken their faces without recognizing the horror hidden.

Blackface vs Whiteface

Nick Cannon was recently in hot water after posting some photos on his Instagram that made a bunch of people throw a fit. Was he promoting violence? Nay. Objectifying women? Nope. So what could it possibly have been?

He wore whiteface.

Nick Cannon wore whiteface.

Oh. My. Goodness.

Okay, so here’s the rundown: Nick Cannon presumably had a makeup artist put a bunch of makeup on his face, making him effectively look like a 19-year-old white kid whom he’s called “Connor Smallnut.” This was in order to promote his album “White People Party Music.”

Basically, white people are freaking out over the “double standards” involved in whiteface versus blackface and here’s why it’s different:

Blackface evolved in a time when black people were considered literally less than human. It originated when white people were still allowed to own black people.

Blackface was used by white people to entertain other white people, the dominant and privileged group. Racism was ingrained in our legal system at the time when blackface was most popular.

Blackface was done as a caricature of black people. It influenced how audiences saw black people at the time; whiteface hasn’t had an extremely detrimental effect on how the world sees white people. White blonde women didn’t suffer an image crisis after White Chicks.

Nick Cannon wasn’t being racist when he did whiteface. Yes, he was (and is) being stupid, because this was a stupid means by which to publicise an album and also why the eff is Nick Cannon making another album? but that’s besides the point. You cannot ignore the history behind blackface or claim “reverse racism” because tada! Reverse racism doesn’t exist. (Of course, if you are a time traveller and choose to use your powers to swap out white people as the dominant group, then yes, you’ll be reversing racism, sort of.)

When you remove imperialism, colonialism, slavery, segregation, privilege, and institutionalized inequality from the equation, then yes, it looks like there’s a double standard, but remind me of a time when white people–as a whole–were subjected to centuries upon centuries legally permissible, socially accepted racism. We still live in a country where people find it offensive to see a mixed race couple and their child, where brands would rather paint a white model black than use a black model to represent their products. Varsity girls (as seen recently at the University of Pretoria) think it’s hilarious to dress up as black domestic workers , who all  (apparently) have huge bums. Black actresses are infrequently recognized for work that doesn’t pertain to race or racism–because they’re rarely given the opportunity to act in huge films that don’t have a racial component to their story lines. Stores like Woolsworths still detain black shoppers under suspicions of shoplifting after they purchased items in the store. The list goes on.

In Blackface's defence...

Those who practice do not see themselves as promoting pernicious racial stereotypes and hatred but honouring fun(ny) aspects of African culture and being.

No one then or now who uses blackface cops to saying, "I intend to dehumanise black people." Everyone has an excuse or an alternative explanation of what it means.

Traffickers also know it is offensive but think it isn't so offensive that they can get away with it.

What Now? Defying Inferior Complexes

Your skin, your colour, your face? They are all precious. Things you can't wash off in world that is slippery at best when it came recognizing your beauty, your uniqueness, your place. You'd have to recognize all that yourself and the first order of business in that department would be to not give it away all willy nilly to anyone for anything. Your brown skin, an indelible part of your being, isn't something that could be rented out for a day or say, um, Guy Faux.

Degrading your skin, your beautiful almondy-brown-with-occasional-splotches-from-eczema skin, into "make up" for a "costume"? Come on. That's simply not OK.

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