Bye Bye Blackface

Once again, we have controversy in the news over matters of race. This time, our Governor and Attorney General have been confronted by their "blackface" past. Many are calling for resignations and others consider the whole matter no big deal, ancient history, boys will be boys.

I was not familiar with the whole "blackface" practice, so I did a little research. I found the following background information from the Smithsonian, National Museum of African American History and Culture:

The first minstrel shows were performed in 1830's New York by white performers with blackened faces (most used burnt cork or shoe polish) and tattered clothing who imitated and mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations. These performances characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice. Thomas Dartmouth Rice, known as the "Father of Minstrelsy," developed the first popularly known blackface character, "Jim Crow" in 1830. By 1845, the popularity of the minstrel had spawned an entertainment subindustry, manufacturing songs and sheet music, makeup, costumes, as well as a ready-set of stereotypes upon which to build new performances.

Blackface performances grew particularly popular between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century in Northern and Midwestern cities, where regular interaction with African Americans was limited. White racial animus grew following Emancipation when antebellum stereotypes collided with actual African Americans and their demands for full citizenship including the right to vote. The influence of minstrelsy and racial stereotyping on American society cannot be overstated. New media ushered minstrel performances from the stage, across radio and television airwaves, and into theaters. Popular American actors, including Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney donned blackface, bridging the minstrel performances across generations, and making blackface (racial parody, and stereotypes) a family amusement.

So, maybe it's not so difficult to see what all the fuss is about. Doesn't sound like harmless fun to me, but it does point to a bigger question for us. Who decides what is racist and what's not? Who determines what is offensive and what's not? We know the answer - it's the victim, the target, the scapegoat who has the right to say so. Not the accuser, the one who makes fun and ridicules and puts down, even if he "didn't mean anything by it."

When I hear people of faith gloss over racist behavior as no big deal, I get a little queasy. When white people set themselves up as the experts on what should or should not offend African Americans or people of any ethnic minority, I feel sick to my stomach. When followers of Christ subtly devalue and dismiss their fellow human beings as somehow less than or lower than, I think gentle Jewish Jesus blows a gasket. I wouldn't want to answer for such behavior. If it doesn't look good in the newspaper, how will it look on the big screen come Judgment Day? 


Popular Posts