Blackface, So What’s the Big Deal?
Friday's Memory, November 2, 2018
This past weekend Elaine received a call from a classmate whom she has known since grammar school. Her classmate’s question was, “what was the big deal about the comments Megyn Kelly made on her show about blackface?”
If you were watching that day you would have seen Megyn sitting center stage in her smart black dress speaking to her all White panel. Megyn, a seasoned journalist, political commentator, former corporate attorney and the network’s highest paid anchor quizzically asked, “Why is this racist? You do get in trouble if you’re a White person who puts on blackface face on Halloween or a Black person who puts on white face. When I was a kid it was okay as long as you were dressing as a character.” Elaine’s friend wanted to know why people are so offended by something that happened over 100 years ago and that she simply couldn’t understand what was wrong with wearing blackface (or whiteface) as a Halloween costume.
Elaine struggled to answer the question posed by someone she’s known for so long without sounding exasperated or angry. Then Elaine said, “It hit me – this woman has no conception of how it feels to be a Black American.” But nonetheless Elaine knew she had to attempt to answer.
When Elaine told the story we shook our heads in disbelief because where do you start with an explanation of why Blackface is so offensive – particularly in 2018? Elaine said she began by describing how the practice started with minstrel shows in the 1800’s when predominately white performers painted their faces with either burnt cork ash or black grease to mock and degrade African-Americans. How for over a century, White and Black entertainers (because of their lack of opportunity to play other roles) “blackened up” for the entertainment of White audiences by caricaturing African Americans in the most demeaning ways possible. She didn’t bother to explain how entertainers took to the stage to entertain White audiences mocking Black people as either the happy go lucky darky who only spoke in a plantation dialect, the lazy coon, fat black mammy, nappy–headed pickaninny, sultry mulatto or dim witted huckster. Nor did she point out how these demeaning images, that Black people are lazy, simple-minded buffoons who are incapable of thinking beyond eating chicken or watermelon, has remained intact in the minds of many. No, Elaine didn’t do this deep dive because that would have required additional history lessons about how complicit America has been to hone racism to the present day.
Elaine said she could have also talked about the release of the movie “Birth of Nation” in 1915 which was proudly shown in the White House by President Woodrow Wilson that featured a White actor in blackface portraying a menacing Black man lusting after a White woman. That its creator, D.W. Griffith, admitted the movie was made to, “create a feeling of abhorrence in White people, especially White women, against colored men.” Elaine said she could have also elaborated on how about Amos ‘n’ Andy was an instant hit with White audiences because of the “hilarious” way the actors (White men who were former blackface performers) spoke in a stereotypical dialect. As a child would her friend remember watching a cartoon when Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd suddenly broke into song while singing in blackface? Elaine said she does. She wondered if she should have asked her friend if she ever cringed in mortification when she opened a book to lay eyes on a pickaninny or mammy. Elaine said she has. Should she have asked her friend if she’s had a day when she questioned her self-worth because of America’s unrelenting message of inferiority; probably not, but Elaine has.
During our conversation, Elaine and I continued to be baffled why this is so difficult for some people to comprehend. Unfortunately the question remains, why are people like Megyn Kelly and Elaine’s friend still confused why African Americans find blackface offensive?
In our book, If These Stones Could Talk, we address the Blackface Minstrel Show and how popular and profitable it was nationally but locally. We talk about how this type of denigration of African Americans has a long complex history deeply ingrained in our country. We discuss how pervasive this has been in our culture and how America has still not acknowledged what it was really about; to sow seeds of racism.
So to end this week’s Friday Memory Elaine and I agreed to simply leave our readers with this message, that racism and white supremacy are inescapable and inextricably linked. We ask that you keep this in mind the next time the question may arise when someone might ask, “So what’s the big deal?”