Black­face raises racist face

It can be traced from ‘Jim Crow’ in 1830s all the way to cur­rent Va. politi­cians

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION - By Michael Brice-Sad­dler, Jes­sica Con­tr­era and DeNeen L. Brown

The racism was present the mo­ment he took the stage.

Us­ing some­thing black to darken his face, Thomas Dartmouth Rice didn’t hold back in his singsong per­for­mances, which date to the 1830s. The white man danced like a buf­foon and spoke with an ex­ag­ger­ated im­i­ta­tion of black slave ver­nac­u­lar to en­ter­tain his au­di­ences.

His fic­tional char­ac­ter also had a name: “Jim Crow.”

David Pil­grim, cu­ra­tor of the Jim Crow Mu­seum in Michi­gan, noted how Jim Crow and other per­for­mances fea­tur­ing white men in black­face cap­ti­vated white crowds up un­til the mid-20th cen­tury.

Now black­face is back in the spot­light af­ter a pho­to­graph emerged Feb. 1 from Vir­ginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s med­i­cal school year­book page. It shows one man in black­face stand­ing next to an­other man in a Ku Klux Klan robe.

The gov­er­nor, a Demo­crat, apologized for the pho­to­graph on his year­book page that is “clearly racist and of­fen­sive.” But a flood of prom­i­nent Democrats and Repub­li­cans be­gan call­ing for his res­ig­na­tion.

On Feb. 2, Northam re­fused to re­sign and said he’d never seen the photo in the year­book be­fore it was pub­li­cized the day be­fore. “I am not the per­son in that photo,” he said at a news con­fer­ence, though he also de­scribed dark­en­ing his face to im­per­son­ate Michael Jack­son for a dance con­test in Texas.

The photo in the 1984

Eastern Vir­ginia Med­i­cal School year­book has roiled Vir­ginia pol­i­tics.

State At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mark Her­ring said Wed­nes­day that he wore brown makeup to look like a black rap­per dur­ing a party as an un­der­grad­u­ate at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia.

His­to­ri­ans re­mind us that while black­face is con­sid­ered “clearly racist” now, it was once cel­e­brated.

“Pro­fes­sional black­face min­strelsy was con­sid­ered a | uniquely Amer­i­can con­tri­bu­tion to world cul­ture,” said Rhae Lynn Barnes, a Prince­ton pro­fes­sor work­ing on a book about black­face. “Be­fore the civil rights move­ment, mak­ing fun of AfricanAme­r­i­cans was syn­ony­mous with Amer­i­can pa­tri­o­tism.”

Black­face dates to the era of min­strel shows, or “min­strelsy,” in the early 1800s.

In­tended to be comedic, min­strel shows were first per­formed in New York with white ac­tors who wore tat­tered cloth­ing and used shoe pol­ish to blacken their faces in a stereo­typ­i­cal de­pic­tion of Africans en­slaved in the United States, ac­cord­ing to the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture.

The per­for­mances, the mu­seum ex­plains, “can­not be sep­a­rated fully from the racial de­ri­sion and stereo­typ­ing at its core. By dis­tort­ing the fea­tures and cul­ture of African-Amer­i­cans — in­clud­ing their looks, lan­guage, dance, de­port­ment, and char­ac­ter — white Amer­i­cans were able to cod­ify white­ness across class and geopo­lit­i­cal lines as its an­tithe­sis.”

When black­face was used in the first min­strel shows, it was done “to de­pict false stereo­types of black peo­ple: the big lips, the lack of ed­u­ca­tion, the poor cloth­ing,” said Daryl Davis, a black blues mu­si­cian known for his ef­forts to be­friend and con­vert mem­bers of the Ku Klux Klan.

“It wasn’t about try­ing to look black, but try­ing to look black in a way that por­trays blacks neg­a­tively,” he said.

As a form of en­ter­tain­ment, it was con­tro­ver­sial and con­demned as of­fen­sive al­most from the start.

In 1848, af­ter watch­ing a black­face act, abo­li­tion­ist Fredrick Dou­glass called the per­form­ers “the filthy scum of white so­ci­ety” in The North Star news­pa­per.

Black­face per­form­ers, he said, “have stolen from us a com­plex­ion de­nied to them by na­ture to make money and pan­der to the cor­rupt taste of their white fel­low-cit­i­zens.”

A joint let­ter to the ed­i­tor in the Pitts­burgh PostGazett­e from 1946 called a black­face per­for­mance “grotesque” and said it at­tacked “by ridicule and cheap buf­foon­ery the self-re­spect of ev­ery Amer­i­can Ne­gro.” The let­ter was writ­ten by a state law­maker, the In­ter-Racial Ac­tion Coun­cil, the In­terDenom­i­na­tional Min­is­ters Al­liance and the pub­lisher of The Pitts­burgh Courier.

Pil­grim notes that Rice

was not the first white comic to per­form in black­face but was the most pop­u­lar of his time. As a re­sult of Rice’s suc­cess, Jim Crow be­came a “com­mon stage per­sona for white co­me­di­ans’ black­face por­tray­als of African-Amer­i­cans,” he said. In his Jim Crow per­sona, Rice also sang “Ne­gro dit­ties” such as “Jump Jim Crow.”

Later, the phrase Jim Crow be­came a short­hand for the racist laws used through­out the South to seg­re­gate black peo­ple af­ter eman­ci­pa­tion.

Davis, how­ever, has long ar­gued that con­text is key when judg­ing the use of black­face. In the 1900s, for ex­am­ple, white artists such as Al Jol­son painted their faces as they per­formed rag­time and blues mu­sic pi­o­neered by African-Amer­i­cans.

He cred­its Jol­son with spread­ing black mu­sic to white au­di­ences and ad­vo­cat­ing for black artists. Other his­to­ri­ans say black­face is al­ways racist, no mat­ter who is wear­ing it or why.

But in the case of the photo on Northam’s year­book page, Davis said, the con­text is clear: “It doesn’t mat­ter if the photo was from 1984, 1974 or 2004. He de­fined what he meant when he paired black­face with a Klan hood. Racial seg­re­ga­tion. Racial supremacy. When you have a sym­bol as­so­ci­ated with hate from the be­gin­ning, you are say­ing ex­actly what you mean.”

Since the Civil Rights Era, sev­eral other white politi­cians and celebri­ties have faced crit­i­cism for black­face per­for­mances.

Co­me­dian Billy Crys­tal was crit­i­cized in 2012 for im­per­son­at­ing Sammy Davis Jr. in black­face dur­ing his open­ing mon­tage at the Os­cars, a re­peat of his skit from “Satur­day Night Live” from the 1980s.

Ac­tor Ted Dan­son was ac­cused of be­ing racist and taste­less for per­form­ing a skit in black­face, us­ing the Nword and jok­ing about his sex life with then-girl­friend Whoopi Gold­berg, who is black, at Gold­berg’s Fri­ars Club roast in 1993.

Dozens of other whites, in­clud­ing col­lege fra­ter­ni­ties and soror­i­ties, pub­lic of­fi­cials and law en­force­ment of­fi­cers, have also been crit­i­cized for black­face in­ci­dents.

Florida Sec­re­tary of State Mike Er­tel re­signed last month af­ter a news­pa­per ob­tained pho­tos of him in black­face and wear­ing ear­rings, a New Or­leans Saints ban­danna and fake breasts un­der a pur­ple T-shirt that said “Ka­t­rina Vic­tim.” The pho­tos were taken two months af­ter the deadly storm rav­aged the Gulf Coast in 2005, killing more than 1,000 peo­ple.

In a cu­ri­ous as­pect of

black­face en­ter­tain­ment, early Amer­i­can black ac­tors, singers and vaudevil­lians were forced to don black­face as well if they wished to per­form for more lu­cra­tive white au­di­ences.

For ex­am­ple, Wil­liam Henry “Mas­ter Juba” Lane is con­sid­ered the most in­flu­en­tial per­former in 19th-cen­tury dance and is cred­ited with in­vent­ing tap. It was only af­ter his fame reached in­ter­na­tional pro­por­tions that he was al­lowed to tour with an all-white min­strel troupe and to per­form with­out black­face.

One of the more dis­as­trous cri­tiques of black­face was from black ac­tor Ben Vereen at Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan’s in­au­gu­ra­tion. Vereen’s in­tent was a trib­ute to leg­endary black vaudevil­lian Bert Wil­liams, who was forced to wear black­face to stay em­ployed.

Vereen first danced and

sang “Wait­ing for the Robert E. Lee” be­fore a cheer­ing GOP au­di­ence, along with the pres­i­dent and first lady Nancy Rea­gan. He then stripped the black­face off while singing “No­body (I ain’t never got nothin’ from no­body, no time)” to show the pain of black­face and the ex­ploita­tion of AfricanAme­r­i­cans.

But ABC omit­ted the sec­ond part of Vereen’s per­for­mance when air­ing it, show­ing only the min­strelsy seg­ment.

Vereen, who at the time was one of the na­tion’s top black ac­tors, faced an im­me­di­ate back­lash from AfricanAme­r­i­can fans for what they saw as buf­foon­ery.

Vereen has said he was promised that both parts would be shown and that he was “sab­o­taged by the net­work.”

In the in­ter­net age, so­cial me­dia has fu­eled furors over black­face.

In 2018, a photo of an Iowa teacher who dark­ened her face to ap­pear as a Lafawn­duh, a black char­ac­ter in the 2004 movie “Napoleon Dy­na­mite,” went vi­ral just as NBC talk show host Megyn Kelly was com­ing un­der fire for de­fend­ing the use of black­face in Hal­loween cos­tumes.

Sim­i­lar con­tro­ver­sies have arisen in other coun­tries.

In 2017, con­fronta­tions broke out in the Nether­lands over the helper of the Dutch ver­sion of Santa Claus. Known as Black Pete, the char­ac­ter is played by whites in black­face at chil­dren’s events.

A lead­ing tele­vi­sion sta­tion in Peru was fined $26,000 for air­ing the com­edy char­ac­ter Ne­gro Mama on an en­ter­tain­ment show in 2013. The char­ac­ter is played by Jorge Be­na­vides, who dons black­face, ex­ag­ger­ated lips and a flar­ing nose.

In 2010, Mex­i­can me­dia con­glom­er­ate Tele­visa drew crit­i­cism for hir­ing ac­tors in black­face for a pop­u­lar morn­ing pro­gram dur­ing the World Cup.

“In to­day’s cli­mate, black­face is never ap­pro­pri­ate,” said Mia Moody-Ramirez, a Bay­lor Univer­sity pro­fes­sor and au­thor of “From Black­face to Black Twit­ter.”


Ralph Northam’s page in the 1984 med­i­cal school year­book shows one per­son in black­face next to a per­son in a Ku Klux Klan cos­tume. “I am not the per­son in that photo,” he said.

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