I should have known about black­face

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - COMMENTARY - By Herb Cromwell

Ishould have known that black­face isn’t por­trayal but ridicule. Af­ter 69 years of life ex­pe­ri­ence, even in a white bub­ble, I should have known. Af­ter work­ing in pub­lic men­tal health for 38 years, ex­posed to a va­ri­ety of cul­tures and see­ing many peo­ple marginal­ized, stig­ma­tized and os­tra­cized, I should have known. Af­ter a Je­suit sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion, bach­e­lor’s and master’s de­grees, and a con­certed ef­fort to this day to stay in­formed, I should have known.

But I didn’t.

I thought there was some­thing un­seemly about black­face. I never wore it nor wanted to, but I didn’t truly ap­pre­ci­ate its power to hurt. Then one day last Oc­to­ber, NBC’s Megyn Kelly de­fended black­face Hal­loween cos­tumes on the air. “When I was a kid, it was OK,” she said.

Al Roker, joc­u­lar weather­man, pa­rade host and ev­ery­one’s TV friend, called her out. “While she apol­o­gized to the staff, she owes a bigger apol­ogy to folks of color around the coun­try be­cause this is a his­tory go­ing back to the 1830s,” said Mr. Roker. Min­strel shows “de­mean and den­i­grate a race,” he con­tin­ued, adding that he was “old enough to have lived through ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ where you had white peo­ple in black­face play­ing two black char­ac­ters, just mag­ni­fy­ing the worst stereo­types about black peo­ple — and that’s what the prob­lem is.”

Now a black­face photo has been found on the 1984 med­i­cal school year­book page of the gov­er­nor of Vir­ginia. The at­tor­ney gen­eral of Vir­ginia has ad­mit­ted to a black­face in­ci­dent in 1980. Many in the com­men­tariat are adamant that they should re­sign. Af­ter all, the ’80s weren’t the pre-civil rights-bill ’50s. They had to know bet­ter.

Did they?

My gen­eral prac­ti­tioner for the past 20 years is African-Amer­i­can. Since the Trump pres­i­dency we’ve had a num­ber of con­ver­sa­tions about race and big­otry. He sug­gested I read Ta-Ne­hisi Coates, in­clud­ing his June 2014 At­lantic mag­a­zine piece “The Case For Repa­ra­tions.“

I knew about 14-year old Em­mett Till, bru­tally mur­dered in Mis­sis­sippi for al­legedly flirt­ing with a white woman. But I hadn’t heard the story of Clyde Ross, and so many like him, who had their land con­fis­cated through force or subterfuge by South­ern au­thor­i­ties and then were de­nied mort­gages in the cities of the North. When Ross was 10 years old, a group of white men even took his horse. Poll taxes then have been re­placed by new forms of voter sup­pres­sion to­day. Lynch­ings then are now Char­lottesvill­es and Freddie Grays. There are many good rea­sons for the rage I now sense in my other­wise mild-man­nered doctor; they’re rooted in ex­pe­ri­ences I’ll never know.

Un­til I read an ar­ti­cle last week­end, “Black­face raises racist face,” I didn’t know that the term Jim Crow was the name given to a fic­tional char­ac­ter played by 1830s black­face min­strel performer Thomas Dart­mouth Rice. “The white man danced like a buf­foon and spoke with an ex­ag­ger­ated im­i­ta­tion of black slave ver­nac­u­lar to en­ter­tain his au­di­ences,” the story read. “Jim Crow and other per­for­mances fea­tur­ing white men in black­face cap­ti­vated white crowds un­til the mid-20th cen­tury.” Ap­par­ently, some white peo­ple are still cap­ti­vated.

In a 2012 es­say for the Huff­in­g­ton Post, David Leonard, chair of Wash­ing­ton State Univer­sity’s de­part­ment of crit­i­cal cul­ture, gen­der and race stud­ies, wrote: “Black­face is part of a his­tory of de­hu­man­iza­tion, of de­nied cit­i­zen­ship, and of ef­forts to ex­cuse and jus­tify state vi­o­lence.” A re­cent Wash­ing­ton Post head­line read: “Black­face is white supremacy as fash­ion.” To un­der­stand more fully why black­face is of­fen­sive, I Googled that phrase, and the re­sults leave lit­tle doubt that of­fen­sive is a gross un­der­state­ment.

I should have known.

I didn’t even know about The Green Book un­til the movie came out this past fall. I’m sure I’m not the only white per­son who can ad­mit that. Maybe it’s my fault, or maybe fam­ily, schools, me­dia, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and a 28-day Black His­tory Month haven’t done enough to fully res­cue peo­ple like me from racial ig­no­rance and com­pla­cency.

We’re well past the time for open, hon­est con­ver­sa­tions about race, oth­er­ness and hate. There should no longer be ex­cuses for not know­ing.

Herb Cromwell is the re­tired ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Com­mu­nity Be­hav­ioral Health As­so­ci­a­tion of Mary­land; his email is land­hcromea­[email protected]

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