’80s time of racial gains, cul­tural in­sen­si­tiv­i­ties

Scan­dals in Vir­ginia high­light pop cul­ture mis­steps of decade

The Detroit News - - NEWS - BY RUS­SELL CON­TR­ERAS As­so­ci­ated Press

At the time Vir­ginia’s fu­ture po­lit­i­cal lead­ers put on blackface in col­lege for fun, Dan Aykroyd wore it too – in the hit 1983 com­edy “Trad­ing Places.”

Sports an­nounc­ers of that time of­ten de­scribed Bos­ton Celtics player Larry Bird, who is white, as “smart” while de­scrib­ing his black NBA op­po­nents as ath­let­i­cally gifted.

Such racial in­sen­si­tiv­i­ties ran ram­pant in pop­u­lar cul­ture dur­ing the 1980s, the era in which Vir­ginia Gov. Ralph Northam and the state’s at­tor­ney gen­eral, Mark Her­ring, have ad­mit­ted to wear­ing blackface as they mim­icked pop singer Michael Jack­son and rap­per Kur­tis Blow, re­spec­tively.

Mean­while, Chicago elected its first black mayor, Michael Jack­son made mu­sic his­tory with his “Thriller” al­bum, U.S. col­lege stu­dents protested against South Africa’s racist sys­tem of apartheid and the stereo­type-smash­ing sit­com “The Cosby Show” de­buted on net­work tele­vi­sion.

It would be an­other 10 years be­fore the rise of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism be­gan to change Amer­ica’s racial sen­si­bil­i­ties, in part be­cause in­tel­lec­tu­als and jour­nal­ists of color were bet­ter po­si­tioned to suc­cess­fully chal­lenge racist im­ages, and Hol­ly­wood be­gan to lis­ten.

“We are in a stronger po­si­tion to ed­u­cate the Amer­i­can pub­lic about sym­bols and cul­tural prac­tices that are harm­ful to­day than we were in the 1980s,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., di­rec­tor of the Hutchins Cen­ter for African & African Amer­i­can Re­search at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity.

Dur­ing the ’80s, col­lege fac­ul­ties and stu­dent bod­ies were less di­verse, Gates said. Some schol­ars who en­tered col­lege dur­ing the 1960s had yet to take on roles in which main­stream cul­ture would heed their cul­tural cri­tiques, he said.

At the time Northam and Her­ring put on black makeup, Hol­ly­wood and pop­u­lar cul­ture still sent mes­sages that racial stereo­types and racist im­agery were com­i­cal and harm­less, de­spite pleas from civil rights groups and black news­pa­pers.

Her­ring was a 19-year-old Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia stu­dent when he wore brown makeup and a wig to look like rap­per Kur­tis Blow at a 1980 party. Three years be­fore that, white ac­tor Gene Wilder dark­ened his face with shoe pol­ish in the movie “Sil­ver Streak” co-star­ring Richard Pryor. He used a stereo­typ­i­cal walk to im­per­son­ate a black per­son.

On tele­vi­sion, view­ers could see a Tom and Jerry car­toon fea­tur­ing the char­ac­ter Mammy Two Shoes, an obese black maid who spoke in a stereo­typ­i­cal voice. The 1940s car­toon se­ries was shown across sev­eral mar­kets through­out the 1980s. Tele­vi­sion sta­tions ig­nored com­plaints from civil rights groups.

Else­where, Mi­ami erupted into ri­ots fol­low­ing the ac­quit­tal of white po­lice of­fi­cers who killed black sales­man and re­tired Ma­rine Arthur McDuffie in what many called a case of po­lice bru­tal­ity. Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter vis­ited and pressed for an end to the vi­o­lence, but a pro­tester threw a bot­tle at his limou­sine as he left.

When Northam wore blackface to im­i­tate Michael Jack­son and copy his moon­walk­ing skills at a 1984 San An­to­nio dance con­test, TV sta­tions still aired Looney Tunes episodes with racially in­sen­si­tive im­ages us­ing Bugs Bunny and other char­ac­ters de­spite some episodes be­ing taken off the air in 1968.

African-Amer­i­cans, how­ever, had rea­son to be hope­ful amid elec­toral gains. A year be­fore, in 1983, Chicago be­came the lat­est city to elect a black mayor, Harold Wash­ing­ton, af­ter ac­tivists reg­is­tered 100,000 new black vot­ers. That elec­tion, Jesse Jack­son later said, paved the way for him to seek the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent in 1984.

“It was out of that con­text that my own can­di­dacy emerged,” Jack­son said in the 1990 “Eyes on the Prize” doc­u­men­tary. Jack­son lost the nom­i­na­tion to for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Wal­ter Mon­dale.

Two years af­ter Northam’s moon­walk per­for­mance, the com­edy “Soul Man” hit the­aters. In the movie, Mark Wat­son, played by white ac­tor C. Thomas How­ell, takes tan­ning pills in a larger dose to ap­pear AfricanAmer­i­can so he can ob­tain a schol­ar­ship meant for black stu­dents at Har­vard Law School. The movie drew a strong re­ac­tion from the NAACP and pro­test­ers to movie the­aters.

Still, “Soul Man” took in around $28 mil­lion do­mes­ti­cally, equiv­a­lent to around $63.5 mil­lion to­day.

De­spite those im­ages, new and pop­u­lar black cul­tural fig­ures also emerged, in­clud­ing Ed­die Mur­phy, Oprah Win­frey and a young Michael Jor­dan. Black En­ter­tain­ment Tele­vi­sion, or BET, was founded in 1980 by busi­ness­man Robert L. John­son, giv­ing the coun­try ac­cess to black en­ter­tain­ment us­ing 1970s sit­coms and mu­sic.

But as Nel­son Ge­orge ar­gued in his book “Post-Soul Na­tion: The Ex­plo­sive, Con­tra­dic­tory, Tri­umphant and Tragic 1980s as Ex­pe­ri­enced by African Amer­i­cans,” BET failed to counter neg­a­tive im­ages by re­ly­ing on free mu­sic videos and in­vest­ing lit­tle money in orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming. “Through this con­ser­va­tive strat­egy, BET pros­pered while of­fer­ing lit­tle new to a com­mu­nity starved for im­ages of it­self,” Ge­orge wrote.

In ad­di­tion, the new black cul­tural fig­ures rarely en­gaged in pol­i­tics or spoke out against racial in­jus­tice.

Some­times, stereo­types and com­ments did re­sult in con­se­quences. For ex­am­ple, CBS fired sports com­men­ta­tor Jimmy Sny­der, known as Jimmy the Greek, in 1988 af­ter he sug­gested in a TV in­ter­view that black ath­letes were bet­ter be­cause of slav­ery. The Los An­ge­les Dodgers fired gen­eral man­ager Al Cam­pa­nis in 1987 for say­ing on ABC’s “Night­line” that blacks “may not have some of the ne­ces­si­ties to be, let’s say, a field man­ager or per­haps a gen­eral man­ager” and they were poor swim­mers.

In 1987, black demon­stra­tors marched in all-white Forsyth County, Ge­or­gia, to protest the racism that kept blacks out for 75 years. They were promptly at­tacked by white na­tion­al­ists hurl­ing rocks and wav­ing Con­fed­er­ate flags. The shock­ing im­ages sparked na­tional out­rage and led Oprah Win­frey to air an episode of her then-5-month-old syn­di­cated talk show from the county.

“What are you afraid that black peo­ple are go­ing to do?” Win­frey asked the au­di­ence.

“I’m afraid of them com­ing to Forsyth County,” one white man told her.

To­day, Gates said, peo­ple can no longer claim ig­no­rance. While it should have been un­der­stood that blackface was of­fen­sive dur­ing the 1980s, one might have had to go to the li­brary to learn ex­actly why, he said.

“We also have more records dig­i­tized,” Gates said. “The ac­cess to ar­chives is larger, and we have more di­ver­sity in the me­dia so we can say these im­ages are painful … and why we shouldn’t use them.”

Kather­ine Frey / AP

Vir­ginia Gov. Ralph Northam says he wore blackface to im­i­tate Michael Jack­son at a 1984 San An­to­nio dance con­test.

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