Be­fore mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, black­face in pop cul­ture

Black­face, other in­sen­si­tiv­i­ties had a part of 1980s pop cul­ture be­fore mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism be­gan chang­ing racial sen­si­bil­i­ties.

The Morning Journal (Lorain, OH) - - FRONT PAGE - By Rus­sell Con­tr­eras

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” costar­ring Richard Pryor. He used a stereo­typ­i­cal walk to im­per­son­ate a black per­son liv­ing in an ur­ban neigh­bor­hood.


At­lanta city coun­cil­man, Rev. Hosea Wil­liams, in over­alls, leads a march against ef­forts to keep Forsyth County in Ge­or­gia all white past counter-pro­test­ers near Cum­ming, Ga., as a crowd waves Con­fed­er­ate flags and jeer the marchers. Racial stereo­types and racist im­agery in pop­u­lar cul­ture seemed to be ev­ery­where in the chaotic 1980s when fu­ture Vir­ginia Gov. Ralph Northam and fu­ture At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mark Her­ring ad­mit­ted dress­ing up in black­face.

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