Be­fore mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, black­face in pop cul­ture

The News Herald (Willoughby, OH) - - Front Page - By Rus­sell Con­tr­eras The As­so­ci­ated Press

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

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.

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, tele­vi­sion sta­tions still aired Looney Tunes episodes with racially in­sen­si­tive im­ages us­ing Bugs Bunny and other char­ac­ters de­spite some con­tro­ver­sial episodes be­ing taken off the air in 1968.

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