We­seem to need a Black­face His­tory Month

The Record (Troy, NY) - - FRONT PAGE -

Fe­bru­ary is the time for the rit­ual ob­ser­vance of Black His­tory Month — a brief pe­riod when schools, govern­ment in­sti­tu­tions and even com­mer­cial en­ter­prises feel com­pelled to com­mem­o­rate a hand­ful of fa­mous black folk who made sub­stan­tial con­tri­bu­tions to Amer­i­can his­tory.

It’s a gim­mick, an awk­ward and su­per­fi­cial ob­ser­vance aimed at ame­lio­rat­ing the cen­turies spent dis­miss­ing black Amer­i­cans as mar­ginal or worse, and I don’t care for it.

But this Fe­bru­ary has been over­whelmed by some per­plex­ing news events that give me rea­son to think that some black his­tory les­sons are in or­der. If white men in power are as cav­a­lier about smear­ing black shoe pol­ish on their faces to mock their fel­low black cit­i­zens as news re­ports sug­gest, then we ought to have a se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion about his­tory. Not black his­tory, but Amer­i­can his­tory.

The so­journ of black people in this coun­try is, af­ter all, part and par­cel of Amer­i­can his­tory — not some foot­note or side­bar that is sep­a­rate and dis­tinct from the story of this na­tion. And much of that story, if told ac­cu­rately, must dwell on the bru­tal­ity, op­pres­sion and rank dis­crim­i­na­tion that black Amer­i­cans have en­dured.

The pop­u­lar­ity of min­strelsy and black­face in the 19th cen­tury came out of that era’s ugly in­sis­tence on white supremacy and black in­fe­ri­or­ity. In min­strel shows, white per­form­ers smeared their faces with burnt cork to lam­poon black folk as lazy, stupid, li­bidi­nous and crim­i­nally in­clined. As whites por­trayed them, blacks were hap­pily en­slaved, des­per­ately in need of the “civ­i­liz­ing” hand of their white mas­ters.

Nor was this “en­ter­tain­ment” lim­ited to the Deep South. A group of singing, danc­ing, strut­ting white men in black­face, call­ing them­selves the Vir­ginia Min­strels, first ap­peared at a New York City the­ater in 1843. The stereo­types en­dured long af­ter the war ended.

And their suc­cess spawned many im­i­ta­tors. Fred­er­ick Dou­glass once called black­face min­strels “the filthy scum of white so­ci­ety, who have stolen from us a com­plex­ion de­nied them by na­ture, in which to make money, and pan­der to the cor­rupt taste of their white fel­low cit­i­zens.”

Per­haps the par­tic­u­lars of that his­tory have largely been lost to many of the whites of our era who have found don­ning black­face funny. That group in­cludes not only Vir­ginia Gov. Ralph Northam but also Vir­ginia At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mark Her­ring, who ad­mit­ted, days af­ter con­tro­versy en­gulfed Northam, that he, too, had donned black­face as a col­lege stu­dent. It also in­cludes for­mer Florida Sec­re­tary of State Michael Er­tel, who re­signed last month af­ter pho­tos emerged show­ing him in black­face at a Halloween Party in 2005.

But you need not know the par­tic­u­lars of his­tory to know that this is a cruel form of mock­ery, a throw­back to a time and place when black people were deemed in­fe­rior by law and cus­tom. Er­tel was cer­tainly mock­ing the trau­ma­tized black vic­tims of Ka­t­rina when he pre­sented him­self for a party wear­ing black­face and a shirt that read, “Ka­t­rina vic­tim,” with fake boobs un­derneath. The party was held just two months af­ter the mas­sive storm that killed more than 1,800 people and dev­as­tated count­less more. That’s funny?

Northam has, so far, re­fused to re­sign, in­sist­ing on pre­sid­ing over a state­house strug­gling in a tsunami of scan­dal. (Lt. Gov. Jus- tin Fair­fax, who would pre­sum­ably take the of­fice if Northam re­signed, has been ac­cused of sex­ual as­sault.) In­deed, af­ter first apol­o­giz­ing for ap­pear­ing in black­face in a photo in his med­i­cal school year­book, he later said he wasn’t in the photo. (Northam did, how­ever, ad­mit to smear­ing black shoe pol­ish on his face to im­i­tate Michael Jack­son dur­ing a col­lege dance con­test.) He plans to hire a pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor, ac­cord­ing to pub­lished re­ports, to solve the mys­tery of a how such a photo could have ap­peared on his year­book page. In the pic­ture, by the way, the per­son in black­face is stand­ing next to some­one dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, another cos­tume meant to be ... amus­ing?

It is hard to imag­ine that any­thing up­lift­ing or in­spir­ing can come out of these tawdry episodes, but per­haps a bit of com­mon­sense in­struc­tion is enough: Black­face is of­fen­sive and sug­ges­tive, at the very least, of racism. That bit of his­tory should be con­signed to the dust­bin.

Email Cynthia Tucker at [email protected]­thiatucker.com.

Cynthia Tucker As I See It

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