The Still Here-Ness of Blackface, Part Two

The Still Here-Ness of Blackface, Part Two

As told by Dr. John Aden, the Volunteer Executive Director of the African/African American Historical Society & Museum of Allen County (AAAHSM):

Blackface is what we call--in sociocultural anthropology--a sign, a touchstone point for how meanings are interpreted and how they are spread throughout society.

As a reminder from last issue, binary oppositions, in the structure of western language, serve as a short hand and make it easy to navigate the language without having to explain complex thoughts and ideas in long-winded ways (hot versus cold, black versus white, male versus female).  You just refer to the stereotypes.  Binary oppositions don’t actually illuminate the subject they are describing.

One of the most significant blackface white performers was Al Jolson who, in 1927, starred in the first “talkie” film produced, “The Jazz Singer.”  The famous song in the film is “Mammy” (drawn from the mother word mother).  [In the film], he’s ridiculing African-American song and speech.  He put on a top hat, tuxedo with tails.  His act took off and there were 1,000 spin-offs.

Fast forward to present day…when you think about black face now.  It’s a complicated set of identities and practices that is generally still seen as white supremacist and racist. 

Megyn Kelly was the host of her own show [for NBC] before her contract was terminated.  And she was having a conversation with one of her guests about how she dressed in blackface when she was a kid [for Halloween].  It was a bombshell; the other guests were like…I don’t know if blackface was [and is] cool.  There were multiple problems with the conversation.  It was an all-white cast discussing an issue that is deeply charged for black and brown communities.  That was a background problem. The main problem was Kelly’s [stance on] political corrections…how white people are now told [because of a PC culture] that they can’t dress in blackface.  And this is complicated.  We call any conversation like this a fraught discussion; it’s filled with negative challenges for people who were trying to understand it.

There are pimps parties, in which black and Latino men and women are depicted, with people often painting themselves down to depict people of color.  There are Blaxploitation movies that depict these lifestyles, but who’s to say it’s racist?  Of course, Blaxploitation by its very name implies that actors of colors are being exploited to make these films.  They are almost always produced by white executive producers.  But not always. 

To their credit, most of the Blaxploitation films depict black and brown characters that are not successful in what they are trying to do. Like [the film] “Superfly.”  He does not survive the end of the film.  Black criminality in a way is being lampooned in the same way that black face lampooned people three generations prior.  But the outcome was that this is a negative lifestyle and that law and order will win.  White law and order. 

Going back to Megyn Kelly and the issue of free speech.  This is just an attempt by black and brown people to police what people can say and do.  This is America.  We can say or do what we want.  That was a problem.  Technically the Supreme Court has taken the position that we don’t want to restrict speech in a free society. Kelly was taking the approach which in most [free speech] situations would be fine.  Obviously there are limits on free speech…you can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre.

Our current president is a fierce advocate against political correctness.  The idea of civility and decorum is eroding because this has entered the public sphere.  But the reality is that it’s always been in the public sphere.  Kelly thought it was just okay.  But then the backlash and the advertisers dropping her show immediately impacted her viability.  NBC ended up letting her go. 

She did end up making a public apology, stating she just needed to be more educated.  As a social historian, I recognize there are groups in American life that have blind spots; they don’t know black history like they should know it.  Whose fault is that?  In the public education system, you have to realize there are other people of color teaching all over the country.

In the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education…you have a lot of white people fleeing to the suburbs that were created for white people to get away from the urban core that was viewed as decaying.  Private schools were created.  And this happened after World War II.  So who’s responsible for teaching that in private schools?

The faculties are not very diverse…this reflects the fact that we live in a deeply segregated society despite all of the civil rights gains.  We live in a segregated society where all-white communities can dress in black face during Halloween and then not ever be discovered because the kids are only trick or treating in those neighborhoods. And it’s only revealed when it kind of leaks out through a Megyn Kelly misstatement that really wasn’t a misstatement.  It was the real deal.

Part 1 was published in the previous issue of the FWIS

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