Why blackface carries the weight of history

Viewpoint: 

The commentary below represents the ideas, observations and opinions of the author.

One common theme in the community reaction to the recent blackface incident — four Homewood-Flossmoor High School students who posted a video online of themselves in blackface — was that this is a teachable moment.

It sure is. One thing I’m learning is why blackface is so offensive. 

Almost everyone seems to understand that blackface has a racist history, but saying something is racist is not sufficient. That’s too abstract. It’s easy, especially for white people I’m afraid, to understand something is racist but still not fully comprehend the effect it can have on the people who are the targets of racism. 

Local social media pages “blew up” as they say, when the blackface video went viral. Discussions were voluminous and voluble. Most people, white and black, were shocked that the incident would happen at all in a community that prides itself on diversity and inclusion. 

But there were some participants who wondered why there was such intense outrage over what they saw as simply an unfortunate case of teenagers exercising poor judgment. 

They are not alone. When a white public figure gets in trouble for wearing blackface or condoning it (as television personality Megyn Kelly recently did), they often seem surprised at the depth of feeling black people express on the subject.

I think the history of blackface provides a glimpse of the pain it still causes.

Because I am white and grew up in a white town in a white state, I have to pay more intentional attention to stories that black people know and experience every day of their lives. 

What I’ve learned about blackface — white people darkening their faces in order to portray black characters — is that it can be traced back to the very end of the 18th century, but it emerged as the cornerstone of a popular culture in the 1830s. 

In his book, “Watermelons, Nooses, and Straight Razors,” David Pilgrim says the father of blackface minstrelry was Thomas Dartmouth Rice, who created the stage character of Jim Crow after observing an elder black man dancing and singing a song with the name in it. 

Minstrelry ruled as a  form of popular entertainment for the next 70 years, into the early 20th century, and it’s influence continued long after. Until today, in fact.

The characters in skits and songs typically mocked black people, portraying caricatures based on stereotypes of blacks as lazy, unintelligent, violent and generally inferior. For whites, the shows were all in good fun. 

I try to imagine what that would be like to have so many people — the people in power — eagerly believing false portrayals of me and everyone who looks like me. I think about how frustrating and infuriating that would be, especially when there are few, if any, opportunities to effectively respond. What if no one wanted to hear my truth? 

Blackface minstrelry was more than just poking fun. 

It is significant that the first popular blackface character, “Jim Crow,” provided the name for the racist laws and social systems that oppressed black people for the first half of the 20th century and beyond. 

While those laws began to yield in the 1950s and 1960s, the propaganda of blackface minstrel shows was by then embedded deeply in the dominant culture. Many white people were raised believing, perhaps only subconsciously, that the portrayals of black people were true or had some truth to them. 

Blackface was an influential component in the maintenance of attitudes that enabled society to justify treating blacks differently than whites. That didn’t just hurt the feelings of blacks. It materially harmed them for many generations.

I’ve always known blackface was wrong. I’m sorry I was ignorant for most of my life about the significance of its place in history. In her memoir, “Eloquent Rage,” Brittney Cooper says, “Repentance means to re-think ... to think again and in a different direction.”

That’s my project: Repent. 

In practice, that means: Listen carefully to my black friends and neighbors. Learn more. Think differently.

As the H-F kids chanted during their demonstration April 30, there’s “no place for blackface.”
 

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