Blackface doesn’t mean THAT. Or does it?

During Christmas in 2009, my boyfriend gifted me an old music book: Smith’s Two Hundred Songs for Ukulele, 1924. I read music, I play guitar, I sing and I love folk music so I was immediately delighted with it. I knew that the ukulele had been a popular parlor instrument in the United States from the mid 1800’s to the early 1900’s before the advent of the phonograph and the age of radio. In that era, most families kept pianos and other instruments in their living room, and it was commonplace to perform music in the home to entertain oneself or company. Consequently, there is a great wealth of American songs with ukulele music to accompany them from that age. Frank Sinatra, apparently, was a great uke player.

I didn’t own a ukulele but I could easily play the chords that were in the book and I can plce a capo on my guitar to make it sound a little higher like a uke. However, once I started reading through the songbook, I was aghast to discover several dozen really racist songs in it. Here are a couple of examples:

The Alabama Blossoms
Far, away down South in Alabama,
Where the darkies plant the cotton and the corn
In that land where blooms the sweet magnolias
In that paradise us darkies we were born;
Old Massa he was kind, and little Missus too,
They’d be amus’d to see us jump and dance,
Oh! they called us Alabama Blossoms,
And we’re going back whene’er we get a chance
[Composed in 1874, the full text of the song can be found here.]

Root, Hog or Die
I’m right from old Virginny wid my pocket full ob news
I’m worth twenty shillings right square in my shoes
It doesnt make a dif of bitternance to neider you nor I
Big pig or little pig Root, hog, or die.
    I’m chief cook and bottlewasher, cap’n ob de waiters;
    I stand upon my head,
    When I peel de Apple dumplins.
I’se happiest darkee on de top ob de earth
I get fat as possom in de time ob de dearth
Like a pig in a tate patch dar let me be
Way down in old Virginny whar its Root, hog, or die.
[This one, from 1854, goes on and the full lyrics are here.]

I could not understand how so many of these kinds of songs could have been in a popular collection from 1924, so I started rooting around to understand their origins. In the US, everything published before 1923 has expired copyrights and are in the public domain. As a consequence, music and lyrics from pre-1924 songs are marvelously well inventoried on line because folks are interested in whether they are copyrighted because then they can be performed and reproduced for free. I discovered that these 2 tunes, and all the others like them, were composed for Minstrel Shows in the US primarily from 1830 – 1910.

Along with the buffoonish portrayal of African Americans within minstrel songs’ lyrics, minstrel performers – whether they were black or white – would also don blackface (a stylized makeup and dress which included painting the face black, the lips oversized red or white, wearing white gloves and other period-specific clothes) while singing and playing the tunes. The combined purpose of minstrel songs and blackface makeup is to ridicule African Americans and glorify antebellum South and plantation life. Over the years, the image of blackfaced minstrels developed into a racial archetype, the darky, which persisted in popular culture and advertising for many years and included the images of Little Black Sambo, Aunt Jemima, and the crazy-curled negress .

I mention all these things to be academic and provide greater detail and understanding to their specific history of the matter and not because I was unaware of their existence. On the contrary, I’ve known about them my whole life.

The songs Jimmy Crack Corn (The Blue Tail Fly) and I Wish I was in Dixie still float about in popular culture, and I recall learning with trepidation the minstrel lyrics to De Blue tail Fly as a kid (One day he rode aroun’ de farm / De flies so numerous dey did swarm; / One chance to bite ‘im on the thigh, / De debble take dat blu tail fly). I’ve seen Gone With the Wind (1939) with its stereotypical depictions of the happy house slaves Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), and Prissy (ButterflyMcQueen). Just this week, I watched The Women (1939) and was amazed at the number of African American women cast as servants with minstrel-inspired costumes – including Butterfly McQueen whose high pitch voice is so unforgettable, in an unaccredited role.

During Christmas 2010, with my same boyfriend who game me the ukulele songbook, I watched Holiday Inn (1942) – the black and white musical movie which introduced the song White Christmas, and which was remade 14 years later into the Technicolor musical White Christmas (1956) – starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire with its infamous minstrel show Abraham during which the entire staff of the hotel dress in blackface to celebrate President Abraham Lincoln’s holiday weekend. Even as I write this in April 2013, the unedited version of Holiday Inn was just shown on the US Cable channel Movieplex. Turner Movie Classics edits out the minstrel scene each year they show it on cable.

Consequently, I’ve seen a wealth of of darky images over the years, and I fully agree that these depictions of African Americans in minstrelsy, their accompanying blackface, and the tradition of servile house characters in 1920’s-1940’s “Golden Age” Hollywood films are all racist and demeaning.

However, I also think that the term blackface does refer very specifically to those instances when people wear dark stereotypical makeup whose style and use originates in minstrelsy.  Minstrel blackface serves as a way to marginalize African Americans and denigrate them by showing them all to be stupid, servile and the same: a group whose characteristics don’t change from individual from individual. Based on its history, the blackface minstrel definition is narrow and it is always synonymous with racism, denigration and stereotype. Its application should be equally narrow in association with that history.

In other words, I do not think that the term blackface should be used expansively to describe EVERY instance when a person dons dark makeup. In the first scenario (A), I think that it is possible for a person to wear dark makeup to pose as an African American in a sympathetic manner. In the second scenario (B), I think that wearing dark makeup or disguising oneself as an African American is not de facto a racist act. Finally, in scenario C, I think that there are occasions when folks don dark make up and where it is racist and demeaning other than by stereotype and minstrelsy and that using the term blackface actually distracts from the problem at hand.


Scenario A: In an episode called The Rowdy Girls of the TV sitcom Designing Women (Season 4, 1989) the four leading characters – all middle aged Caucasian women living in Atlanta – lip synch Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and perform in costume like Diana Ross and The Supremes for a charity event. In homage to Ross herself, the character Suzanne (Delta Burke) gets a 1960’s Diana Ross-style bouffant wig, and dons realistically dark-toned makeup to pose as Ross for the song. Suzanne in no way mocks Diana Ross: she is trying to emulate her. Consequently, I don’t find the performance racist, and I don’t think that it would be described as blackface.

Another scenario A: As a curious comparison, Zoë Saldaña recently was cast to play the famous jazz singer and pianist Nina Simone in a biopic. However, Saladaña is a fairly light skinned Dominican woman of mixed Afro-Latin heritage who required an Afro wig, dark skin makeup and a prosthetic nose to appear like Simone. African American news channels and commentators were quick and merciless with their condemnation of the casting and demanded that a darker actress replace Saladaña. Critics specifically cited how Simone was active in the Civil Rights movement, how she sang frequently about her extremely dark skin and African features which did not mesh well in American popular society of the 1960’s when she gained fame, and consequently how inappropriate it was to use a light skinned African actor. Some have labeled Saldaña’s emulation of Simone as blackface. I think that that is totally inaccurate: blackface means dressing up in a stereotype, dressing up as one and ONLY ONE sort of African American – thus suggesting that all African Americans are the same. In contrast, Saldaña is honestly trying to impersonate just one African American – Nina Simone – and if she does it honestly and well, it can’t be racist.

Allow me to tangent on this idea for a moment… How important is it that an actor look exactly like who she portrays, and how important is her ability to portray her part? Ben Kingsley (birthname Krisna Banji) had to go through great deals of make up to look like Ghandi. I can only imagine that Toby Jones and Philip Seymour Hoffman each went through similar attentions to portray Truman Capote in the movies Infamous and Capote. This past yer, Toby Jones and Anthony Hopkins both had to wear fat suits and all sorts of makeup to play Alfred Hitchcock. If an actor is truly talented, and at least moderately similar in appearance to another person, he or she should be free to impersonate the other person without reproach as long as it is honest.

Scenario B: In 2008, Robert Downey Jr. played the character Kirk Lazarus in the film Tropic Thunder – a comedy about a group of actors trying to make a Vietnam-era war film who actually wind up in a live battle situation while on location in modern day Burma. The seven stars in the film – Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr, Jack Black, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise – each play caricatures of different Hollywood ‘types’: a career action-film actor, a drug-addicted comedic actor,  a young  actor-newcomer, an agent, a sleazy Jeswish film producer and a rap star turned actor. Kirk Lazurus (Downey Jr) is supposed to represent the overly earnest and perfectionist method actor who immerses himself in his roles. In this case, Kirk is an Australian who is such an extremist that he has “pigmentation alteration” surgery so he can portray an African American army Sargent: his skin is permanently darkened, and his hair is permanently made black and curly. In actuality, this meant that Downey spent 2 hours a day being prepared in makeup to play an Australian who is sincerely trying to portray an African American character in a comedic farce. Is that nuanced enough for everyone yet?

The layers of social commentary and mockery being made in this situation make it impossible for me to deem it either racist or blackface. Even in the film itself, the one African American rapper turned actor character Alpha Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) repeatedly confronts and mocks Lazarus for what he is doing, and catches Lazarus once when he is attempting to improvise an emotional moment by performing/speaking the lyrics of the theme song to the 1970’s TV show, The Jeffersons. In other words, the comedy is so self aware and self-effacing of the racial scenario that it portrays, that you can not view it as anything but comical and commentary simultaneously. A number of film critics have decried Downey’s role in the film as being blackface. I disagree with them. The role is just not racist at all, and in the one and only moment of caricature Lazarus attempts on screen, he’s promptly exposed by the one African American present. Frankly, Tom Cruise wearing a balding cap and fat suit in the movie while portraying Les Grossman – a horrendous caricature of an abusive, power-hungry Jewish movie studio executive producer – was a vastly more stereotypical and anti-Semitic performance. So, can we say Jewface?

Scenario B, again: October 2010 – The magazine French Vogue prints a photo spread of Dutch model Lara Stone in dark-skin makeup, and news agencies are quick to label it as blackface and racially controversial. I quote verbatim this comment on the Jezebel article which claimed that the photo spread was racist: “This just plain isn’t blackface. It is not A) a white model replacing a black model so that they don’t have to use an actual black model or B) Comical makeup designed to mock African heritage. She isn’t doing anything that an African model would not do or portraying Africans in a way that European models are not also portrayed. I would suggest that outrage be saved for actual racism rather than spreading one’s outrage too thinly.” I could not say it better myself. The entire string of discursive comments in response to this article and that statement are amazing. But I will add one nuance. The other-worldly aesthetics in the world of couture women’s fashion, supermodels and the constant striving for novelty in art photography and print advertising give rise to a multitude of reasons why someone might paint a model a color – ANY color – to create something new and eye catching that has absolutely nothing to do with race. Beyond the dark makeup applied to Ms Stone – which creates a skin tone and shade that I’ve never seen on any human being of any decent, African or otherwise – there is nothing I can see in the fashions she wears in this photo spread that is referential to anything culturally African, or African American which would qualify as denigrating or caricature.

Scenario C: Finally, just a few weeks ago in February this year (2013), the French fashion magazine Número presented a fashion spread entitled “African Queen” with model Ondria Hardin wearing enough bronzer to make her seem like an African. Not only that, the clothing she was wearing is clearly referential to both East and West African women’s traditional clothing and style: the headdresses, arms bands, and bold pattern fabrics. The shoot was quickly labeled as blackface and controversy ensued. Interestingly, the photographer of the shoot, Sebastian Kim, quickly tried to defend himself and claimed thatIt was never my intention (nor Numero’s) to portray a black woman in this story. Our idea and concept for this fashion shoot was based on 60’s characters of Talitha Getty, Verushka and Marissa Berenson with middle eastern and Moroccan fashion inspiration. We at no point attempted to portray an African women by painting her skin black.” Additionally, he clarifies that the title to the piece in the magazine “African Queen” was added only after he had submitted photos.

In this particular case, I have to agree that this photo spread and its accompanying text – no matter whom it was that ultimately assembled it all – is racist. The fashion and styles are clearly representative of an African style, and using an African model would be fitting. Using instead a Caucasian model painted darker denigrates African people as the photos then suggest that Africans are not beautiful enough in their own features to depict the fashion. It suggests that Caucasian features are intrinsically better even when dark.  It also robs models with African heritage – who are already underrepresented in fashion photography, apparently – work that should rightly be theirs. Also, were he, as photographer Sebastian Kim claims, seeking a Moroccan feel, why did he not employ an Arabic or North African model? The difference between this photo shoot and the previous one with Lara Stone, the stumbling block which is its downfall, is the African cultural references that the shoot so clearly invites.  As soon as that door is opened, the debate is over: the photos are conclusively racist.

However – and this is important – the “African Queen” photos are still not representative of blackface and should not be labeled as such. Ondria Hardin is not depicted as a caricature of African women and style meant to ridicule and belittle them, they have no connection to the minstrel tradition, and they lack that definitive distinction of blackface which actually seeks to belittle Africans with caricature. These photos are something subtly and distinctly different. In this instance, the designer, photographer and magazine editor were stupid but not malicious.  Stating that the model is in blackface actually confuses the discussion by not exploring the nuanced problem of what actually occurred.

Reflecting beyond mere blackface for a moment – there are a wealth of examples of stylized, prejudicial, stereotypical and demeaning depictions of all sorts of groups in America besides those of African Americans. There were the depictions of ‘the Japs’ in animated cartoons in film, and political cartoons in the press during WWII which then persisted into advertising into the 1960’s. Chinese characters in film from the 1920’s-1940’s were invariably played by Caucasian actors dressed in yellowface – Warner Orland in the Charlie Chan movies, and the all-painted Caucasian cast of ‘Chinese’ in The Good Earth being the best examples. A major component of the entertainment industry – radio, film, comics, pulp novels and then television – for 50 years was Cowboy and Indian stories – the vast majority of which depicted Native Americans poorly, and with many roles often played by Caucasians in redface or Latinos and Mexicans. There is even a whole patois of derogatory broken English used for Native American dialog which is as equally developed and stylized as the pidgin of Southern darkies in minstrel shows.  Last but not least, there is the perpetual derogatory portrayal of most homosexuals in films (mincing sissies, or erudite superior artists being the main types for gays, while for lesbians there is the trifecta of butch, feminist or Earth woman) which was outlined so well in the 1987 book The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo and the 1995 documentary of the same name by . Finally, there is the virtual absence of any queer actors who play queer roles in most major films and television – a phenomenon one could called fagfacing – but it falls short.

Given the particularly long and unpleasant history of racism towards African Americans in the US, and the fact that they are by far the largest minority here, I think that examining blackface first serves as a good exercise before addressing any of the other derogatory depictions of other groups. Ultimately, I think that blackface is a great word when it is used with specificity – but that it looses value when used indiscriminately.

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WJNF: Not a Myers-Briggs Type

My profile name here – WJNF – does not mean that I am “wordy, judgmental, intuitive and feeling” like some Myers-Briggs personality type. It stands for Whore. Jew. Nigger. Faggot. I want to talk about bigotry, prejudices and especially the words and ideas we use to discuss them.

Before you get offended by the title, don’t worry: you have not stumbled across some website that would send the Southern Poverty Law Center into a tizzy.  I am a dyed in the womb egalitarian, liberation-seeking lefty sort of person believes you can wear your revolution on the inside: I eat meat, I don’t wear patchouli and I dress conservatively. That said, I am not above using a bit of outward sensationalism to get attention on occasion, either.

For the past few years, virtually every time I encounter news stories and issues around instances of sexism, religious intolerance, racism or homophobia, discussions I have about them with other well meaning, well intentioned, well informed, compassionate people invariably only become more arcane, convoluted and confusing. Folks get judgmental and angry and the ultimate goal – a deeper understanding, greater social justice and harmony – is lost in a cloud of emotions and misunderstandings.

I hope you enjoy reading.

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