Black Faces

April 30, 2015

By: Anthony James

The characters of blackface have played a significant role in disseminating racist images, feelings, and perceptions worldwide. Desensitizing Americans to horrors of chattel slavery, these performances were lessons about the innocuousness of southern slavery. For more than one hundred years, the credence that blacks are an inferior species is fostered by multitudes of white performers in blackface.

In the United States’ early years, exaggerated red lips were painted around the mouths of white performers, like those of today’s circus clowns. In later years, their lips were usually painted white or unpainted. Costumes were usually gaudy combinations of formal wear; swallowtail coats, striped trousers, and top hats. Minstrel shows became hugely popular in the 1840s, exposing white audiences in the North to their first introduction to any depiction of black life. Minstrel show entertainment included imitating black music and dance and speaking in a “plantation” dialect. They would often feature a broad cast of characters: from Zip Coon, the educated free black man who pronounced everything incorrectly, to Mammy, a fat, black faithful slave who was really just obviously played by a man in a dress. Black children were depicted as unkempt and ill-raised pickaninnies. The joke about pickaninnies was that they were disposable; they were easily killed because of their stupidity and the lack of parental supervision. From 1840 to 1890, minstrel shows were unarguably the most popular form of entertainment in America, and it is possible that a resurgence of that old song and dance has once again become trendy.

The stigma left behind once the shows were no longer popular continued full steam ahead like a freight train filled with passionate disparagement of the Black people. Many white Americans during the time of the minstrels’ rise were already thinking in this regard, so to see it on stage for the purpose of entertainment gave the stereotypes life. Today, however, even with major steps in a more positive representation, the Black image remains stereotyped as if it were passed down hereditarily.

University of Florida students at a "Black Face party." Photo courtesy of TheGloss.com.

University of Florida students at a “Black Face party.” Photo courtesy of TheGloss.com.

From the University Of Florida to the University of California, Irvine to Arizona State University, blackface videos, images, and parties continue to pop up at predominantly white colleges across the United States. The people who attend these functions “dress like Black people,” wearing baggy jeans, gold chains and grills, bandanas, basketball jerseys, and more importantly is the blackface that puts the entire outfit together. Lets talk specifics, on Oct. 24, 2012 two members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at the University of Florida wore blackface to a party called “rock stars and rappers.” The photos taken showed two men wearing thick gold chains, baseball caps and “pants that hang so low they show their boxer shorts.” Beta Theta Pi president Ethan McMahon said, “While their actions were not intended with any malice or ill will to any members of our community, clearly they were offensive, and we accept full responsibility accordingly.”

Following the trend, the fraternity at Arizona State University that decided to celebrate the national holiday honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., by holding a party titled “MLK Black Party.” Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity attendees wore basketball jerseys, drank from cups made out of watermelons, and flashed gang signs for the camera. The idea of the party was for White students to “black out for MLK day.” Has this become more of an act of advanced ritualistic racism, or are young adults innocently and unknowingly making a mockery of Black history? The answer is not simple, but it does not matter because the outcome is the same.

Dartmouth College students at a "Blood and Crips" party. Photo courtesy of TheGloss.com.

Dartmouth College students at a “Blood and Crips” party. Photo courtesy of TheGloss.com.

In 2013, at Dartmouth College, a fraternity and sorority hosted a “Bloods and Crips” themed party. They invited attendees to dress up as either a Blood or Crip, referring to the notorious, predominately black street gangs based in Los Angeles. A partygoer described it as a “ghetto party” with racialized language, speech and dress.” She even acknowledged that over 200 individuals attended this event. Over 200 potential students “dressed as black people” attended and used slang-like language for the purpose of entertainment. However, the Fraternity made a statement saying, “The idea was never meant to be derogatory to any group, and was intended to introduce a costume theme to the party.”

As a student, my disappointment stems from the lack of empathy or effort to care about the consequences that stem from the actions demonstrated by my fellow colleagues, who represent the most prestigious of higher education facilities in the world. As a scholar, I understand that the best and the worst of history tend to repeat itself. However, as a member of the Black community, I am hurt. Hurt because of the constant refusal as humans to see ourselves in people who do not look like us. Some of these events felt racially inspired and prejudicially motivated, while others seemed clear that the parties involved had little cultural awareness or competency, and did not understand the historical implication of costuming in blackface. Either way the coin flips, the outcome is the same in the eyes of the communities forced to live the lives being depicted for amusement.

Even more disturbing are the locations in which these events are taking place. The future leaders of America are demonstrating the effects that black face had, and still has, on the depiction of Black life. While these are not acts of violent racist nature, how long before the ideas promoted by these caricatures spill over into something more sinister? The idea becomes a thought process, and the thought processes are then carried out in how you act and react. Before long, these seeds of thought become the very trees of public opinion in which Blacks were forced to hang from for years. To ignore that possibility is to ignore the very fabric of thought that brought this issue before us today. The new black face isn’t on television, you cannot find it on broad way at the theatre, instead it is what the future of America does on a Friday night.


The “Miseducation” of The Black-Student Athlete

April 16, 2015

By: Anthony James

And since all the ballers leaving college early, I turn on the T.V. and don’t see no brothers with degrees lately…” sung rap artist J.Cole during a performance on David Letterman. As the lyrics spoke directly to me and a few other young former black student-athletes in attendance that night, I began to wonder just how true that assertion was.

The academic underperformance and underrepresentation of black men in NCAA Division 1 colleges and universities aren’t matters of concern to campus leaders and policy makers. Often lost in the lulling disguise of diversity, except when campus statistics explicitly reminds us of it, is the fact that there is one place where black men are not underrepresented on many campuses. On sports teams, particularly football and men’s basketball, black males make up just 2.8% of the student bodies at these schools, yet represented an astounding 57.1% of football players and 64.3% of basketball players.[1] The disparity of non-athletic black students versus athletic black students on Division 1 college campuses signals an exploitation of the athletic ability of these black student athletes for profit, and graduation rates display a disdain for the nurturing of their academic potential.

Photo courtesy of Deadspin.com.

Photo courtesy of Deadspin.com.

The focus on athletic performance rather than the student-athlete’s overall academic experience causes many athletic programs to recruit players that, while athletically talented, are not equipped to succeed academically. The statistics showing that black athletes graduate at lower rates than other black students attending the same institutions illuminate the fact that black student athletes are not recruited using the same level of academic scrutiny as every other student. Collegiate institutions recruit these players and then profit from their athletic abilities as the players mainly focus on becoming professional athletes. Although many student-athletes aspire to play professional sports after college, the National Football League (NFL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft fewer than 2% of student-athletes of all races each year.[2]

According to a recent study of the 76 largest programs in collegiate athletics in the 6 conferences whose member institutions customarily win football, basketball championships, and play in multimillion-dollar bowl games, just 50.2% of all black athletes in revenue producing sports graduate within six years. Racial inequities in Division 1 universities across America are evidenced by the schools’ acceptance rates, let alone their graduation rates. What is shocking, however, is that these trends are so widespread, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and athletics conference commissioners have done little to nothing in response to them. Even more egregious is the response–or lack thereof–from the American public, including former black student-athletes, college sports enthusiasts, and journalists, who have more than accepted this to be the norm.

The NCAA made approximately $912.8 million last year, with 83% of that coming from Division 1 college basketball tournaments. In light of these tremendous earnings, however, NCAA has an amateurism policy that does not allow students to be compensated for their efforts on or off the court while in college. Instead they go by the “pay-for-play” motto, which loosely stands for the idea that a full ride scholarship or partial scholarship for the athlete’s education is payment enough.

Even in light of major concerns with that application, I’m inclined to agree with the overall fairness of that contractual transaction in theory. A college degree is something so many bright young Americans struggle to afford, let alone attain. But where is the equal exchange for the black-student athletes that do not graduate from these Division 1 institutions who make millions a year off of their jersey sales, television revenue, ticket prices, likeness promotions and contributions to the win column?

This national issue becomes a national racial issue for two reasons. First, because black-male student athletes make up more than half of the sports teams at these schools, it is fair to assume that they are the majority affected by its decision-making. Second, while the entire student-athlete body is potentially comprised of victims of capitalism at its finest, white-male student athletes are twice as likely to graduate within four years. Therefore, white-student athletes are arguably receiving just compensation, in the form of a degree for their work on the field and court. The African-American community, or American community for that matter, is not looking for and does not expect the NCAA and Department of Education leaders to create a simple solution to this problem. There isn’t one. The assumption of responsibility by the NCAA and Division 1 institutions for these more than marginal racial gaps in the opportunity of higher education for black-male student athletes is all that is being called for.

[1] Comeaux, E., & Harrison C. K., Faculty and Male Student Athletes: Racial Differences in the Environmental Predictors of Academic Achievement, Race, Ethnicity and Education, 10(2), 199-214 (2007).

[2] Id.


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