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.
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.
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.