Blackface legacy is one of white supremacy and exploitation of Black identity. Historian Dale Cockrell attributed the fascination for blackface to the psyche of poor working-class white people, who felt marginalized both economically and socially and didn’t feel included in white society, but were at least not Black.
Blackface became popular during the era of Minstrels from 1830-1890. White actors portrayed enslaved and free Black people by using burnt cork on a layer of coca butter or black grease paint. They painted exaggerated red lips around their mouths and wore gaudy and colorful costumes. By distorting the features and culture of African-Americans, white Americans were able to codify whiteness.
During the early 19th century real Black entertainers weren’t allowed on stage unless they also put on blackface makeup to perform.
The premiere of Birth of a Nation in 1915 changed the emphasis from the stereotype of the inept Black man to the savage Black man.
In 1951, the NAACP took CBS to court in an attempt to prevent the network from airing the racist show Amos ‘n Andy, a popular radio show that had been formatted for television. The NAACP lost the lawsuit and the show ranked 13th in Nielsen ratings that year and won an Emmy in 1952.
The NAACP responded by initiating a boycott of the show’s sponsor, Blatz Beer. By April of 1953, Blatz withdrew its sponsorship and CBS had to cancel the show. However, the Amos ‘n Andy re-runs remained in syndication for the next 12 years.
Marc Aronson wrote a piece in the Washington Post where he opined that while Minstrel performances demeaned Black people, it also allowed white people to admire forms of African-American music and dance. And that eventually provided economic empowerment for African-Americans who performed in blackface. He went on to say that while white audiences simultaneously sought to be endlessly reassured of their superiority to Black people, it also demonstrated their fascination and even admiration of Black culture.
Philosopher Sylvia Wynter argues that we live in the after-life of slavery. She believes there is an attempt to place Black life outside the realm of human, and therefore need not be afforded human dignity.
Implicit bias is the tendency for people to attribute certain characteristics to different demographics based on stereotypes. Studies show that media portrayals affect the way people are perceived. To this day, the perception of Black men as aggressive and criminal remains and is used to justify the use of violence against them.
As a Black woman, continuing to have to explain the pain African-Americans have endured explicitly and implicitly in this country becomes a struggle. Too often, when African-Americans challenge white America’s racism, we are accused of using the race card.
In December, an anonymous letter was sent to the Community Word’s office accusing Elaine Hopkins and me of using hateful and negative words and suggesting we should write positive stories to make people proud to be Americans.
I challenge that writer to come out of the shadows and have the courage to speak his/her truth publicly. This country has been hiding behind anonymity, hoods and blackface far too long. We will never heal from that we refuse to face. It’s time to have the tough conversation about race in this country.