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Why is blackface racially, socially and politically incorrect?
Modern Incidents of Blackface
The act of applying blackface has been a volatile issue since, in the early 1800s, white performers began rubbing burnt cork on their face during minstrel shows to portray African-Americans in a negative way. During the early part of the 20th century, more and more Caucasian actors blackened their faces to become African-Americans on the stage, in the movies and on TV. Due to the civil rights movement, the advancement African-Americans have made and the derogatory connotations associated with blackface, it was deemed inappropriate. The incidents of the use of blackface have sharply decreased, and any use is seen as a racial slur. The roots of blackface are seeped in ugly racial stereotypes; however, recently, many college campuses around the United State have found a new use for it: as a Halloween costume, a joke, a prank. The history behind this make-up causes these actions to be deemed socially unacceptable and consequent action to be taken. However, it is the intent of the performer that should indicate how malicious the action is. There can be legitimate uses of blackface, but it is when people are uneducated and jump to conclusion that troubles start.
Blackface became popular when used during the minstrel shows. There are two different stories that tell the beginnings of minstrel shows. Minstrel shows begin in the early 1830s in two different ways. When Thomas Rice, who was a white musician, saw a black stable hand singing as he worked, Rice came up with the idea to add music and chorus and hit the road with the show (Curry 24). This was the beginning of "the white-man's" minstrel show. In other areas, local African American entertainers formed musical and theatrical groups that traveled around the United States and to parts of Europe, thus beginning the formal entertainment industry. They performed “…humorous and dance-oriented, music-oriented, joke-oriented variety show[s], in between other kinds of more formal theatrical acts, but over time minstrelsy became itself the entertainment” (Foster). This was the beginning of the African-American minstrel show.
The minstrel shows that were originally performed by African-Americans were a celebration of African-American music and dance. It is when whites began to dress up in tattered clothing and began rubbing burnt cork on their face that the shows eventually became offensive. Though the typical stereotype is that only Caucasians performed in blackface, African Americans were known to paint their faces to appear blacker than they really were, only perpetuating the stereotype that the blacker one was, the stupid one was as well (Toronto Star). African Americans were originally presented in the minstrel shows as being "…stupid…comical…a frivolous character" (Foster). Once minstrel shows became an entertainment item of their own, they began to have a structure and certain characteristics. The Virginia Minstrels were the first develop different characters that were much more flamboyant than previous. They introduced Mr. Bones, Mr. Tambo, the semi-circle format, and the more outrageous characters. The standard line-up included a fiddler, a "tambo" or tambourine, a banjo and bone castanets. They mixed African and European musical elements to create a truly unique musical style (Curry 25). This is when the art form morphed from a celebration on African-American music and dance to an ugly "peepshow" into plantation life, as if the minstrel shows would give some insight into the inner workings of the African Americans. "That's when you really get the negative characterization of blacks as the total comic fool…" (Foster). It is easy to see how such shows could become offensive, as it was the only form of entertainment African-Americans were allowed to participate in.
The theatrical stage and the movie screen were similarly limited as we moved into the 20th century. Minstrel shows continued in Great Britain until the 1960s with the popular variety show The Black and White Minstrel Show (Toronto Star). Roles for African Americans were scarce. Most of them were limited caricatures or distorted imitations stemming from the foolish antics of the minstrel shows (Hopkins 6). Both theatre and movies condoned the use of blackface, as can be seen in The Jazz Singer when Al Jolson paints his face black. Other actors included Eddie Cantor, Bert Williams and Fred Astaire (Toronto Star), (Corliss 82). Some argue, though, that Jolson was not dressing up in blackface as a sign of disrespect, but because that's what people had become to expect of him. Some, to this day, consider that an appropriate use of blackface (Toronto Star).
Moving past this, in the mid part of the 20th century and during the civil rights movement, African American began to make their own place in movies and theatre, sending the need for Caucasian actors in black make-up to the background. Playwrights such as Lorraine Hansberry, Geroge C. Wolfe and Eugene O'Neill, among many others, helped pave the way and created more varied and interesting roles for African-American actors. O'Neill was especially helpful when, in 1920, he wrote The Emperor Jones in which Brutus Jones is an Africa- American hero and shatters the tradition of the foolish black minstrel role (Hopkins 7).
African-Americans have made great strides, not only in personal struggles for recognition and civil rights, but for the basic right to portray themselves as real people in different entertainment forms. The act of donning blackface is considered hateful now in our quick-to-point-a-finger society, no matter what the reasons for using it. However, many college fraternities on campuses around the United States have suffered severe consequences after using blackface in different ways. Again, it is the intent of the performers or students that tends to indicate how severely, or if at all, they are punished.
The following is a list of the incidents of blackface and the subsequent actions that were taken.
1. University of Alabama at Birmingham: In 2001, three white medical students dressed as Stevie Wonder, a character from Fat Albert and a black woman to go to a Halloween costume party. All three wore blackface. They have since apologized publicly (Bartlett).
2. University of Tennessee: In 2002, six white Kappa Sigma fraternity members used blackface as part of a Jackson 5 Halloween costume. They were seen by black students while walking to a private, off-campus party. Kappa Sigma was suspended, but the students were not punished (Jet).
3. Syracuse University, New York: In 2002, a white member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity went to a bar dressed in blackface as part of a Tiger Woods costume. There was no statement to indicate what sort of action had been taken against the student (Black Issues in Higher Education).
4. University of Wisconsin-Whitewater: In 2001, a Caucasain member of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity appeared in brown body paint to portray Charles Barkley at the annual homecoming variety show. The fraternity wrote apology letters that were distributed around the campus, insisting there was no malicious intent (Schuster).
5. University of Virginia: In 2002, Caucasian members of the Zeta Psi and Kappa Alpha dressed up as Uncle Sam in blackface and an Afro wig and Venus and Serena Williams. Nothing was done to Kappa Alpha, as it was determined that the offending students were from Zeta Psi, which is on probation now (Hamilton).
6. University of Louisville, Kentucky: In 2001, Caucasian Tau Kappa Eplison members attended a Halloween party in blackface. (Ironically, one African American member dressed in a Ku Klux Klan costume, and no action was taken against him.) The chapter has been suspended (Bartlett).
7. Auburn University, Alabama: In 2001, white member of two fraternities (Delta Sigma Phi and Beta Theta Phi) wore blackface to Halloween parties. Pictures were taken, and one of the cruelest depicted one student dressed in a Ku Klux Klan costume, holding a noose around another student, who is in blackface, standing in front of a Confederate flag. Both chapters have been shut down and are no longer recognized by the university. Fifteen members total from the fraternities have been suspended from the university, pending further action (Bartlett), (Burroughs).
8. University of Mississippi: In 2001, two white students attend a Halloween party and a picture was taken of one in blackface on his knees, picking cotton from a small bucket. The other is dressed as a policeman, holding a gun to the other's head. The incident is pending further action (Bartlett).
These incidents, which are no doubt just a sampling, sparked heated reactions, mainly in the form of protests and demands of heads of the universities to do something with the perpetrators. However, it is interesting to look at the intent of the students and the subsequent punishment.
Students who dressed up as famous figures, such as Charles Barkley, Stevie Wonder, Tiger Woods and the Jackson 5 had to apologize publicly. Those students who chose a more racially pointed action (the black person and policeman, the Ku Klux Klan) were reprimanded more severely. It is possible that the judges in these cases are looking past the simple act of putting black make-up on and looking at the intent of the students. While it is understandable that due to its history, blackface is considered rude and offensive, people can tend to jump to the wrong conclusions when it comes to these incidents. Dressing up as Al Jolson in blackface has a different intent and a different effect then dressing up as a black man being beaten by a white police officer.
The main cause behind these incidents and the controversy they sparked is ignorance. Those who put on the blackface are ignorant of the racial discord and stereotypes that go along with it. To some extent, the accusers are ignorant of the motive of those who don blackface. In some cases, a malicious intent is obvious, other times; people want to jump to conclusions too quickly, assuming the intent was to hurt. According to Jim Butchart, a theatre professor at UW-Whitewater, he devoted a whole day to class discussion of the incident with the TKEs at the variety show because "…an incident like this deserves recognition and people need to be educated on what blackface is and where it came from and its implications." If more people were educated on the topic, perhaps incidents like this wouldn't be as volatile.
Blackface is still used in the entertainment industry today. The most popular example is Spike Lee's movie Bamboozled. A fictional, struggling TV network comes up with the idea to reinvented the minstrel show, and it's a smash hit among the viewers, and audience members show up in blackface. (Corliss 82). Lee is obviously making a point about race in society today; he didn't use blackface to be offensive. There are other things in the movie to do that.
In the television series Touched by an Angel, the Caucasian character of Monica (Roma Downey) wakes up one morning, and is transformed into a black woman (Makeups). Black make-up, instead of a different actress, was used. In this instance, there was no hurtful intent. In fact, the episode was used to show sympathy for African-American females. Speaking in a purely pragmatic sense, why would something like this be offensive? Neither the intent nor the result was harmful. However, there are some actors who won't touch black face. Kelly Doherty, a theatre performance major at UW-Whitewater indicated that she wouldn't feel comfortable playing a role in blackface because she couldn't play an African-American as well as someone who was actually of that ethnicity and she would be afraid of playing a stereotype that might offend someone. Mark Dujsik, another performance major added that there was no point in casting Caucasian actors in African-American parts, as there are plenty of good African-American actors. However, they both agreed that there could be few situations where blackface would be appropriate, but neither actor would feel comfortable performing in such roles.
Ethnic casting and color-blind casting have soothed some of the wounds that blackface caused. Plays like Raisin in the Sun and The Colored Museum haveprovided excellent opportunities for African-American performers. Also, directors have found creative ways around the use of blackface or all white actors, such as casting Patrick Stewart as the title role in Othello and casting the other characters as African-Americans, causing Othello to be an outsider in a different way (Butchart). It is quite easy to find blackface offensive due to it's roots, but we have moved past the era when it is offensive and into an era where those who use it for professional reasons do so with sensitivity and those who misuse it are in need of education on the topic. It is part of the African-American heritage and must be dealt with accordingly. "Years from now, blacks may be chagrined to recall that their young men addressed one another familiarly as "Nigger" and chose hoodlums as their cultural gods" (Corliss 82). It is the same idea behind blackface.