Dressing up in “Blackface” has been in the news recently and has become the issue of the moment. And a lot of the power placed on the various positions that people have taken regarding blackface has to do with the importance of the persons who have been identified in it.
The Governor of Virginia (or perhaps Ex-Governor, by the time this is published) had a picture of a page of his medical school yearbook that showed two persons, one in Minstrel-type blackface and the other wearing a Ku Klux Klan uniform of pointy-topped masked hood and white robe.
When asked about the picture, the Governor said he was sorry he had done it (it was unclear which person he was admitting was him). Then, the next day, possible realizing he would not be given a pass and it might hurt his political aspirations (and taking a page from Justice Kavanaugh’s playbook), he said it was not him in the picture at all.
He then, however, quickly reported that he had once constumed himself as Michael Jackson to attend a party some years before. Luckily for the Governor, in response to a reporter’s question, he was prevented by a politically astute and very quick-witted spouse from Moonwalking on demand.
The Governor forgot the first rule embraced by all successful politicians when anything comes up that is not helpful to their careers: Deny, Deny, Deny; Delay, Delay, Delay – and soon something will come along to deflect attention from whatever the problem is.
Then, as if a dam had broken, everyone and their brother was admitting they had behaved somewhat similarly. And that’s what got my attention.
Many of these admissions were of differing degrees of disgust, but, it seemed to me, were being treated with equal repugnance and deemed deserving of equal punishment.
But, I ask you, is there not a qualitative difference between someone who dons the traditional costume often associated with Minstrel shows: blackens their face, starkly whitens the areas around the eyes, reddens and emphasizes the thickness of lips, etc., and a person who chalks their face, wears highly polished black shoes, white socks, tightly-fitting, high-cuffed trousers, a loose shirt and jacket, a Fedora-like hat, and one sequined glove?
It seems to me that one demeans a history and a people, and the other pays homage to a spectacular entertainer.
If we see these two vastly different portrayals of African Americans (or Negroes or Blacks or Brothers, or whatever is acceptalbe this week), as indistinguishable, I believe we are looking for a fight and opening the door to even more division and hatred.
If we cannot assume the identities of persons of other races and ethnicities, even when we do so for the most theatrical or uplifting of reasons, be they saints or sinners, villains or heroes, how limited will our rich culture become? How cowardly our history?
Only Hawaiians can wear hula skirts?
Only Norwegians can play Vikings?
Only Italians can row gondolas and sing?
Did you every play cowboys and Indians as a kid?
Were you ever the Indian?