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Blackface Refuses to Die

The "Kanye Western" party at UCLA is just another example of the longstanding tradition that is as international as it is offensive.

by Ashley Clark
Oct 14 2015, 5:00pm

Image by Doug Rickard and T. A.

Recently, some news appeared on my Twitter feed that would have been shocking were it not so predictable. The Los Angeles Times reported that a group of students at UCLA wore blackface and baggy clothes at a "Kanye Western" party on campus. Predictably, the incident did not go over well. The Times reported that hundreds of outraged students mobilized into action, protesting with signs bearing the pithy, powerful statement: "Our Culture Is Not a Costume."

The UCLA affair is only the latest in a string of similar recent incidents. Black and brownface parties have reportedly been thrown by fraternities and sororities in Arizona, California, Florida and South Carolina. Such events even inspired the plot of Justin Simien's Dear White People (2013), a satirical film centered around identity politics at a racially-divided liberal arts college. Had dancer Julianne Hough seen Dear White People in time, she might have reconsidered her decision to attend a Halloween party in blackface as Orange Is the New Black's Crazy Eyes. (Hough soon issued an apology.)

Once the floodgates had opened for me, it became distressingly clear that this practice was in fact alive and well on a global scale.

The peculiarly insistent "neo-blackface" phenomenon has been on my mind since I started writing and researching my forthcoming book on Spike Lee's film Bamboozled, which celebrates the 15th anniversary of its US release this month. It is a brutal satire about a frustrated black TV executive, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), who creates a contemporary version of a minstrel show in order to deliberately get himself fired and expose the commissioning network as a racist, backward outfit ("The networks don't want black people on television unless they are buffoons!" he complains). However the outrageous show—which features its black stars channeling the ghosts of history by performing in burnt-cork blackface—becomes a smash hit with audiences of all races, prompting Delacroix's mental collapse, and an explosion of violence.

I knew the process of working on the book was not going to be easy on the spirit. To dive into the grotesque historical misrepresentation of black people in American entertainment is to understand how negative stereotypes are forged and subsequently broadcast to devastating effect.

It is, for example, no exaggeration to draw a direct link from the black "savages" (white actors in blackface) marauding through the landscape of D. W. Griffith's shockingly racist, pro-Confederacy epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) to the account provided by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson of his fateful altercation with the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. "It was like a demon," Wilson said of Brown. "It."

Bamboozled is not an easy film to pin down. Its satire targets everyone from media corporations and wigga executives to self-hating black creatives and even the black performers willing to sell themselves out for a quick buck. However, its most powerful moment arrives in its closing sequence: a grueling, three-minute montage comprising genuine footage of American entertainment's most offensive historical images. This includes blacked-up Hollywood stars like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney; black stars in demeaning "coon" and "mammy" roles; racist cartoons; and disturbing scenes from films like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind (1939).

I can confirm that this tumbling index of degradation and dehumanization, cloaked in the guise of harmless fun for all the family, gets no easier to stomach on the 10th, 15th, or 20th viewing. Its power is only intensified in today's climate, where white America has to be reminded daily that black humanity is a thing that matters, and the names of people like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, John Crawford, Eric Harris, Samuel DuBose, the Charleston nine, Kalief Browder, and Tamir Rice are routinely compressed into macabre, symbolic hashtags. A climate in which the idea of a blackface fundraising performance for the Baltimore cops charged in the April 2015 slaying of unarmed black man Freddie Gray can be seriously considered. (The performance was, mercifully, cancelled.)

When Bamboozled was released, some critics, like Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, argued that Lee was needlessly raking up old graves—"Enough has changed for audiences to know that blackface is ugly and unfunny," he sniffed. It is true that the blackface tradition—widely recognized, yet rarely celebrated, as the nation's inaugural indigenous theatrical art form—was largely eliminated from American film comedy after the end of the 1930s, when it became harder to defend as innocuous. And I suspect that critics like Lane may have had their perspectives emboldened by the widely negative reactions afforded to films like Soul Man (1986), a deeply unfunny comedy about a white preppy who blacks up to "earn" a place at Harvard, and public fiascos like Ted Danson's thoroughly ill-advised 1993 appearance in blackface make-up at a New York Friars Club roast of his then-partner Whoopi Goldberg.

However, time—and plain facts—have conspired to prove this dismissive view wrong: Blackface persists. One of the greatest difficulties I faced in writing the book was keeping pace with the sheer onslaught of relevant contemporary stories. The college and Halloween parties are at once the most obvious, irritating, and exhausting examples, but what of the more complex cases, the ones less easily attributable to the stupidity of youth?

Take the curious tale of Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP official in Spokane, Washington, who claimed to be African-American, but was outed by her parents in June 2015 as a white woman who allegedly darkened her skin. Her glistening faux-fro trembled as she attempted to reassure TV presenter Matt Lauer. "This is not some freak, Birth of a Nation, mockery blackface performance," she said. Dolezal's actions attracted plenty of scorn, but I have some sympathy with her, and I think The New Yorker's Jelani Cobb summed it up best when he wrote that she "has been dressed precisely as we all are, in a fictive garb of race whose determinations are as arbitrary as they are damaging. This doesn't mean that Dolezal wasn't lying about who she is. It means that she was lying about a lie."

Conceptual pranksters like Vanessa Place, Joe Scanlan, and Kenneth Goldsmith—all white artists—have faced sharp criticism for trafficking in politically loaded, purportedly cutting-edge blackface imagery in their work.

In Dolezal's case, the race-bending connoted a twisted form of respect. And perhaps the blacked-up Kanyes at UCLA simply love his music and want to emulate him? Should we raise a toast to those assholes? I'm inclined to say no, but there are history books that delve into issues surrounding the origins of blackface performance. Eric Lott's fascinating Love & Theft contends that the form, rather than blossoming from hatred, reflected a white working-class attempt at fostering a transracial union through ironic miming, even if this desire rarely, if ever, transcended the realm of "theft," A.K.A. the white appropriation of black expressive forms. On that note, some historians have suggested that performing in blackface was a way for white performers to express the emotional side of themselves that the prevailing Protestant culture of the time repressed. This sentiment was further developed by Norman Mailer in his essay "The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster," in which "blackness" is explicitly equated with "coolness," and thus positioned as something to emulate. (Paging Iggy Azalea, Miley Cyrus, and Tom Hanks's N-word spouting white rapper son, Chet Haze.)

I thought that the Dolezal case was weird until I found out about the actions of Vijay Chokalingam, the brother of comedian Mindy Kaling. He revealed in April 2015 that, as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, he applied to medical school claiming to be African-American, believing for some reason that it would "dramatically enhance" his chances of success. Alas, he had mediocre grades and only received one offer, even while posing as black. This was a real-life remake of Soul Man that somehow managed to suck more than the film itself.

Meanwhile, instances of blackface in Hollywood ranged from the grimly predictable (Ridley Scott darkening the skin of his white principal cast for Exodus: Gods and Kings), to the inadvisable (Zoe Saldana apparently slapping on facepaint to play Nina Simone), and the "are you serious?" (the practice of blacking up stunt-people and body doubles in Hollywood).

Variations of blackface also permeate the contemporary art world. Conceptual pranksters like Vanessa Place, Joe Scanlan, and Kenneth Goldsmith—all white artists—have faced sharp criticism for trafficking in politically loaded, purportedly cutting-edge blackface imagery in their work. Goldsmith went as far as to re-appropriate the autopsy of Michael Brown for a public poetry performance that ended with his remarking on Brown's genitals as "unremarkable." He later asked Brown University, where he had been invited to speak, to suppress the video recording of his performance.

It's worth noting at this point that blackface is part of a wider phenomenon. For just one broader example, consider the recent case of Michael Derrick Hudson, a white poet who adopted the use of the Chinese pen name Yi-Fen Chou—a meretricious act described by writer Jenny Zhang as an act of yellowface that's part of a long tradition of white voices drowning out those of color in the literary world. Another example is the redface dressing-up as Native Americans that will inevitably be happening again this Halloween.

Once the floodgates had opened for me, it became distressingly clear that this practice was in fact alive and well on a global scale. I read about the Black Pete (or Zwarte Piet) holiday tradition in Holland, in which Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) is accompanied by the dark-skinned figure of Black Pete, often played by whites in blackface who wear curly afro-style wigs and bright red lip coloring. Despite loud protests, the ceremony continues today. Peru boasts the grotesque and popular TV character Negro Mama; while in Japan there are pop acts like Momoiro Clover Z. In Australia there is a blackfaced Jackson Five-parody band called the Jackson Jive.

On i-D: The Art of the Black Lives Matter Movement

Looking back to my home country of England, I tumbled down the YouTube rabbit hole to cringe at famed comedians who indulged in blackface imagery. Harry Enfield was criticized for painting his face to appear as Harry Belafonte in a 2014 BBC special, while in 2010, on BBC comedy Come Fly With Me, Matt Lucas saw fit to appear in blackface, as a lazy, fat, West Indian lady called Precious Little.

In the most purely horrifying instance I came across, impressionist Rory Bremner performed on his sketch show in 2008 as a shuckin' and jivin' version of black celebrity chef Ainsley Harriott. It's not hyperbole to say it's one of the most disturbing and hateful sketches I've ever seen, and yet only 15 viewers saw fit to complain about the sketch (more specifically, only two on the grounds of racism). Perhaps I shouldn't have been quite so surprised: The BBC's Black and White Minstrel Show existed until 1978.

All of this begs the question: Why does this kind of thing keep happening? One obvious, disturbing answer is that it simply reflects the virulent anti-blackness that courses through global veins. At its core is a deep-set, thorough disrespect for black life and an irresistible compulsion to mock. Another reading is that, in American instances at least, such aggravated tomfoolery reflects an optimistic belief among the perpetrators that, in the age of Obama—a time of risky, race-bending satire as purveyed most recently and successfully by the likes of Key and Peele—a so-called post-racial America has genuinely taken hold, and we should just all just chill out about such things. Such a view, however, is dismally ignorant to the context of real life for black people in America.

It's hard to come up with concrete answers for such knotty questions, but there are few better places to start the discussion than by watching and absorbing Bamboozled. The film flopped when it was released, I suspect in large part because of its insistence at looking so unsparingly at the continuum between America's racist past and present. To progress beyond the bleak world of neo-blackface, however, the film's lessons need to be looked at long and hard. It may be 15 years old, but its time is now.

Ashley Clark is the author of Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee's Bamboozled, published by the Critical Press. Follow him on Twitter.

Bamboozled screens at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn on Wednesday, October 28, as part of Behind the Mask: Bamboozled in Focus, a film series curated by Clark.

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