Skin is Deep!
I was recently asked to comment on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s penchant for painting his face to appear as a person of color as such characters as Aladdin and as a calypso singer. Just as when I commented on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and the State Attorney General Mark Herring’s use of black face, I must preference my remarks by first confessing that I appeared in blackface in my high school yearbook. I am sure that Prime Minister Trudeau and Governor Ralph Northam would want us to review their actions in the context of the time. I ask that you do the same for me.
The context for me was Spirit Week at American High School. Yes, American High School where our mascot was the eagle and our colors were red white and blue. My senior year our theme for Spirit Day was “That’s Entertainment.” A white female classmate came to me and suggested, “You should come as Al Jolson for spirit day!” I kind of stared at her for a moment not only surprised by the request but also surprised by the enthusiasm with which she made it. Underneath there was also a personal sense of consternation as I wondered, ‘Does she understand that Al Jolson was not actually a black man?” There were two possibilities: One possibility was that she was ignorant of the fact and actually grew up thinking that Al Jolson was black. I did not want to embarrass either her or me by asking. If she did not know then I might make her feel foolish, and if I corrected her in the wrong tone it might seem that I was casting aspersion on her intelligence based on a negative stereotype of people with her hair color.
On the other hand, perhaps she did know. In that case she had advanced insight for a person her age. She was someone who knew that between 1830 and 1850 minstrel shows were the most popular form of entertainment in America. She would also be someone who knew that Al Jolson was at the height of his career in the 1920s the most popular and highest paid entertainer in America facilitating European American’s cultural appropriation of Jazz and Negro spirituals by singing in blackface. She would be someone who recognized that a presentation of the theme “That’s Entertainment” would be incomplete without his most famous character represented. At the same time she would be someone with the perspicacity to know that a white student dressing up in black face would be inappropriate. Therefore it was incumbent upon me as one of the approximately 50 black students in our school of approximately 1500 students to fill that role. Thus I went home and contemplated the delicious Irony of a black man impersonating a white man impersonating a black man; “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”, and I had been designated by my friend Carol Yarbrough’s mother as American High School’s “household enigma.”
It was such an easy effect to create; just some white makeup around my lips. My history teacher, Mark Mattingly, who had been a civil rights activist working on housing desegregation for blacks in the Bay Area in the 1970’s quickly grasped the statement and just shook his head in amazement at my audacity. Nonetheless, I think the deeper implications were lost on many of my classmates. I am sure some classmates both black and white thought it was slightly inappropriate which brings us to back to the question I was asked as far as “how impersonating a character, musician, etc. of a different color than oneself automatically makes them a horrible racist?”
Before anyone goes putting on black face they should understand the history which is summed up on All in the Family Season 6 Episodes 14 and 15, "The Birth of the Baby". In the three minutes between 9:50 and 12:50 of episode 14 Norman Lear does an excellent job of putting a nail in the coffin of black face as it had been typically used throughout much of American history. The episode aired in 1975 seven years after Lyndon Johnson signed the 1968 Civil rights Act which was supposed to punctuate the end of Jim Crow laws (laws of separate but equal in the Southern States designed to legalize discrimination against black Americans). Note these laws were named after Jim Crow the popular character in minstrel shows since 1930.
Notice Archie's son-in-law Michael (a.k.a. Meathead) states unequivocally that such shows are inappropriate for the day and age in which they exist. Archie goes along with him for a minute only because he has stage fright about performing in a minstrel show. However, Archie reverses his position when threatened with separation from his lodge. Then he starts talking up minstrels shows giving an ironic malapropism, that minstrel shows are part of our "American Heresy". And that is so poignant given that we can on one hand be so doctrinal regarding our Declaration of Independence stating that "All men are created equal" Yet as soon as we went to write a Constitution based on the philosophical doctrines of our declaration of independence we began to compromise that supposed “truth” by saying that black skin made you only 3/5th's of an equal in the eyes of God and that only in regards to counting for representation, not actually participating as citizens. Once that compromise was made it was a slippery slope for further compromise like the Missouri Compromise which preserved slavery in the southern states prior to the Civil War. Even after the Civil War the essence of the original compromise was so ingrained in the ethos of a large swath of America that it led to the compromise of Jim Crow laws. For almost 200 years we committed heresy against our founding doctrine of all men being created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights and our heresy was not fully rectified until the 1968 Civil Rights Act. Ironically in defending our “American Heresy” Archie further illuminates why minstrel shows and black face were wrong. He states that black people won't be offended because, “They aint gonna see this show because they aint allowed in.”
If no black people are in the room that clearly indicates that they are laughing at them and not with them. This is not to say that you can’t also be honoring people in some way by the impersonation. Al Jolson was actually respected by many black people as someone who sought to honor their culture. He also was a bit of a desegregation activist advocating for employment of blacks on Broadway. Still it is less ambiguous when the skin tone of the person playing the role is consistent with the part. For example in high school, I was also honored on two occasions to impersonate Louis Armstrong (playing on trumpet and singing St. Louis Blues with teacher/football Coach Mike Age, and likewise playing and singing Hello Dolly with Cynthia Fontana as Dolly. Perhaps a white trumpet player who could sing and hit the high D could have done just as well, but would it have been enough for him to carry the trumpet, the white handkerchief, sing and hit the high note or would he have had to also wear black face? Likewise if a white student chose to impersonate Michael Jackson, “The King of Pop”, wouldn’t it be enough to wear the single sequined glove, a Jerry curl wig, black and white spats, the hat and moonwalk; would he have to put on black face?
Consider this. Once I played a Roman Soldier in a production of Shadow of the Cross, a passion play written and directed by Jacquie Reeves. Although I grew up watching Hollywood productions that always showed Roman soldiers as white, it never occurred to me to put on white face for the role. Actually the production was at a predominantly black church. Jesus was played by a black man. Whereas Hollywood, and all western artists going back to the Renaissance have depicted Jesus as a white man, the actor who played Jesus, Rick Rodgers, did not feel compelled to put on white face to be Jesus. No one even put on tan makeup to look more Semitic; go figure. Yet, I think we did a fairly effective job of telling the story. As much as white was the predominant culture when I grew up I don't recall any of my black friends ever putting on white face to impersonate white people. There are probably many contexts wherein a person could impersonate a person of another race, ethnicity or nationality in an honoring way, but it should be done thoughtfully. Always consider the audience and the message.