Blackface & Politics: Exposing a dark history of personal racism

When I was growing up, both in NYC and South Florida, I had friends of all races. Granted, it wasn’t as if I had an equal number of each race and religion represented, but that wasn’t even something I thought about. There were friends, male and female, white/black/hispanic/Muslim/Catholic/Jewish/straight/gay, you name it. As I got older, the same line ran thru my personal friendships and professional relationships. Still does to this day, I’m proud to state.
We all, to a person in private moments, joked about religion and race. We called each other names, ragged on each other, taunted each other, but we never stepped over a line of hate. Never. It simply wasn’t even a consideration. No one thought about it.
Ricky, whose parents were Iranian, was an absolutely crazy SOB who used to curse in Arabic. We all laughed and thought nothing of it as he taught us every dirty word he could think of. Craig tried so hard to be one of the guys, but everyone knew he was gay, something he admitted years later. Who cares? He was one of the gang and accepted. Tom’s father hated anything of any color other than white, but when we heard him go on a verbal tirade, it just rolled off our backs and we didn’t think a second thought about it.
What then and now count for bad words were used, no doubt. Some were in anger, but they never lasted. Frankly, I never saw the point in using them.
The first time I met someone incredibly racist was high school in SoFla. Hung around with him once or twice, then when his true character was revealed, tossed him on the junk pile of history. I knew the difference between right and wrong, and when he used those words and descriptions to describe friends, dusted.
Including his use of blackface.
One of the things he seemed to enjoy was applying shoe polish to his face, and then go out looking for a fight. And he found them without much delay. Keep in mind, this guy was maybe 16-17 years old and had more than a few screws loose. He also did it to mock anyone of color. Last time I heard of him, many years ago, he had been in and out of prison often, and paid a proper and physical price for it.
Point here being, blackface even in my younger days was wrong. There was a racist stigma to it. Anyone of sound mind and character knew it. We did a lot of insane stuff back then, but this never even crossed our minds. Dress in blackface? WHY?
Same thing with dressing up in KKK apparel. My first encounter with these insanely evil people was at about 10 years old, on holiday driving from NY to FLA with my parents. We stopped at a South Carolina restaurant, and I distinctly remember 2 men having lunch wearing shirts emblazoned with the KKK logo. I asked my Dad about it, and he quickly changed the subject. We walked out of the restaurant, and as I turned back, I saw a billboard mounted right next to the place with the words, “WELCOME TO THE PROUD HOME OF THE WHITE KNIGHTS OF AMERICA! JOIN US IN OUR SPIRITUAL CRUSADE!” The picture was of a person dressed in full robe regalia astride a white horse that also carried a KKK sash.
How did I remember it so vividly? Because I was a notebook writer and jotted it down. My Mom and Dad refused to talk about it. When we returned home, I went to the library. Note for those now perplexed: These “libraries” I write of were places where “books” were kept and “research” was done in order to “learn”. Did my own research and received quite the education, one I was not receiving in school.
So when I read or hear about grown adults, for that matter anyone above the age of being able to take a bathroom break without needing a step stool, admitting such things and seeking to make excuses for it, I harken back to my younger days and state either verbally or mentally how incredibly chock full of bovine excrement these people are.
The history of blackface is difficult, filled with anachronisms and excuses. However, none of the alternative theories hold water or explain away the use of it at any time, under any circumstance.
Blackface has been a racist tool in America since the 1830’s. It was used then as a way to dehumanize an entire culture and minimize that same race to something less than human. It is used today as nothing more than a demeaning, hateful, racist tool to mock anyone of African descent or those of darker skin color. It was heinous and reprehensible then, it remains the same today.
Many times when blackface becomes a topic, people fall back to the Al Jolson era. Despite accusations, Jolson was no racist. Plenty of those who knew him called him a raging asshole, but not a racist. His performing in blackface must be taken in accordance with the era, where racism was universally accepted by the white ruling class in America.
That’s what made Jolson so exceptional. A Jew who actually spoke out against racism and was a boon to a very early civil rights movement. Read more about it here before you make a judgement.
Happy to do the work for you so there is no need to re-up that ancient library card.
Judy Garland, Shirley Temple, even Bing Crosby performed in blackface. Many African-Americans performed in blackface after the Civil War. It really wasn’t until the 1950’s here in American when it turned shockingly angry and vile, used as a tool to mock and insult, as racial intolerance grew to violent and deadly levels.
While there may have been a time when some will claim blackface was “accepted”, that’s a stretch and, again, is taken out of context. Blackface only survived because it was used and promoted by white entertainers, cartoonists, directors, producers, and audiences who saw it as “no big deal”.
It was, and remains, a very big deal.
Societal evolution remains the key to this topic. We have learned over generations what blackface stands for, and here in the 21st Century, it resides squarely within the box of racism. It’s been there for some time, certainly during the years where certain elected officials were growing up and knew the difference.
Anyone who used blackface after the 1950’s knows they are using it to mock an entire race, demean a certain race of human beings, and openly provide their public and tacit approval of its message and meaning.
If indeed he purposely donned the face paint and was in the offending picture everyone is now talking about, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam knew exactly what it stood for at the time it was featured on his college yearbook page. If indeed he was in that picture, the one he first admitted to and then played this terribly lame “Oops, I can’t remember” card, he knew the action he was trying to cover up. Of course, the forthcoming investigation into this matter will have to help us decide whether the Governor is either someone caught in the middle of a mistake, a liar, or something else.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is also of an age where he understands the blatant racism perpetuated by blackface. Though he seeks to minimize the damage by noting he used blackface at a costume party “decades ago”, his explanation is weak and laughable.
He knew at the precise moment he donned the makeup what it meant. Don’t seek to tell anyone otherwise. He knew he was mocking people of color, and in essence approving of it.
There are those who will cry that we, as that civilized society, need to accept apologies and move on. Humans make mistakes, of course. We should always be allowed to atone for our actions.
Certainly, apologies are necessary. Atonement is critical to rebuilding trust.
Sincerity is also part of those actions, and at the moment, there is no reason to believe either Northam or Herring is seeking to truly be forgiven. What we see from them, by actions and deeds, smacks of little more than political expediency in seeking to stay on the public dole.
Honest and effective leaders, those seeking to lead by example, accept responsibility and then step aside. They make public their mistakes, they seek forgiveness, and then they pass that now-soiled leadership baton to someone else. Someone who has the best interests of everyone they lead at heart.
Someone who doesn’t harbor either rank ignorance in failing to understand their actions, or who doesn’t consistently fall back on a “3-Card Monte” trick to remain in power.
Someone who doesn’t hide behind either the literal or virtual face paint of a liar.