Blackface: The sad return of a bygone social construct
New fad awakens old stereotypes
William Covington OW Contributor | 2/21/2019, midnight
During my service as a probation officer, I was often told by Hispanic and White teens serving time in Orange County Juvenile Hall that I resembled Ben Davis. These wards of the Probation Department would jokingly remind me in the morning during roll call.
Ben Davis is a smiling gorilla, the logo for a line of clothing that was manufactured for construction workers. When I first saw the image, I thought of blackface minstrels and exaggerated Black figures that appeared on advertising tins, cookie jars, and wind-up toys that once were very common in America at the turn of the century.
A resilient caricature
This February during Black History Month, I am reminded that blackface is resilient and may never go away. African Americans have witnessed two public officials in blackface and the fashion industry marketing blackface sweaters and shoes that appear reminiscent of minstrelsy, as well as high-end handbag accessories that can best be described as a blackface doll.
The history of blackface is very painful according to Dr. Dwandalyn Reece, curator of Music and Performing Arts at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. During an interview, Dr. Reece stated:
“The history of minstrelsy is a performance tradition that was started around the mid-1800. It consisted of Whites dressing up and caricaturing African Americans, mimicking their dance, language and music for the purposes of entertaining their audience.
Minstrelsy offers two-fold message
“Minstrelsy operates in two ways: It separates Whiteness as something very distinct from Blackness and frames Blackness as something of the ‘other’ and lesser than White cultural habits. It represents ways of speech, songs and dance lesser than White cultural habits. It objectifies African Americans in distancing them from humanity. It made them seem foolish, simple minded, unintelligent and cheap.”
“Minstrelsy created an image and a stereotype that people use as a lens to judge African Americans then and now. It transitioned to Vaudeville with performers such as Thomas “Daddy” Rice and minstrelsy was considered musical comedy across theater, television, radio and film. “
Dr. Reece believes that if there were more African are Americans employed as consultants or if older politicians today had interacted with individuals outside their race then recent incidents involving blackface fashion and photos of politicians in blackface would not exist.
Tieria Coleman, a media executive, believes politicians such as embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam may be fearful of being forced out of office for taking a photo in blackface. However, during the time of Northham’s yearbook photo it did not appear to be dangerous.
Fashion industry turns blind eye
Coleman says “unlike politicians, the fashion industry does not care.” Coleman believes blackface fashion may have been forecast as the next frontier by a ‘creative director,’ and it may have been discussed at the last annual fashion awards, during one of its after parties.”
Coleman states “three major fashion houses had representatives at the Annual Fashion Awards, Gucci, Prada, and Katy Perry Shoes. You have to understand you have idiots like Floyd Mayweather and a few rappers who will buy items regardless to what happens. However, the socially conscious African Americans are not going to buy items from Gucci, Prada, and Katy Perry Shoes. These are the individuals that Gucci, Prada, and Katy Perry Shoes do not care about and may not want Blacks wearing their items.”