Is Blackface Ever Racist?

In order to answer this question, we have to talk about Jim. Jim Crow.

The term “Jim Crow” can refer to the set of laws based on the claim that black people in America are inferior to whites, are to be kept from opportunity, and segregated. Lynching is an option. The law implements this philosophy by codifying segregation and repression.

But Jim Crow was also an actual person. Well, not really a person, but a character played by a person, prior to the Civil War, that war that ended slavery.

After that war, the law, society, and politics changed, giving free blacks, most of whom were former slaves, opportunity and meaningful freedom. This change was widespread, rapid, and dramatic. Suddenly, there were black elected officials, for example. Black kids went to schools with their elders, and African American literacy rates rose rapidly. African Americans voted and actively participated in the political process. African Americans began to accumulate some wealth, and to own land, and were free to use public accommodations.

But the Federal government dropped the ball and these changes were not supported or enforced, and the northern white establishment quickly gave sway to the southern racists. There was a rapid fire series of events often associated with mini battles involving police, troops, and angry townspeople, that pushed African Americans back down. In some counties or cities, even at the state level, there were two sets of ballot boxes during elections. The legal one where everyone could vote, and the whites only box. Generally, the white only ballots were the ones that were counted.

This is when the Jim Crow legal philosophy emerged. White America oversaw the dismantling of most of the post war advancements, using the Jim Crow laws.

Besides the Jim Crow laws, another part of that regression was the widespread construction of civil war monuments across the south, honoring southern generals, troops, etc. Also, monuments were erected to celebrate the white victories in the post Civil War battles mentioned above. These monuments were explicit acts of oppression of black Americans.

Those are the very same monuments that have been coming down lately in the south, the center of protests bringing white supremacists out of the woodwork, the great people on both sides, according to Trump. (See: Taking down New Orleans’ monuments: Not what you think)

So, where does the original Jim Crow fit in? Before the war, Jim Crow was a character played by actor Thomas Dartmouth Rice. He had started playing the role by 1832, probably with blackface from the beginning, but if not, black face was soon added. Jim Crow was an absurd, ignorant, negative depiction meant to denigrate African Americans, mostly in those days slaves. But the black face Jim Crow continued after the Civil War and became the basis for later ministerial shows. Those shows were also meant to denigrate blacks. Stepin Fetchit was a latter day version of this, played by African American actor Lincoln TMA Perry. Perry was the first African American actor to make it big, and he had a long career as a fully co-opted player in 20th century racist Hollywood. Being already black, he did not wear black face, but he played a role fully cognate with Jim Crow.

In fact, post modern revisionists have taken both the original racist Jim Crow image and Stepin Fetchit, made the link with colonial African tropes, to call it all an embodiment of the “trickster” archetype. That’s also racist, that revisionism.

Jim Crow was a very offensive and hurtful parody of black people. Jim Crow was an absurd character meant to entertain racist whites. Jim Crow is where black face began, back in the 1830s Blackface was never not racist.

Blackface Halloween costumes are blatantly racist. Blackface has always, always, been racist. Blackface has been a racist, denigrating, part of white society in America since the early 1830s, when Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice invented this horribly offensive persona. Blackface has never been anything but racist.

And everyone knows this, except Megan Kelly.

NBC, maybe you need to take out the trash. Hey, NBC, thanks for taking out the trash.

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25 thoughts on “Is Blackface Ever Racist?

  1. Of possible interest.

    The Blacks and Vaudeville segment
    from the PBS documentary “Vaudeville”

    Some of this contains potentially offensive material, so be forewarned.
    However this is from PBS, and effort was made to present the material in its historical context with sensitivity.

    It also shows archival clips of some truly great performances by African-American performers including; Ethel Waters, the Nicholas Brothers, and Bert Williams:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kbnn3E7Gp8

    This should help self-satisfied, I-got-mine Megan Kelly types to understand why what comes out of their mouths is so upsetting– if they are even capable of doing so…

  2. Re Greg: “But the Federal government dropped the ball”

    This was not a completely separate event from the preoccupation to continue the push to settle the west, necessarily placed on hold by the War of the Southern Rebellion, and the infestation of ex-General Grant’s Republican administration by get-rich-any-way-you-can types. (I’ve not read any evidence that Grant himself was corrupt.)

  3. Re: Stepin Fetchit, as played by Lincoln TMA Perry and other actors playing similar roles.

    I remember watching movies on tv when I was young and, apparently missing the point of such characters behavior, thinking that when they refused to go into a supposedly haunted house at night, or go hunting a murderer into a unlit cellar the were being a lot smarter than the characters who jumped into such adventures unprepared and, often, unequipped to handle what they found. I knew I would probably have been running stride for stride with Fetchit, Birmingham Brown, or any similar character (Don Knotts?)

    Later, when I watched the slasher movies like Halloween, I took the opposite view of the “heroines” who, after stabbing or shooting the menacing murderer, threw dowin the weapon and ran off in hysterics. I waited in vain for a movie in which Michael or whoever it was, once rendered unconscious was then thoroughly incapacitated. If nothing else was handy, put a couch and a couple of chairs and bookcases on him.

    1. Tyvor, I have had similar thoughts about the African native guide of the great white hunter in some of the early Africa exploration movies.

  4. Ummm. I won’t say nothing but just present evidence. Whether it’s for or against Greg’s title idea, I don’t know.
    Milligan is so brooding, so powerful, early in the second clip. It’s Heathcliff come to life!

    https://youtu.be/6EUjqOkh34g

    https://youtu.be/1W2gpRTcJh8

    https://youtu.be/fKiWVf0uyxE

    This third one is some bent shit.
    More context required.

    Fuck I love Alf.
    Bonus! Off topic. Some of the best TV ever made imo. Else rocks in this. And Mitchell is at the height of his ability to channel Alf. Zola Budd! Lololol.

    https://youtu.be/5bC9IvGpXSo

  5. Grrr Fuckin Akismet filter didn’t like a lot of Milligan and Alf clips. Oh well.
    Here’s just one for consideration by commenters.

    https://youtu.be/6EUjqOkh34g

    People who get what Mitchell an Milligan are on about don’t have an issue. But some may have an issue and I suppose its ok too. Context is a really big thing. One may need to understand what Alf is. One may have had to understand Milligans upbringing and read some of his books.
    It’s almost a sort of in joke ( is that what yanks call locker room or is that different? ) that cameras happened to be at.
    It’s very personal for the actors.
    There’s more going on than a superficial viewing suggests. The whole production team is trying to persuade any people who hadn’t got the drift yet. Until the Brexit vote I honestly believed they had mostly succeeded.
    Do I condone blackface? Ummm. I know what’s funny to me and I know that satire can be powerful. Ummm Hmmmm… Context…

    1. Well, there’s a lot to comment on there, but I’ll keep it simple.

      If you watch comedians when a joke on a sensitive topic bombs, they will say, “Oh, too soon?” For example, sensitivity over “Amos ‘n Andy” seems to be fading. A little. Blackface however cuts to the bone.

      Look, humor has an element of aggression in it. When a piece succeeds, ‘it kills’ and the performer has ‘slayed the audience’. You should take care about weaponizing it. In other words, if you’re a fully functional human being, you probably want to avoid being a jackass about it; being a clueless git doesn’t get you off the hook.

      Historically blackface has been a tool of oppression; It is live ammo. If you don’t get it, watch the clip I linked to above more carefully and think about recent events here.

  6. Re oa:“You should take care about weaponizing it [humor].”

    Isn’t that what political and social satire does, though? Can’t that be a good thing? Don’t societies/cultures/political parties need some kind of mirror held up to them?

    Personally, I don’t like humor by the powerful (whoever or whatever it happens to be) directed at those who are relatively powerless. It is too much like bullying and often leads or is linked to scapegoating.

    1. Perhaps an example would be Trump who uses the rhythms of stand-up. It’s not ‘like’ bullying. It *is* bullying, and as a leader, he’s legitimising it by example.

      In this case it’s not about the form so much as it is the content. Although I’d argue that the form is pretty amateurish — which also says something about the audience that eats it up.

    2. As regards blackface and Greg’s article, the point I take away is that some subjects are so difficult that everyone who’s not an elite comic, well versed in the situation, should just steer clear. And even then…

      Ponder Mel Brooks and “The Producers.” I don’t have an answer there.

    3. “…some subjects are so difficult that everyone who’s not an elite comic, well versed in the situation, should just steer clear. ”
      Exactly this. An analogy would be
      mountain climbing or sailing solo to Antarctica.
      It’s something that should only attempted by the most experienced people. Or basically, ya gonna fucking die, and possibly cause a lot of pain for others in the process.
      Only the most confident should attempt, and even then, is there a real point to doing it? Something of genuine value?
      Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.
      With Milligan I suggest yes.
      Robert Downey Jnr in Tropic Thunder? I think yes again.
      The experience and maturity are there for both. The context validates both performances as being utterly sensitive, and not offensive intentionally or by mistake. Only the amatures make mistakes.

      I’m very much taken with the weaponised idea and the extreme care that needs to be used when handling a dangerous volatile thing.
      Smart people know their own competence and most wouldn’t go near such a thing because of the risk of harm.
      Clearly the lady who’s the subject of the blog dosnt know her own competence and fell off the mountain wearing blue jeans and a light sweater.
      Death by misadventure.

    4. Just remembering that Downey Jr was so competent he achieved it twice in Tropic Thunder. And Milligan 3 times in different characters.
      Mark Mitchell is a complete pro and I never heard a single negative thing about Con the fruiterer.

      https://youtu.be/teitdS2Dksk

      Neel Kolhatkar is a genius and a very astute observer of everyone.

      https://youtu.be/w_nfnu1RDdA

      He tends to use shirts instead of makeup.
      ” Do you know who my dad is? ”
      Hahahahahahaha. That’s an insight it would take an embedded ethnographer 10 years to get around to documenting, if ever, and that’s sort of the joke. It’s intentionally not academic despite Kolhatkar being one at heart I think.

    5. Origin Football. I must confess that I have a real soft spot for manic yelling, even if I have no idea what’s going on there.

  7. Megyn Kelly didn’t know “Blackface” was racist and “everyone else knows” it’s racist…Really? This is one of the reasons why Trump was elected, they slant their presentations that is misleading or they go nuts. A popular figure who never got fired from his job for doing “blackface” do you know who he is?

    Jimmy Kimmel never ever got the attention Megyn Kelly and Megyn Kelly who thought “blackface” was harmless for Halloween, but Jimmy Kimmel did a comedy thing with his blackface! Yes, because he’s a liberal he never gets mentioned, but Kelly, she was from that evil Fox channel at one time, she must go! But Jimmy no! Liberalism is a cult that has no logic! No standard other than governing the people through socialism.

  8. Yes, because he’s a liberal he never gets mentioned

    Liar. He was hammered quite hard. You’re also implying everyone here was fine with it. I can’t speak for others, but I wasn’t. You’re also too stupid, apparently, to understand that attitudes and actions taken have changed a great deal since 2000 when Kimmel displayed his stupidity. (But Joe gets a pass for displaying his now. Not fair.) “The left” (there is no such monolithic block, except in the minimally functioning minds of folks like you) has begun attempting to clean up its bad actors. The right seems perfectly fine with embracing racists, bigots, and scum who molest women. Sorry, your complaint is foolish and ungrounded. The fact that Kelly didn’t know that blackface was racist, and had a racist history, and tried to say it wasn’t when she did it, displays a huge amount of stupidity — in line with her entire career, so it isn’t surprising.

    But Jimmy no! Liberalism is a cult that has no logic! No standard other than governing the people through socialism.

    I see you are another moron that has no idea of the definition of socialism — other than the one all the ignorant people on the right use: socialism == evil.

    1. No he didn’t, because one of the reasons, he didn’t lose his job like Megyn Kelly! Secondly, the so-called criticism you bring up Kimmel not even fazed because being a liberal there are double standards, he said…”If we put ‘The Man Show’ on today in its identical form, it would be an even bigger hit than it was back then. I believe that very strongly,” Kimmel told Esquire in 2017.

      So Kimmel still denies his blackface is racist! In 2017, did he lose his job over it? No! It’s a huge difference than what Kelly defended. Kids who were white dressing up as Dianna Ross to honor her while Kimmel was making fun of Malone for the way he speaks English, talk about an insult to blacks and then have the gall to say the show need not be changed because it would be even more popular! Another insult to blacks yet that racist still has his job!

  9. Joe,

    Why did Kelly get fired? Follow the money.

    Her ratings at MSNBC started low and went down hill from there. Given her history (including the whole white Jesus thing) and that she stated flatly that her show would *not* be political, the Halloween bit was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back.

    So, buh bye Megyn. Odd that you were there in the first place. However not surprised that you couldn’t compete in the real world after working in that weird hot house bubble at FOX.

    (To be fair, I do give her kudos for standing up to mega-douche O’Reilly.)

    As for Kimmel and some others that you didn’t mention, nobody here is defending them. You’re off the mark there, so maybe try a different site. Hey, go complain to some network tycoons. Just remember to use your words and to lay off the tubular gizmos.

  10. May I play devil’s advocate? We can’t base modern perceptions on rather ancient history. Prior knowledge equals damnation in this case. You or I would be culpible in black face. Some teenager might base a version of it (obviously not the minstrel look) based on watching the movie “Black Chicks” – turn about being fair play in their eyes. I would critique it case by case myself and not jump to conclusions.

    1. First of all, who are you calling “rather ancient,” Lady? When I was young there were still people alive who had been born into legalized American slavery. Beyond that I can tell you that the effects of the 19th century roll on, they never just died out.

      People who think that things became irrelevant that happened before the day they were born; they really need to get educated and get out and mix with people beyond their bubble. That’s the judgement. And yeah, in turbulent times things get rough and folks sometimes have to learn the hard way. It’s definitely unfortunate, no doubt about it, but that’s a price one pays when a society becomes self-absorbed and ahistorical.

      In my opinion.

  11. Droped straight produced a cigarette packet and asked her to smoke.

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