By Courtney Long, Letters to the Editor, Rolling Out
Reflecting on this White psychology and their obsession with having to don blackface. But don’t get me wrong. From the 1840s creation of the minstrel show, born out of “massa” having his enslaved property perform for his entertainment, I get. I get White folks’ need to demean and see Blacks as ignorant, stupid and as servile (Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben) as they desire them to be. I get that especially post-slavery need. It’s understandable.
I get early Hollywood using Fatty Arbuckle, Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson to continue the early minstrel and vaudeville tradition and transferring it to the big screen. I understand Hollywood using such stars as Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Shirley Temple, James Cagney, Mickey Rooney and John Wayne to entertain White America’s psychosis. I understand the need it feeds. The ever-hungry notion and misnomer of White supremacy.
I even get Warner Bros., Looney Tunes with Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in blackface, and the1920s Tom & Jerry duo in the same. Best to start indoctrinating American children while they’re young and impressionable. Have one group given a superiority complex and the other the inferiority brand. See Kenneth and Mamie Clarks’ infamous doll test involving 6- to 9-year-old Black children identifying without hesitation the black over the white doll as ugly, bad, and undesirable. I understand all that history.
I even understand our own people putting on black on top of Black. From Bert Williams and George Walker to Stepin Fetchit and Amos & Andy, to Sammy Davis Jr., Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel, if not outright “wearing the mask” as Paul Laurence Dunbar penned, to having to dumb down, degrade and stereotype themselves. Brothers and sisters wanted a job. Hell, Ms. McDaniel once said, “I’d rather play a maid than be one.”
Now fast-forward 100 years to folks like Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Sarah Silverman, Ted Danson and a host of political figures still feeling a need for blackface. I find myself scratching my head like Our Gang’s Buckwheat. I know in some cases it’s not intended with the same nefarious intent as with years past, but still, I wonder. Why the need, you know? What with its notorious history conjuring a time of disrespect and hurt feelings, why bother? Why the obsession? At least for the seemingly non-racist, why?
Is it as Jamie Foxx said in defense of Fallon, “He was doing an impression of Chris Rock. It wasn’t blackface. It’s comedy.” Ahh. So it’s supposed to just be funny. Like 100 years ago. Like when Black folks had to make fun of themselves. Like when we had to be funny and depressed at the same time. Like W.C. Fields said of Bert Williams. “He’s the funniest man I ever saw. And the saddest man I ever knew.” Despite being the highest-paid African American entertainer of his time. Apparently, self-deprecation pays well.
Figuring all that money should be able to buy some happiness, but apparently not, as Williams suffered chronic depression, insomnia and alcoholism and died at age 47. But it’s just comedy. And an impersonation. So, white people, feel free. Have at it. Nevermind the imagery hearkening back to a time when such makeup was strictly intended to demean and humiliate an entire race of people. Don’t worry, we have short memories. And we forgive. And forget.
So, Madonna, Charlize Theron, Angelina Jolie, Steven Spielberg, Sandra Bullock, Jillian Michaels, Tom Cruise and crew, you guys do (y)our thing. Get with (y)our adopted Black children. Blacken your face. Tell them a few jokes, and say you’re only doing a comedic impression of a modern Black family. Jamie Foxx speaks for the entire Black race and our forefathers when he says it’s just comedy. So as you will. Lol. Haha. Jokes on me, again.
P.S. All the figures in blackface actually appear in my article. Feel free to turn it into a fun family comedic game of name that blackface.