I should have known that blackface isn’t portrayal but ridicule.
After 69 years of life experience, even in a white bubble, I should have known. After working in public mental health for 38 years, exposed to a variety of cultures and seeing many people marginalized, stigmatized and ostracized, I should have known. After a Jesuit secondary education, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and a concerted effort to this day to stay informed, I should have known.
But I didn’t.
I thought there was something unseemly about blackface. I never wore it nor wanted to, but I didn’t truly appreciate its power to hurt. Then one day last October, NBC’s Megyn Kelly defended blackface Halloween costumes on the air. “When I was a kid, it was OK,” she said.
Al Roker, jocular weatherman, parade host and everyone’s TV friend, called her out. “While she apologized to the staff, she owes a bigger apology to folks of color around the country because this is a history going back to the 1830s,” said Mr. Roker. Minstrel shows “demean and denigrate a race,” he continued, adding that he was “old enough to have lived through ’Amos ’n’ Andy’ where you had white people in blackface playing two black characters, just magnifying the worst stereotypes about black people - and that’s what the problem is.”
Now a blackface photo has been found on the 1984 medical school yearbook page of the governor of Virginia. The attorney general of Virginia has admitted to a blackface incident in 1980. Many in the commentariat are adamant that they should resign. After all, the ’80s weren’t the pre-civil rights-bill ’50s. They had to know better.
My general practitioner for the past 20 years is African American. Since the Trump presidency we’ve had a number of conversations about race and bigotry. He suggested I read Ta-Nehisi Coates, including his June 2014 Atlantic magazine piece “The Case For Reparations.”
I knew about 14-year old Emmett Till, brutally murdered in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. But I hadn’t heard the story of Clyde Ross, and so many like him, who had their land confiscated through force or subterfuge by Southern authorities and then were denied mortgages in the cities of the North. When Ross was 10 years old, a group of white men even took his horse. Poll taxes then have been replaced by new forms of voter suppression today. Lynchings then are now Charlottesvilles and Freddie Grays. There are many good reasons for the rage I now sense in my otherwise mild-mannered doctor; they’re rooted in experiences I’ll never know.
Until I read an article last weekend, titled “Blackface raises racist face,” I didn’t know that the term Jim Crow was the name given to a fictional character played by 1830s blackface minstrel performer Thomas Dartmouth Rice. “The white man danced like a buffoon and spoke with an exaggerated imitation of black slave vernacular to entertain his audiences,” the story read. “Jim Crow and other performances featuring white men in blackface captivated white crowds until the mid-20th century.” Apparently, some white people are still captivated.
In a 2012 essay for the Huffington Post, David Leonard, chair of Washington State University’s department of critical culture, gender and race studies, wrote: “Blackface is part of a history of dehumanization, of denied citizenship, and of efforts to excuse and justify state violence.” A recent Washington Post headline read: “Blackface is white supremacy as fashion.” To understand more fully why blackface is offensive, I Googled that phrase, and the results leave little doubt that offensive is a gross understatement.
I should have known.
I didn’t even know about The Green Book until the movie came out this past fall. I’m sure I’m not the only white person who can admit that. Maybe it’s my fault, or maybe family, schools, media, political leaders and a 28-day Black History Month haven’t done enough to fully rescue people like me from racial ignorance and complacency.
We’re well past the time for open, honest conversations about race, otherness and hate. There should no longer be excuses for not knowing.
Herb Cromwell is the retired executive director of the Community Behavioral Health Association of Maryland. He wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.