The New Republic published a poll today revealing how deeply our politics and race inform our attitudes about what is appropriate Halloween attire. As the graph above shows, a plurality of Americans believe it’s acceptable to don charred cork on their faces by a 43-37% margin.
I know we’ve beleaguered this point already (whatevs). But this debate hits the rawest nerve in a climate where black bodies are under siege: just this week saw a stay on stop and frisk restrictions by a New York court and the tasteless macabre of these two dudes mocking the killing of Trayvon Martin.
Blair L. M. Kelley, writing on the history of blackface for The Grio, notes:
Jim Crow grew to be minstrelsy’s most famous character, in the hands of Rice and other performers Jim Crow was depicted as a runaway: “the wheeling stranger” and “traveling intruder.” The gag in Jim Crow performances was that Crow would show up and disturb white passengers in otherwise peaceful first class rail cars, hotels, restaurants, and steamships. Jim Crow performances served as an object lesson about the dangers of free black people, so much so that the segregated spaces first created in northern states in the 1850s were popularly called Jim Crow cars. Jim Crow became synonymous with white desires to keep black people out of white, middle-class spaces.
Minstrel shows became hugely popular in the 1840s exposing white audiences in the North with their first exposure to any depiction of black life. They would often feature a broad cast of characters; from Zip Coon, the educated free black man who pronounced everything incorrectly, to Mammy, a fat, black faithful slave who was really just obviously played by a man in a dress. Black children were depicted as unkempt and ill raised pickaninnies. The running joke about pickaninnies was that they were disposable; they were easily killed because of their stupidity and the lack of parental supervision.
Minstrelsy desensitized Americans to horrors of chattel slavery. These performances were object lessons about the harmlessness of southern slavery. By encouraging audiences to laugh, they showed bondage as an appropriate answer for the lazy, ignorant slave. Why worry about the abolition of slavery when black life looked so fun, silly, and carefree? Even the violence of enslavement just became part of the joke.
I think about all of this when I watch this video of a performance artist of African descent who made his body cake for a museum reception while trying to dramatize the horrors of female genital mutilation, and no one reacted to his screams of ”pain” as the cut “her” body — just like no one really heard the sound of the gunshot that ended Oscar Grant, the scream at the end of the 911 call in Sanford, Florida, the dragging of James Byrd. I think about all of this after seeing 12 Years A Slave and wonder how anyone could ever say to me, ‘it wasn’t that bad. I think the film over exaggerates.’ I think some of these responders have the fortunate circumstance of not having a body memory of these narratives. Must be nice.
I don’t feel that its the sole responsibility of African Americans to call out racism when witnessed in action, whether we’re in the room or not. In the now infamous picture of two young men dressed up as George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin stands a girl in a green dress. I think the onus is on her to check her friends and family for mocking the humanity of brown bodies.
Syreeta McFadden contains multitudes, searches for the perfect line break, and wears the white hat.