GOP voters give zero Fs about your feelings on blackface costumes

Poll of American opinions on blackface

The percentage of Americans, by party, who think blackface Halloween costumes are acceptable

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.

sm-bioSyreeta McFadden contains multitudes, searches for the perfect line break, and wears the white hat.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

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  • Rita Carlin

    “The running joke about pickaninnies was that they were disposable…”

    I wonder if this still isn’t part of our national sub-consciousness, and still fuels the poor treatment of black children and youth. The school-to-prison pipeline, the “lawful” murder of Trayvon Martin, etc.

  • Cate

    I agree with your point that it’s not the sole responsibility of any one group to call out racism when witnessed, and I agree with your overall point that desensitization toward our biased treatment of different kinds of bodies is deeply problematic. But I really don’t get what the link to a video taken at a Swedish museum has to do with either GOP voters or American desensitization. As a Swede and an American, both the histories and current contexts of racism and xenophobia are different in the two countries. There’s a lot of culpability that both societies need to bear but it’s not an identical culpability. I’m concerned that if you generalize that example outside the Swedish context, you dissociate Swedish society from its fundamental responsibility for what happened in that video. And if you ascribe all racism everywhere to US society it not only distracts from the need to take responsibility and work for change in the US context, but also implicitly feeds into an imperialistic/paternalistic attitude that has rarely done any good for the humanity of anyone’s body.