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Old Times There Are Not Forgotten
Smearing Harold Ford in Black Face
by JEFF BIRKENSTEIN

If that anti-Harold Ford ad–the one with the white bimbette saying "Harold, call me"–was "playing to racial fears" about interracial dating, was it intended to stir up whites who might fear miscegenation–or black women who might resent it if they thought Ford habitually went out with white women? … [Both?-ed Sure--a twofer. But the MSM only brings up the "appeal to racist white voters."] … P.S.: Does anybody still buy the idea that the reaction against this ad is going to save Ford?

-Mickey Kaus, Slate.com

Apparently, the white naked woman is the real problem.

And the white man with the blackface? A non-issue. Invisible, even.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the ruckus in Tennessee, otherwise known as the "United States Senate Race." In an ad paid for by the Republican National Committee, a white woman, with no visible adornments except for a gold necklace and a bad dye job, explains to the camera, coquettishly, that she met Democratic candidate Harold Ford at "the Playboy party."

Well, I doubt he met this "actress," there, but he did go to a Playboy party. Not at the mansion, but at the Super Bowl. Explaining this, Ford the bachelor said, "I like football, and I like girls." Prime food for red meat America. Throw in his ease discussing his Christian faith and it’s no wonder he has a real chance to win in Tennessee. The ad concludes with the same woman saying, while winking and holding her pinky and thumb extended phone-like, "Harold, Call me."

This ad has stirred up a hornet’s nest of either indignation on one side or, on the other, protestations of innocence and even mock disdain (for the ad, not Ford). Everyone, in fact, is covering the white naked woman and her appeal to miscegenation. Even Harold Ford’s opponent, Bob Corker, claims to be against it, though he said he was powerless to do anything about it in the face of the new campaign laws. Never mind that the ad was paid for by the RNC. You can hear long-winded explanations on talk radio and cable news "proving" there is nothing they can do about it, but methinks the political hacks doth protest too much.

Not content to be the talk du jour of the hated MSM for telling Michael J. Fox to keep his Parkinson’s symptoms in the closet, Rush Limbaugh weighed in, saying that Ford has, in fact, dated a white woman in the past. Rush’s obvious conclusion: "I’m just telling you that there’s an ad that was pulled because Republicans got cold feet, and it turns out there’s a basis for it. I’m not criticizing! I am not."

But go and watch the ad again at YouTube.

What the pundits seemed to have missed-or conveniently ignored-is that this ad features a white man in blackface. True, it is not the blackface of Al Jolson or the faux-studio audience in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. But it is blackface.

Though the man wearing blackface is only seen from the shoulders up, he is not naked like the woman, but wearing hunting camouflage. A jacket, shirt and baseball cap, all camo’ed. What does he say? "Ford’s right. I do have too many guns." But he has not gone completely unnoticed; he has not "passed" entirely. No, in an excellent skewering, Slate critiques it in its "Remixed Campaign Ads" feature. But about our blackfaced hunter friend, they say only, sarcastically, "This hunter has never hunted a day in his life."

But, to me, the alleged hunter’s face screams blackface. Maybe this is because I teach African American literature and just finished reading Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, in which a light-skinned African American woman passes for white. But we live in a curious time, a time when many people both acknowledge that America still grapples with issues of race and yet thinks we live in a post-race period. "Sure, we have problems," my students have been telling me for years, "but it’s time people were responsible for themselves." Besides, I have enough problems of my own, we all think.

Looked at the ad yet? If you haven’t, you’re missing a beaut’.

There are, in the end, only two possible explanations for the man in blackface. He is there either deliberately or accidentally. While both Max Blumenthal (in The Nation) and Taylor Marsh (in The Huffington Post) expose the ad’s creator, Scott Howell, for being a well-proven race-baiter, neither of them mention the blackface.

But it’s there. No mistaking it. Yes, yes, I know. "He’s a hunter," O’Reilly will scream, "Of course he’s wearing blackface!" Well, he wouldn’t use the term blackface, of course. "Birkenstein, you are just seeing things that don’t exist!" Indeed.

But this man’s face is blackened-regardless of what you call it-and this hunter is in the ad. So we cannot honestly ignore it. We are forced to examine him as he exists.

The first possibility is that he is there intentionally with full awareness that his blackened face is calling attention to Ford’s own complexion. After all, the ad ends with this text:

Harold Ford. (in strong white on black script)

He’s just not right. (in a weaker white script)

Meant to be both obvious and not too blatant, this is classic language used to expose Ford as being the Other. He’s not one of "Us." Not one of us, the whites, the ad tells us.

But, OK, I will give Scott Howell the benefit of the doubt and run with the idea that the blackfaced hunter is not in there maliciously. He is, however, very definitely in there deliberately. After all, there are only a handful of people in that ad. And they are surely not actual people-on-the-street interviews. Or man-in-the-woods, as the case may be. So, at some point, Howell made a deliberate choice to dress this man in these clothes and paint his face black and film him. The "hunter" did not fall out of the sky into the ad.

But.

Even if he is in there as a "genuine" hunter with camo on his face, problems abound. In a political race which could make Harold Ford the first African American senator from the South, the blackfaced hunter’s mere presence represents ignorance of hundreds of years of racial oppression and violence. Ignorance of the long history of "passing" in a segregated America. Ignorance of the fact that the United States government has still never apologized for becoming a world power on the backs of slaves, a heritage of wealth division that we continue to feel in every segment of our society to this day. Yes, in the very best of circumstances, the blackfaced hunter in this ad represents only (only?!) ignorance of America’s own history.

But not to worry. For in the end we have a wealth of talking heads saying that there is no problem with this ad (though none of them I have found have yet to address the blackfaced hunter). Their evidence? Their own experience. So long as they are comfortable in their knowledge that they are not racist, that the ad is not racist, then the collective history of this country is of little importance. Such solipsistic evidence is exactly what I try to get my freshman to move away from when making an argument. Yes, individual experience counts, but this can only be the beginning and never the end of a mature, well-reasoned argument. For one person is but one person and we are country with upwards of 300 million people. Surely we alone cannot be the evidence for or against something which affects so many. Allan G. Johnson writes about this in his troubling little book Privilege, Power and Difference: "Individualistic thinking, however, assumes that everything has only to do with individuals and nothing to do with social categories, leaving no room to see, much less consider, the role of privilege."

When Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, used the solipsism strategy he even upped the ante. Because he didn’t see the ad as racist it was actually those who called the ad into question who were racist. Here’s what he told Tim Russert:

I think that there is nothing more repugnant in our society than people who try to divide Americans along racial lines, and I would denounce any ad that I thought did . . . I happen not to believe that ad does.

He also explained the ad away to Steve Inskeep on NPR:

I looked at that ad. I didn’t see [the racism]. Other folks have said they saw it. I don’t believe that this ad makes the Republican party look like racists. I don’t believe this ad makes anybody involved look like it.

His evidence? Solely his own worldview. The box in which he lives.

The list of experts who don’t personally see the ad as offensive goes on. Fred Barnes of Fox News and The Weekly Standard claimed on-air: "The ad was fine. You have to be living in the 50s or 60s to think it’s racist." No explanation, no evidence; just his own belief that we live in a post-racialized present. His buddy Mort Kondracke, executive editor of Roll Call, said on the same show that the ad was "cute up to the point of ‘Harold, call me.’ After that, it was designed to stir up the rednecks." And since this part of the ad is the last actor on screen, this means Kondracke thinks the blackfaced hunter is "cute." As for the offensive term redneck, well, I’m not sure who he means, but I’ll bet whomever Mort had in mind did not vote for Kerry in the last election.

These pundits and many more prove that, yes, ignorance may be bliss. The problem, of course, is that willful ignorance is something else entirely, something for which we cannot escape responsibility. So I wonder which type of ignorance is behind the ad with the white shoulders and the black face.

JEFF BIRKENSTEIN is a professor of English at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He can be reached at: jbirkenstein@stmartin.edu