Didactic Truancy: Blackface and the Fallacy of “Teachable Moments”

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

What Happens If You Have a Teachable Moment but Nobody Shows Up?

History abounds with teachable moments, but they have meaning only if its students show up. The ceaseless onslaught of reports of blackface has proven, well, instructive. It seems that almost daily we are inundated with a flood of blackface incidents. In Virginia alone, it has been revealed that three top political leaders from both parties have blackening up in the past and cakewalked their way into belated infamy.

We keep revisiting blackface, or rather, like a parasitic house guest, it never quite packs up and leaves. When it comes to blackface in America, every day is Groundhog’s Day, an endlessly recycling time loop, though without the redemptive ending. Only a year ago former NBC talk show host Megyn Kelly opined that “Back when I was a kid, that was OK, just as long as you were dressing as a character.” The good old days Kelly, 48, describes are not those of America’s pre-civil rights era but, presumably, the 1980s. Her sentiments are shared by Ralph (“Coonman”) Northam, the embattled Democratic governor of Virginia, who saw nothing wrong with moonwalking in blackface as Michael Jackson in 1984. (Ironically, had he waited twenty years to imitate Jackson, he might not have felt compelled to use shoe polish, but that’s another act in the tragicomedy of American racial performativity and a subject for another article.) If Kelly’s case has a teachable moment, it is that you can insult black people, get “fired” for it and come away with a $62 million severance package. Lesson learned, though this was perhaps not the teachable moment NBC intended.

It may indeed be that for many white people, blackface is not an issue. Judging by its continued popularity, it may never become an issue for them despite almost two centuries of black efforts to enlightened them. However, it has been an issue for most blacks and not, as some whites have claimed, only recently: Black hatred of the practice goes back to its beginnings in the 1830s, with Frederick Douglass in 1848 denouncing its practitioners as “the filthy scum of white societywho have stolen from us our complexion denied to them by nature in such a way to make money and pander to the contempt of their fellow white citizens.”

Like Northam, some whites defend blackface as simply an homage to beloved black entertainers. Whether or not one accepts this, and there are plenty of reasons not to, including the fact that most blackface has less to do with imitating black celebrities than embodying contempt for black people as a group, as the perennial practice of blackening up on America’s past and present campuses makes clear. And while blackface photos may have gone underground or disappeared from college yearbooks, they have found a new home on the Internet and social media, their presence there a painful reminder of the intransigence of anti-black stereotypes. Some may argue that these performances have resulted in expulsions, resignations, firings, and public shaming, yet the question remains why do they continue to be performed and publicly posted?

In fact, very little has changed. In a 1988 interview, Robert H. Michel, the late former Republican House minority leader, defended blackface as innocent “fun.” Nothing, it seems, must come between white people and their entertainment. And it appears they are having lotsof fun of late. In twenty-first century, post-racial, post-Obama America, the precious pitfalls of didactic truancy are hidden in plain sight. YouTube is rife with cosplaying counterfeit coons, a reminder that this scummy residue did not miraculously disappear 30 years ago and still saturates the warped fabric of American society:  In 2012 at the University of Minnesota Duluth, two white female students sporting black facial masks post to YouTube a video in which they describe themselves as “True Negroes from the black hood.” “I’m from the 612, bitch. Nigga, I beez from Brooklyn, New York!” one of the giggling blackface Barbies declare in the video. Spewing a stream of racist invectives, the pseudo-darkies from Duluth go on: “I mean I got the big ole lips, the white fuckin teeth…”; “I need some fried fuckin chicken”; We got some fuckin backup niggas for us, you niggas!” “This,” one of the girls says, mugging to the camera, “is not fuckin burnt, this is real life Negro shit,” adding, “We kinda look like apes right now. Planet of the apes,” to which her companion replies, “Planet of the Negroes,” and they both try to suppress fits of giddy laughter.Not to be outdone, in 2016, a white student attending Prairie View A&M,a historically black university in Texas, posts a photo of herself in blackface with the caption “When you just tryna fit in at your Hbcu” [historically black college and university]. (I’m sure her black classmates and teachers appreciated the attempt.) A year later, a white Michigan Lakeshore High student posts a picture of herself in blackface with a tin-foil grill in her mouth and the caption “I’m a nig.”In January, a University of Oklahoma Tri Delta sorority sister rubs black paint on her face and says “I am a nigger.”

As these incidents make clear, like the growing roster of stubbornly unaware politicians who dabbled in the black arts of collegiate coonery in their youth, these twenty-first purveyors of blackface, while equally clueless, are not simply engaging in harmless “homages” to black celebrity. Indeed, given the prevalence of such incidents, one wonders what universities are doing to prevent rather than retroactively respond to these teachable moments, though the fact that they still have to is frankly demoralizing.

Then again, why all the fuss? To paraphrase Cyndi Lauper, “whites just wanna have fun” regardless of at whose expense. After all, like Michel, Northam, Virginia state Senator Tommy Norment, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, Missouri Democratic Governor Mel Carnahan, Arkansas City, Kansas Mayor Mel Kuhn, and a seemingly endless parade of male politicians (certainly given the presence of white women in blackface in old yearbook photos and their present-day prevalence on Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube, there must be a few who have dabbled in the practice as well), they were just having innocent fun, if occasionally peppering their exaggerated black dialects with liberal doses of racial epithets along the way. Even Michael Ertel, 40, the former Florida secretary of state (and erstwhile Martin Luther King, Jr. Good Citizenship Award recipient) who resigned after photographs surfaced of him in blackface from a 2005 private Halloween party, would not let something as gratuitous as human decency interfere with his merrymaking when he went full Mammy, complete with fake breasts, bandana and a T-shirt with “Katrina Victim” written on it.

White boys, it seems, will be white boys and white girls, white girls or, if they could have their way, “nigs/niggers/niggas,” so long as the polish can be wiped away at the end of the day. Indeed, at his awkward press conference, Northam knowingly described how difficult it is to remove shoe polish – apparently something almost as difficult as repressing the desire to show off one’s moonwalking moves. If only it were indelible!

This fondness for blackface is not confined to America. In January,Gucci released a blackface balaclava-sweater. Only a few weeks before, Prada had released its collection of figurines reminiscent of American blackface memorabilia. Last year in Japan, a popular Japanese comedian appeared blackface on a popular television program as Axel Foley, Eddie Murphy’s character from Beverly Hills Cop, though the performer, who made no effort to mimic the actor’s distinctive mannerisms, bore no resemblance to the character aside from wearing a Detroit Lions jacket similar to the one Murphy wears in the film. Indeed, had the segment not included a caption identifying the character as Murphy, most Japanese viewers, particularly younger ones unfamiliar with the film, would have only seen a Japanese comedian in blackface, a not unfamiliar site in Japan, though its frequency has diminished in recent years. The network later apologized, only to add insult to injury by rebroadcastingthe segment a week later, this time accompanied by a rap tune that told viewers the controversy had “made them aware of the perils of blackface.” (Sure, it did.) The learning curve, it appears, is a steep one.

The sobering reality is that for many whites, blacks – real, imagined and impersonated – exist solely for their amusement and those whose perceptions of blacks have been shaped by the perdurable racist legacy of American popular culture. So long as we sing, dance, slam dunk, use expletives while sitting across from their orange leader on the other side of the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, and, according to interracial/breeder pornography and indicted Trump associate Roger Stone, have sex with their wives in their presence, they are comfortable with us (On Stone’s colorful sexual predilections, see William Bastone’s “Roger Stone’s Russian Hacking ‘Hero,’”The Smoking Gun, March 8, 2017).

We serve as organic memes to give expression to their otherwise mundane lives. So long as whites can don our clothes, appropriate our expressions, highjack our gestures, mangle our dialects, and cover themselves — including their feet, thanks to Katy Perry – and their living spaces in demeaning black kitsch, they are happy to recognize our presence, but not to acknowledge how they have distorted it for their pleasure. But if we linger “too long” in a Starbucks, take a nap in the common college lounge of a college in which we are enrolled, make a call in the lobby of a hotel room in which we have registered, put our feet up in a college classroom, mow our lawn, or do any of a number of ordinary acts that if we were white would go unremarked and unharassed, we are detained, interrogated, imprisoned, and killed –all with impunity.

This is a condition that no amount of reconciliatory “beer summits” and stentorian pulpit denunciations will remedy. For the same people who (like pensively shallow Mike Pence) cavalierly mis-appropriate the words of Martin Luther King to forward a morally bankrupt agenda show little signs of enlightenment or wanting to be enlightened about such matters.  It is a condition whose reality is nowhere to be found in Green Book, and other, to borrow film critic Wesley Morris’ term, “racial reconciliation fantasies” that feed America’s self-misapprehension and deny the ugly reality of its racist exceptionalism. To deal with the issue requires a cold, unblinking examination of the festering wound that is American racism, of which blackface is simply one of its stigmata. It requires not TED Talks but dead earnestness, for its examination will be neither fun nor entertaining, but then most truly teachable moments are not. What is required are not a few ephemeral teachable moments but a lifelong, Sisyphean commitment to fundamental social change, by any means necessary.