I went to a predominantly white high school on the Eastern seaboard of the United States. Growing of age in the 70’s, I witnessed firsthand how the relationship between the races shifted. Many older people felt uncertain as the status quo seemed to buckle right under their feet, while many younger people embraced (at least theoretically) the changes the Civil Rights movement brought not only society as a whole, but also their immediate communities.
My own father was instrumental in motivating our local school district to hire its first black teacher. Margaret Bing became my junior high school history teacher, and later also became the district’s first black guidance counselor. It was for her history class – during a discussion of Black History – that students prepared an open program on the subject of the black experience in America. I was the only black student involved in the project; not a difficult task in a school with less than 10 black students. As part of our program students highlighted the blight of blacks during slavery. These “slaves” – played by my white classmates – were shown toiling in the fields under the relentless eyes of a cruel overseers, their bodies marked with the bite of his lash.
When my father later saw the program he asked why the students’ skin hadn’t been darkened to better portray the blackness of the slaves. You see, we had decided that the only make-up to be applied to my lily-white classmates would be used to signify the vicious marks their slave bodies bore from the lash. Spontaneously I told my father that precisely by not disguising themselves they had a better chance of experiencing (and transporting) the immediacy of the situation. My explanation may have been fueled by wishful thinking, but my father got my point.
The subject of “blackface” has been a controversial one since before the American Civil Rights movement. This particular theatrical tradition called for both black and (mostly) white performers to blacken their faces – initially with charcoal or shoe polish; later with greasepaint – in a mimicry of the black physiognomy. In addition to their blackened skin, these performers donned tightly kinked wigs while exaggerating their mouths with slashes of bright red or startling white lip paint. Made up in this way, performers then proceeded to entertain white audiences with their “darky antics”.
Make no mistake, these portrayals of black people was not meant as a compliment. We are not talking about a white actor darkening his skin to portray Othello in Shakespeare’s classic play in much the same way a male actor at one time might have donned women’s clothing to take on a female role. All the stereotypical imagery associated with the black race found its way into a plethora of skits and show routines performed on stage and later (to some extent) on screen for the edification of white audiences across the country.
There have been several recent situations involving the use of blackface that make me ask myself:
Is there any legitimate reason for “blackface” in today’s world?
From the Jackson Jive skit performed on a popular Australian TV show straight to a stage in Hamburg, Germany
A black friend and entertainer living in Hamburg brought a publicly subsidized dance performance to my attention that was currently playing in that city. In an effort to portray “alienation through disguise” three dancers performed with their faces blackened and their mouths exaggerated by red lipstick. This image of them was not only placed on their flyers, but was used to promote the performance in a local newspaper. My friend immediately sent of a kindly-worded email expressing and explaining her personal distress at the image and asking the performers to really consider what they were communicating. In response, my friend was informed that she had misunderstood the group’s intentions. They were simply using familiar German carnival imagery to get their point across.
I find it personally extremely difficult to believe that there wasn’t some much more suitable carnival- or fasching-related images to transport the idea of “alienation through disguise” this group of artists want to highlight. Just a quick look as some of the masks and costumes used in Southern Germany, for example, would have provided enough uniquely German inspiration for a whole series of dance performances on the subject.
I found two things about the response my friend received extremely disappointing:
- Instead of acknowledging the point being made, a “distraction tactic” was used in a vain attempt to weaken the initial comment. Namely the assumption that the associations surrounding the use of blackface are different (and somehow less negative) in Europe versus America; i.e. America’s history of slavery and segregation conjures up degrading images that don’t have a place in European consciousness. A quick look at the way people of African descent were portrayed both during and following the Nazi era in Germany take the wind out of that particular argument rather quickly.
- The obvious lack of concern for the comments made about the imagery by people of African descent here in Germany. In other words, these weren’t Americans bringing their racial baggage with them from afar. These comments were coming from people of African descent living, studying and working right here in Germany. Whether they have been here – like come – for only a number of years, or – like others – already for several generations, their voices need to be given the respect they deserve.
“Der Braune Mob e. V.“, a media watch here in Germany, has awarded this group group of artists, as well as the bodies who granted the subsidies and the newspaper that published the above photo their “brown card“. This “award” is given to underline not only their lack of initial sensitivity towards the portrayal of people of color, but also their failure to openly and directly address the issue when it was brought to their attention.
In the spirit of full disclosure:
- The text of the email I personally wrote to the performers on the subject was included along with the “brown card”
- I have yet to receive any response to my mail. (–> in the meantime i have heard from the choreographer, who has informed me that – in retrospect – they realize their choice of imagery was ill-advised, and that they have now replaced it with something more suitable.)