Whether or not they publicly admit it, products of black or “urban” culture has been at the core of the white American diet for hundreds of years. However, that fascination with the music, fashions and behaviours of the now rising minority has been coupled with crude imitations that extend to extreme mockery. Of course, I’m talking about blackface.
During this year’s Halloween celebrations, several people endured backlash from the American public for donning blackface as they imitated their favourite pop culture icons. Yet, although wearing such makeup is now generally considered taboo, the many behaviours associated with those gross misrepresentations are still quite welcomed and in many ways, rewarded.
Now, a brief history of blackface, brought to you by the letter R (for racist), the number 10 (for how far you will have to count to keep calm) and the good people at The Grio.
Blackface performances became part of American pop culture during the 1820s and the supposedly comedic black minstrel narratives were soon institutionalised in song, thus allowing offensive messages to span generations. “Eeny, meeny, miney, moe. Catch a nigger by his toe. If he hollers let him go. Eeny, meeny, miney, mo.” Sing along, kids!
Need another example of just how much Americans openly enjoyed some good, old-fashioned jigging by coloured folk? One of the first feature film presented as a talkie was Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, and it comprised several scenes of him in blackface.
Here is one of the oh so loveable Jolson’s most memorable minstrel performances, “Going to Heaven On a Mule”. In this scene, he depicts the section of heaven reserved for black people – obviously separated from the white neighbourhoods of the afterlife’s class system – as including orchards of pork chops, fried chicken growing on trees, tap dancing angels and fields of watermelon.
Of course, the Civil Rights movement has ranked anything remotely offensive to black people and other minority groups as unwelcome in the broad public domain. For instance, when fashion designer Alessandro Dell’Acqua and his friends attended a Halloween party in Milan last month, and thought the only way to depict the “Disco Africa” theme was to dress in blackface as slaves (shackles included), minstrels and wild animals.
Thankfully, the media did not allow him to escape unscathed. I wonder how many black people were actually invited to that party…
Still, does not mean that blackface has been completely removed from public favour? If you answered “yes” then you just lost five points and must move back three spaces.
Blackface is still very present in the media but cleverly packaged in more sophisticated ways. For ideal examples, look no further than some of the most popular white artists of the last 50 years and the various ways they copied their minority counterparts while exaggerating certain key elements of the not-so-subculture.
Now, I’ve lightly written about one aspect of this topic before (if you care, click here to read one of those pieces) but this time, rather than discussing Elvis Presley’s blatant imitations of Little Richard or Snow’s embarrassing take on Reggae, let’s look at the issue from a different angle.
It has become common practice for white performers to trivialise and oversimplify “urban” culture by choosing one facet from one class from many dimensions, and overemphasising that element to a grotesque degree for the purpose of shock and awe. In other words, they are part of a new generation of minstrels who perform in the same manner as their predecessors but without the dark makeup.
Usually using the excuse of trying to reach a broader market (Justin Bieber) or simply expressing their true selves (Miley Cyrus), these white acts all follow the same script as they make a mockery of minorities for profit. Then, once shock value of their jigs begins to wane, they abandon those models, suddenly mature and refer to the previous eras of their lives as just “a phase.”
A few examples for the naysayers in the audience.
In 2002, before her albums were given away from the trunks of cars and she was still relevant without the backing of a reality show, Christina Aguilera underwent a stunning transformation. Leaving her sugary sweet girl next door image in the 1990s, she reemerged as a crotch-pumping, ass-clapping lover of all things sex.
Aguilera also reemphasised her Latina heritage but instead of just singing Spanish songs and collaborating with Ricky Martin, she took it to the streets. Changing her hair colour, and getting tattoos and piercings were not enough, however, and she surrounded herself with rappers and learned to speak in ebonics. Hoodtina was on the loose.
Naturally, once TRL audiences were no longer interested in the image she was selling, Aguilera soon ditched her daring new style, switched to platinum blonde hair, stopped speaking as though she lived in the roughest section of the South Bronx and rejoined the more conservative side of white America. Well, with the occasional detour to the sex shop (see: “Not Myself Tonight”).
Even older white artists have been accused of blacking it up on occasion. I’ll just leave this picture of Madonna dressed like some type of pimp during her visit to BET’s 106 & Park on your screen to marinate for while.
The younger generation of Pop acts have many of their own minstrels. Enter Miley Cyrus, her wagging tongue and unfavourable attempts at twerking.
Long before the American media slammed Cyrus for her over-the-top behaviour, I warned people that “We Can’t Stop” was just a taste of what would soon follow. Flash forward to the 2013 MTV VMA, and people finally understood what I meant.
Cyrus claims to have always been a fan of Hip-Hop but in 2009, she admitted that she never heard a Jay-Z song. Then, while searching for the hit that she eventually found with “We Can’t Stop”, she reportedly said that she wanted something that “just feels black.”
Yet, let’s forget all the he said, she said mumbo jumbo and focus on the underlying issue. Cyrus is such a fan of “black” culture but look at how she expresses that appreciation. Does she assume being black is all about using Molly, shaking her backside, sticking out her tongue and selling sex?
Is that what she really thinks of black people or is she just repackaging the limited representations in the media? The latter is highly unlikely since there are many other depictions of black people on television today that go beyond the bitches and hoes from around the way. By the way, this statement was not sponsored by OWN.
Oh, it is important to note that Cyrus has been slammed by the media for her antics but I question the motives for any such comments. Indeed, it appears that many critics are more concerned by her overt sexual antics in contrast to her Disney roots than her ignorant slant on black America.
The list of white acts who make a mockery of black, “urban” or other minority cultures for their own gain – it is doing wonders for Cyrus’ record sales – is never-ending but I won’t burden you by naming them all here. Instead, I invite you to watch Justin Bieber’s many attempts of being down with the streets.
Also, there is no reason why white performers can’t experiment with traditionally black-dominated genres and styles, especially if they have always shown respect and appreciation for the culture. Eminem has proven himself to be authentic and for the most part, so has an older and wiser Justin Timberlake. Moreover, Jessie J, Adele and Amy Winehouse’s takes on R&B and Soul have rarely been questioned because they never tried to “be black.”
So, although blatant depictions of blackface have been rejected by American audiences, many white artists continue with their mockery via their actions. Those acts are allowed to maintain such behaviour because of that unspoken fascination with the so-called art of misrepresentation that has garnered public fascination for hundreds of years.
Tell a friend and join the conversation in the comment section. I’m really eager to read what you have to say and to engage you directly, even if you disagree.