February marks Black History Month, and the white politicians, celebrities and business owners have found a way to take over and make it about them. Blackface has been around for decades, and it certainly didn’t end in the ‘80s. Many white Americans don’t see the problem with blackface because most don’t know the origin behind it.
Simply put, blackface is a dreadfully common and highly offensive stereotype. “The whole idea of a stereotype is to simplify,” said novelist Chinua Achebe. The first blackface shows were performed in 1830s New York by white performers who painted their faces with burnt cork or shoe polish. Actors often wore old and torn clothing that imitated enslaved Africans on plantations. “These performances characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual and prone to thievery and cowardice,” the Smithsonian stated. In 1830, “Father of Minstrelsy” Dartmouth Rice developed the first blackface character named “Jim Crow.”
Blackface is nothing but an embarrassment to black people. It implies black people have no purpose in life but to entertain and mock, and that we lack characteristics of successful people. To see politicians and popular brands supporting blackface is a total slap in our faces, especially when those who played a role in blackface don’t see anything wrong with it.
A blackface photo of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in his medical school yearbook resurfaced recently. It showed one person in blackface and the other dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. After giving a “save-my-job” apology, the Democratic governor recanted saying he is not pictured in the photo.
That doesn’t matter because it was on his personal page of the yearbook, which goes to show that he was OK with that act of racism. I wouldn’t put anything on my personal page that I didn’t agree with.
“In 1869, an Atlantic writer remembered darkening his face with burnt cork and acting out exaggerated caricatures of blackness with little reflection on the racial oppression and violence around him,” assistant editor Annika Neklason wrote. To the white audience and performers, the performances seemed fun. I wonder how white people would feel if black people painted their faces white and acted out every negative stereotype we could conjure. Black people don’t care to do that because the majority of the community doesn’t wish to be like white Americans.
Former Washington House of Representatives candidate David Sponheim explained that he had to paint his face black to allow his Barack Obama costume to be more realistic, arguing that black people can dress up as whites without backlash, such as in the movie “White Chicks.”
I find this explanation hilarious because it doesn’t justify anything. The, “If he can do it, why can’t I?” reasoning is as ridiculous as it is hypocritical. He didn’t have to choose the President Obama costume if he couldn’t find a way to be seen as him without painting his face. Yes, black people starred in “White Chicks,” but it is nothing compared to the historical weight blackface carries.
“White Chicks” was not made to tear white culture down or to make white people seem ignorant or uneducated. The film centered around two men dressed up as white, upper class women. They didn’t aim to degrade white culture.
In 2019, we seem to be welcoming in a year of blackface. February is an important month for the black community, and somehow the white community has found a way to get in the spotlight. Not only are politicians grabbing the spotlight with the surfacing of their blackface endeavors, but fashion brands are now showing off their racist side, too.
Gucci and Prada have been in the spotlight for clothing and accessory items reminiscent of blackface. Gucci came out with a turtleneck that appeared to portray blackface. The turtleneck is black with the top coming up to a cutout of a large mouth with red lips.
Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele said “[the sweater] was not inspired by blackface but by the late Leigh Bowery, a performance artist, club promoter and fashion designer who often used flamboyant face makeup and costumes.”
In looking at Bowery’s work, you can see his artwork included primarily white-painted faces with red lips, not black faces. Why couldn’t he do a white turtleneck sweater with big red lips? It would have made the clothing item more easily related to Bowery.
Gucci is now apologizing by promising to employ a more diverse staff. We will see how long that promise will be kept.
Also stepping in the blackface fighting ring are Prada and Katy Perry Collections. Prada made bag charms that resembled black monkeys with huge red lips. They are now promising to develop “diverse talent” and to create opportunities for students of color. Singer Katy Perry Collections released shoes that resembled blackface. The shoes are black loafers with block heels that have faces on them with big red lips. According to the creators, the shoes were “envisioned as a nod to modern art and surrealism.”
Can the black community have one month — the shortest month, at that —where we don’t have to focus on the ignorant acts of racist white people?
Te’Kayla Pittman is a 19-year-old mass communication freshman from Atlanta, Georgia.