What about blackface?

In the wake of the suspension of a group of Hamline University football players for dressing up in blackface for Halloween, someone had to ask the question. What exactly is the problem with blackface?

Oddly, it was asked in Boston, where Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr picked up a DVD of The Jazz Singer the other day, and had an answer for people who said he shouldn’t have shown it to his children.

This is a mistake, one born out of unease and naivete. Getting loudly outraged over blackface may allow us the luxury of feeling superior to our ancestors, but it’s the easy way out. More difficult and more necessary is actually looking at a practice with roots deep in American history, one that had different meanings to the white mainstream, to immigrants, and to the African-Americans who turned it to their own expressive purposes. Only by understanding blackface can we recognize where we haven’t progressed; only then can we see the places where blackface still thrives in our culture, disguised and still potent.

But this – this seemed to require special dispensation. And, yes, we took the conversation into the nearer past and the present. Elvis Presley made white teenage America go berserk by singing black R&B: Was that blackface? What about the Rolling Stones, who took credit for Robert Johnson blues songs on their albums in the 1960s? What about Eminem? Is he excused because he directly takes on the topic in interviews and on record? How about the suburban white boys trying to act like gangsta rappers in my girls’ homerooms? How about my daughters, or me, or any of us – of any color – when we use black slang in casual conversation?

It’s a pretty fascinating column. Blackface takes many forms. Which ones are we to be repulsed by? And why?

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