On the new Blackface and the never-ending Redface
In his film Bamboozled (see RealVideo trailer), Spike Lee imagines a world in which a disgruntled black television executive attempts to get himself fired by creating a modern-day minstrel show set in a Southern plantation watermelon patch. To the executive’s dismay, the Man-Tan Millenium Minstrel Show becomes a huge hit, spawning innumerable T-shirts, towels, action figures, lunchboxes and paperweights covered in old-style red-lipped bug-eyed “coon” imagery. But far more horrifying than the racist objects are the fans buying them. One of the more disturbing images in the movie comes after the show has really taken off and the television audience begins to go beyond T-shirts: the camera pans across a sea of cork-blackened red-mouthed white, Asian, Hispanic and black faces—all proudly proclaiming themselves to be “niggers...”
The twist of course is that Lee’s imaginary world isn’t really imaginary: I’ve already been there. Quick rewind to the Lowell High School of not-so-long-past: it’s fall of 1994 and I haven’t yet learned to hide in the art room during mandatory football pep rallies. The stands in the gymnasium are filled to overflowing with 3,500 screaming (and whooping) students. Hundreds of girls pull lipstick from their purses to anoint their friends with stripes of “war paint.” The crowd begins to stamp in imitation of a “tom-tom” drum, and then cheers ecstatically when the cheerleaders lead them in a cry of “Let’s Go Red Raiders!”
But blackface hasn't been replaced by "redface" (or "playing Indian"). It too is alive and kicking. The "coon" imagery and objects I linked to above are not antiques--they are all recently created for a thriving "black collectibles" market (check out this article from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, "New Racist Forms: Jim Crow in the 21st Century.")
And then there is "Who is my Baby's Daddy?", a new Flash animation at Mondo Mini-Shows featuring an overblown stereotype of a black welfare mother known as Shirley Q. Liquor. But Shirley Q. is more than a cartoon: she is actually a popular stage character performed by tasteless white male Charles Knipp in drag and BLACKFACE. Yes, you heard me, blackface. He also sells Shirley Q. CDs and merchandise, performs her on the radio, and even created a "news" website under the Shirley Q. pseudonym in which blackfaced characters explain the war in Ebonics. I'm not making this up folks--he's not some fringe racist, he performs to sold-out crowds in various clubs around the country.
Wait, it gets worse! Mr. Knipp actually has the nerve to claim that he is not racist, and that black audiences "overwhelmingly" enjoy his performances. Check out these choice quotes from his web site:
People who hear my comedy without seeing me or knowing who I am often ask me - am I black? white? male? female? A racist? A satirist? But mainly they just want to hear more of what Shirley Q. thinks.
People often ask if African-Americans are offended by my modern day blackface minstrel comedy act. To be honest, people of colour who have seen my shows live or heard my CD's overwhelmingly tell me how much they enjoyed my accurate portrayal of a certain genre of the gritty, witty Southern woman that they fondly remember, no matter what her race.
This is kind of like the racist sports teams who go out of their way to find a handful of Native Americans who "feel honoured" by their mascots, and then claim that most Native Americans "feel honoured". And what's the "accurate" part, exactly--the 19 children all by different fathers whose name Shirley doesn't remember? The giant red lips and bug eyes? The "ignunce"? I love the way he sidesteps accusations of racism by declaring that "mainly they just want to hear more of what Shirley Q. thinks."
(Thanks to Tom Tomorrow for pointing out the Shirley Q. business in his blog)
For more on this topic (including links to sites on Indian Mascots, etc), see my blog "The Newly Permissible Racist Cartooning?" And check out this great new cartoon from Cartoonista Lalo Alcaraz, featured at Indianz.com.