Blackface and History: How I Learned about the Black Experience 

Blackface and History: How I Learned about the Black Experience  March 15, 2019

Biblical Faith, ‘About Real Historical Events 

The word "History" stands out from a black background that includes other words, the most prominent of which are "people," "understanding," and "helps."
To know the truth about blackface, you have to know history.

The connection between blackface and Bible history may not seem obvious, but hold on. It was only when I realized how history remains alive in the present that I understood the truth about the blackface production that I was part of in the 1960’s. So this post is about blackface, but here’s Pope Benedict XVI’s quote about history: 

Benedict XVI: “For it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories symbolizing suprahistorical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on this earth. The factum historum(historical fact) is not an interchangeable symbolic cipher for biblical faith, but the foundation on which it stands: Et incarnates est —when we say these words, we acknowledge God’s actual entry into real history.” (Jesus of Nazareth, xv) 

With God’s presence in history, how could the past fail to be present today? 

The minstrel show 

In the spring of 1961 my school put on a blackface “Minstrel Show.” I was a high school freshman at Sacred Heart, a seminary for the Green Bay Diocese. A day or two after the production, we heard the announcement: Sacred Heart Seminary would no longer produce minstrel shows. 

I couldn’t understand. That show had been a resounding success. Everybody had a good time. The audience laughed and cheered at the funny antics of the two main black characters and the puzzlement of the white “Mr. Interlocutor.” Every year the school produced a spring musical and every six years (it was a 6-year school) it was the “Minstrel Show.”  We were not racist people. How could such enjoyable entertainment be racist? 

I had enjoyed participating in that show. My favorite characters were the two blacks, who were clever in their silly way and regularly stumped the leader of the show, Mr. Interlocutor. Only later did I come to see the truth: Blackface shows discriminate against black people. What had seemed to me to be innocent fun really wasn’t innocent. But why? 

The photo 

People are asking that question again in the wake of the discovery of a photo of two men dressed up for Halloween in blackface and a Ku Klux Klan outfit. The photo is from the 1970’s. One of the men is the current governor of Virginia.  

Virginia governor apologizes for ‘racist and offensive’ photo showing people in blackface and KKK garb. (CNN, February 7) 

Suddenly people are waking up their own memories of times they dressed up in blackface or as a Native American or a nun. On the internet I found bloggers who asked, as if it were a rhetorical question:  

If we can put other groups of people in a humorous or ridiculous light—kings, Germans, Norwegians, lawyers, fathers, nuns, bass clarinet players—without causing offense, why not blacks?  

The history of blackface 

The past lives on in the present. None of the groups in that list from kings to bass clarinet players has much of a history of oppression, but blacks in this country do. And part of that oppression has been Blackface.  

Without knowing this history it is impossible to know what to think about productions like my school’s minstrel show with white people playing black characters—funny, clever black characters, if a little silly—and everything done in good humor. Our audience, I believe, and we performers, I know, were all white. We were enjoying a show that no black person could have viewed as simply entertainment.  

The past interprets present reality. This rule applies to meaningful events in general, not just race relations. If something is meaningful to us, it’s because we interpret it. If a bare fact ever strikes our awareness without our interpreting it first, then I suppose for that case history is irrelevant. But that would be a case so abstract that, perhaps, it never happens. For the most part history is very much involved in our experience of the present.  

Blacks and whites in this country, with their different histories, necessarily interpret many things differently. And whites especially need to learn black history because of another important fact 

The point of view of oppressed people is most likely to reveal the truth. 

Image credit: Elizabeth City State University via Google Images

 

 

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