Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Blackface
January 30, 2005 7:09 AM   Subscribe

Blackface : From mainstream entertainment to (nearly?) being considered a hate crime. Do we still have 21st century minstrel shows? Can one "plainly see similarities between the insulting stereotypes acted out by blackface minstrels like Al Jolson in the 19th and early 20th century and today's actors who play exaggerated, cutesy roles of gay people in the 21st century" ? Here is a larger question: Is humor and ridicule a necessary first step down the path to eventual acceptance? Is that what Spike Lee is saying in Bamboozled or is he saying we haven't progressed as far as we think?
posted by spock (33 comments total)

 
I just found that article on the Globetrotters totally unconvincing, even though I think it's actually a legitimate question to ask.

For one thing, he totally ignores the fact that the key draw, for the vast majority of people, is the unbelievable ball-handling skills that they display. Instead, he just makes the bald assertion that because their show are popular, and because minstrel shows used to be popular, that the Globetrotters are a legacy of those shows.

He also asserts that just because there were standard roles in minstrel shows, and because standard roles have evolved in the Globetrotters, that again, there's a connection, with no argument for how the Globetrotter roles are actually offensive. He doesn't say that they're the same roles as in minstrel shows--maybe he feels they are, I don't know--he just says that there are established roles that different people fill over time.

Most importantly, he makes no mention of whether or not the Globetrotters make specific exaggerations or adopt specific behaviors that are associated with minstrelsy. Do they talk in a stereotypical way? Is the nature of their humor--another important element of their popularity--specifically stereotypical? Do they mug or act in a way that seems "blackface"? No mention of any concrete details of the show that might support his argument.

Instead, he just points out two similar features, and leaves that as proof. Then he just ignores the single most important thing they're known for, which also happens to serve as an alternate explanation for his assertions. (Maybe they're popular because they put on an impressive show of ball-handling. Duh.)
posted by LairBob at 7:29 AM on January 30, 2005


BTW, that's not a knock on this FPP--I think it's an interesting one, and well put-together. Like I said, I think it's also actually a legitimate question whether the Globetrotters tread that line. I just wasn't impressed with that guy's article.
posted by LairBob at 7:30 AM on January 30, 2005


Fair enough. Apparently Schopenhauer is the one who said that an idea moves from ridicule to extreme opposition to acceptance (sorry, not well versed on philosophy and no mention of that idea on his wikipedia page that i can find).

Associated thought: Does embracing the ridicule seems to move the process along? Example: The term "Quaker" was (allegedly) first used in derision but was then adopted as the name of the religion. Perhaps others can think of more examples.
posted by spock at 7:44 AM on January 30, 2005


The Globetrotters article reminded me of an article in the Detroit Free Press years ago, when the Pistons moved to the Palace of Auburn Hills. Because the new stadium was in a suburb, and the tickets to see the basketball games were expensive, the Pistons were accused of playing "Plantation Basketball" - black men playing sports for the white man's amusement. I'm not making this up. Never mind the fact that the team had wanted to move to a newer area, and the players were all being paid $1million plus.

Besides dazzling the audience with superb basketball skills and tricks, the Globetrotters throw in some skits and routines that could certainly be described as "slapstick", a form of comedy that has been around a lot longer than minstrel shows.

I'm trying to figure out why, if a white person dons dark makeup for a Hallowe'en party, it's a hate crime, but Eddie Murphy can make himself up as a Caucasian and perform a series of exaggerated "white" stereotypes, and it's not racist, it's comedy.
posted by Oriole Adams at 7:55 AM on January 30, 2005


I was under the impression that with 'Bamboozled' Spike Lee was saying he's a no-talent hack. It's interesting that other people feel differently. Huh.
posted by item at 7:57 AM on January 30, 2005


Murphy's "white" skit draws its humor from mocking racial issues and extremist viewpoints. It's as satirical as "Black People Love Us." Dressing your kid as another race for Halloween is insensitive because it mocks and breaks down no stereotypes. It pokes no fun at the whole issue. It can only be seen as an exploitation of race.

Also, spelling it "Hallowe'en" may be historically accurate, but it's stupid. I don't spelle lyke Shakespeare, so you don't have to either.
posted by NickDouglas at 8:41 AM on January 30, 2005


We would do well to consider things not from our more perfected hindsight but from the historical development of culturte. While we look askance at Blackface or Minstrelsy, remember that American fought Hitler's racism with Segrated military outfits. Actually, Jolsen seems ahead of his time. see http://www.musicals101.com/minstrel.htm and while minstrelsy used no real blacks, they also for some time used no women. By contrast, later, the Globtrotters employed a white play, a man who just this past week died, for which see
http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=1828&e=20&u=/cpress/obit_bkbl_karstens
posted by Postroad at 8:44 AM on January 30, 2005


Of course, whiteface is perfectly acceptable.

And what about gay actors playing "cutesy" straights?

Huh? Well? ;-P
posted by mischief at 9:04 AM on January 30, 2005


anybody interested in minstrel shows could do worse than check out Nick Tosches's Where Dead Voices Gather (Little, Brown) about the last great minstrel, Emmett Miller -- whom Tosches considers one of America's most important musicians
posted by matteo at 9:16 AM on January 30, 2005


The demise of blackface minstrelsy coincided with the growth of a more pernicious phenomenon," writes Tosches. "[White] aristocracy's patronizing vogue for negritude bloomed into a new and different minstrelsy in which 'real' blacks became the 'picks' of high society. ... From delight in the caricature of the happy darky of bygone days to the delight in the caricature of the suffering Negro--which is more perverse?"
posted by matteo at 9:23 AM on January 30, 2005


Sorry, I was taught to spell it "Hallowe'en" in grade school, and got marked down if I left out the apostrophe. I apologize for being stupid.
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:33 AM on January 30, 2005


The Globetrotters began in the late 1920s as an exhibition team, the Saperstein's New York Globetrotters. In the 1930s they changed their name to Harlem New York Globetrotters, hinting that all players were black.
Considering that this was during the Harlem Renaissance, I'd say it was a point of pride and a smart business move to rename the team.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:42 AM on January 30, 2005


Stereotypes abound. Here's a mild but incredibly prevalent example: How many TV commercials do you see where a father, husband, or boyfriend is depicted as a bumbling, ineffective, out of touch, overgrown child, who has to be clued in to the wonderfulness of whatever product is being marketed, by their wife or girlfriend. Aren't men, in these commercial vehicles, constantly portrayed in a negative light? How many times do you see dumb man, smart woman? Hey, it's comedy gold and just resonates so well right?

So this hardly compares with racism but I think it does illustrate what appears to be a ongoing condition. For the purposes of comedy / entertainment / marketing (all the same?) the use of stereotype seems almost a necessity.

Blackface? Ok, let's mark that up as one of the top 10 worst examples of the phenomenon. I'd fill out the list but I don't want to ruin my weekend thinking about it.
posted by scheptech at 10:03 AM on January 30, 2005


Will and Grace and Queer Eye... are pretty obviously the gay equivalents of minstrel shows -- to me, anyway. Its all about moving product to scared mainstreamists, preserving the socioeconomic status quo, reinforcing prejudices (i.e., gay men are all sexless, aristocratic, effeminate subhumans).

Preserving the socioeconomic status quo is little different from late-1800s minstrel shows, which were used to ridicule black people and "keep them in their place" (i.e., cheap, subhuman labor for America's burgeoning economy).
posted by AlexReynolds at 10:40 AM on January 30, 2005


Let's look at this problem logicaly. A particular class of thing (minstrel shows) are repulsive to our modern sensibilities.

We note that mistrel shows have certan attributes that they make fun of a certan class of people (black people) by apeing them for example.

So, we then say, All forms of intertainment which have a similar attribute must also be antithical to our modern sensibilities.

But that begs several questions 1) Is making fun of one ethnic group the same as making fun of another (i.e. is the attribute "making fun of any ethnicity" or is the attribute "making fun of black people") and 2) if one holds then does that spesific attribute what causes minstrel shows to be repulsive.

I posit that the answer to one is false. Making fun of One ethnic group is not actualy the same as making fun of another. Making fun of white people just isn't as offensive as making fun of black people, especialy when you're making fun of a spesific cultural choice compared to a forced condition.

For example saying white people can't dance is not offensive because white people arn't as intrested in dancing over all as blacks, but making fun of blacks in the 1920s for being uneducated is crule, because it's your fault they're uneducated.

which is also why number two would be false, even if number 1 were true.
posted by delmoi at 12:14 PM on January 30, 2005


I don't think it makes a lot of sense to flip societal oppressions over like they're not a weighted coin to begin with. It's not the same for whites to ridicule people of color as it is for people of color to ridicule whites -- because the former instance immediately becomes part of a wider system of oppression that has real consequences for people of color (it's made possible by it, it strengthens those ideas, and contributes to wounds that are still being cut), while the later instance is of no real relevance to the overall summary of what it means to be a white person in america.

making fun of the oppressed neccessitates exploiting and reinforcing the oppressions experienced daily -- for cheap laughs. making fun of oppressors, on the other hand, helps to counter the memes of supremacy that allow oppressive ideas to take root and superiority to take hold, and is irrelevant given a larger context.
posted by Embryo at 12:21 PM on January 30, 2005


Previously on MetaFilter:

The Minstrel Show
posted by y2karl at 2:07 PM on January 30, 2005


"Queer Eye"
Dance for us little girly-man, dance!

Say no more.
posted by HTuttle at 2:08 PM on January 30, 2005


making fun of the oppressed neccessitates exploiting and reinforcing the oppressions experienced daily -- for cheap laughs. making fun of oppressors, on the other hand, helps to counter the memes of supremacy that allow oppressive ideas to take root and superiority to take hold, and is irrelevant given a larger context.

But where is the limit to this? Yes, mocking the opressors can help change the situation, but is there no limit to this mockery even if the situation of the oppressed improves? Take scheptech's example of the prevalence of negative male stereotypes. This is not limited to just some commercials, it seems to be a very common theme in nearly all forms of media. Now, this might be brushed off as just harmless fun, but it seems to have some real consequences, like the massive over-diagonosing of ADD in young boys. The idea that males are brutish and crude by nature and need to be forced and molded into something "better" seems to be very common. There is significant evidence that the minds of males and females simply work differently, so to actively promote the suppression of "male" behavior would seem to be something harmful for developing boys and grown men alike.

I dont' mean to rant about this issue, I just brought it up as an example of the possible negative consequences of allowing the degradation of one group, even a group in power, as retribution or a vehicle for change. This tactic clearly can be very successful in changing minds, but where is the limit?
posted by Sangermaine at 3:06 PM on January 30, 2005


Is humor and ridicule a necessary first step down the path to eventual acceptance?

In Australia, using the Wogs out of Work example, it was the last step to eventual acceptance, IMHO.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 3:22 PM on January 30, 2005


Er, having posted that, I reckon spock has a very good point. Wogs out of Work was an embracing of the ridicule.

Also, it was Wogs making fun of themselves, not Anglos making fun of Wogs.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 3:34 PM on January 30, 2005


Good stuff, people.

I'm no sociologist, but it seems fairly obvious to me that "society" rarely has just one view or position on a given subject. Within that society there will always be those who yearn for a substandard status quo, while others have a progressive forward-thinking view (and take a position that over time a fluid middle swings toward). This is a gross oversimplification, but I think that this concept is illustrated in blackface/minstrel shows.

Without it's use in popular entertainment of the time, the how many white audiences would have had any exposure to people of color or given any thought at all to the stereotypes contained within? In this way, it seems to me that depiction in a humorous or ridiculing way is a bit of a trojan horse - not as honorable as simply opening one's gates (mind) and letting the thoughts in, but a way to move the discussion into another arena surrepticiously.

(I think it is impossible to not see a similar path of evolution with homosexual characterizations in entertainment in our time.)
posted by spock at 4:05 PM on January 30, 2005


Sangermaine;

As a young adult male with ADD, I don't think "negative stereotypes" have anything to do with ADD. I do think that instutionalized oppression -- and my being encouraged by influences (and, indirectly, by my peers who had their own influences beyond my parents' control) to dominate and act in a patriarchal, male-supremacist way -- has a huge role in stymieing healthy development of relationships at all ages of life between male-identified folks and female-identified folks. trying to blame anti-sexist memes for any manifestations of internal resistance to sexism (and the unhealthy power relationships it creates, supports, and seeks to justify) makes very little sense to me.
posted by Embryo at 4:51 PM on January 30, 2005


Exaggerated? Cutesy? There really are some seriously flaming gay guys out there, not that there's anything wrong with leaving scorch marks wherever you go...it's just not something that was invented out of whole cloth.

In a similar vein, just because not all girls are bubble-gum-hello-kitty-cutesy, doesn't mean none are. To each their niche.
posted by effugas at 4:56 PM on January 30, 2005


I like the idea that blackface and minstrel shows happened only in the "19th and early 20th century".

There was a very popular prime-time variety TV show in the UK, called The Black and White Minstrel Show, which featured performers in blackface. It continued until 1978! details here...
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:07 PM on January 30, 2005


Interesting post. I like it.
posted by TwelveTwo at 5:29 PM on January 30, 2005


That is amazing AmbroseChapel, I did not know that.
posted by spock at 6:11 PM on January 30, 2005


In addition to y2karl's previous and encyclopedic post, David Wondrich's Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924 lays out all kinds of examples of the complexities inherent in considering this issue. (Full disclosure: the author's a pal. But honest, it's cool stuff).
posted by BT at 6:16 PM on January 30, 2005


Of course, whiteface is perfectly acceptable.

And what about gay actors playing "cutesy" straights?

Huh? Well? ;-P


A few years ago (in Australia) a TV sports pundit, Sam Newman, a regular on a very popular football show, wanted to imitate an Aboriginal football player. So he appeared wearing the player's jumper and – shock horror hold the phones – his face painted black.

Well, the shit royally hit the fan. The furore went on for weeks. Calls for his sacking. Mass media calls for a public apology and mediation. Federal politicians got involved.

Interestingly, this happened not long after Whoopi Goldberg wanted to imitate Queen Elizabeth at the Academy Awards. So she appeared wearing a period costume and – shock horror hold the phones – her face painted white.

Oh wot laffs we had. That wacky comedienne.

This was one of Sam Newman's defences. Quite a good defence IMHO.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that the hypocrisy can be breathtaking at times. (What I'm not trying to say is that Sam Newman isn't a cockscomb and a bore!)



There was a very popular prime-time variety TV show in the UK, called The Black and White Minstrel Show, which featured performers in blackface. It continued until 1978!

AmbroseChapel, I used to watch that show with the folks. It was broadcast throughout Australia on the GOVERNMENT OWNED TV station!
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:48 PM on January 30, 2005


I find the various viewer responses to Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" interesting (135 reviews, as of this moment). I have not yet seen it myself.
posted by spock at 7:37 PM on January 30, 2005


Related discussion from last week: Johnny Carson in blackface, both figuratively and literally.
posted by soyjoy at 8:27 AM on January 31, 2005


I have nothing to say that hasn't already been said, except this: Bamboozled is (IMHO) a very good film. It has problems, but it's better in its ultimate failure than most American movies are in their successes. It's worth seeing, especially if this topic is at all interesting to you.
posted by mkultra at 8:35 AM on January 31, 2005


...David Wondrich's Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924 lays out all kinds of examples of the complexities inherent in considering this issue.

That's interesting, BT--David Wondrich wrote Ragtime: No Longer a Novelty in Sepia, the first link in my Ragtime, Cakewalks, Coon Songs and Vaudeville post. Between that article and the mention of his book in it, I checked him out online. Writer, mixologist and Senior Research Fellow at the North Gowanus Institute for Cranial Distempers. And he knows his onions about African.American music as well as he knows his cocktails. That is some CV. I'm impressed.
posted by y2karl at 11:47 AM on January 31, 2005


« Older For 170 years, crossing the Channel from the UK to...  |  Nothing is more damning than s... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments