ACTIVISM

IS BLACK FACE A FAD NOW? RACIST PRACTICES THAT NEED TO BE ILLEGAL

By  | 
Billy Van, the monologue comedian, 1900. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID var.1831

With a generation and an era that appears to be forward thinking and “woke”, one would think in the year 2022 racism would be a thing of the past as diversity and inclusion are topics and discussions often addressed. With the changing times comes more awareness and access to information to allow individuals who would likely have been ignorant towards certain issues to be more informed. However even with access at a click of a finger; it appears racism particularly towards black people is more rampant than ever as individuals in most cases than not who are found to be either spouting racist remarks or displaying racist actions, get little to no consequences for their behaviour.

On a recent trip to Spain; Social Media Comedian and TV personality Munya Chawawa came across a parade with several white people wearing black face, with afros carrying bananas. He posted the picture and in his caption said “I took this photo at a parade in Spain last night; to be honest, I’m not that shocked really.” This is a case amongst many around the world where several white communities practice wearing black face.

Blackface became popular in the United States of America after the Civil War ended in the 1860s, as “white performers played characters that demeaned and dehumanized African Americans”. This portrayal is shown through the blackening of the face with the darkest tone, using products like “shoe polish” or “grease paint”, and then painting lips enlarged with a red colour, as well as creating other exaggerated features, such as hair. To this day, there continues to be controversies surrounding blackface appearing in places, like festivals, where you would think with such a huge audience, it would not be a good idea to showcase racism like that.

Publicity still portrait of American stage actor and Vaudeville comedian Bert Williams, 1915. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)

According to history.com, blackface “peaked in popularity during an era in the United States when demands for civil rights by recently emancipated slaves triggered racial hostility. And today, because of blackface’s historic use to denigrate people of African descent, its continued use is still considered racist.” It is unknown when exactly or where blackface originated from, as its roots date back centuries to European theatrical productions, such as the famous ‘Othello’.

An actor born in New York, called Thomas Dartmouth Rice, was considered the “Father of Minstrelsy”, as he reportedly travelled, “observed slaves”, and then developed an on-stage black character called “Jim Crow” in 1830. By dancing and using exaggerated “buffoonish” behaviour, the actor founded a new genre of “racialised song and dance, blackface minstrel shows which became central to American entertainment”.

Jim Crow later became synonymous with the Jim Crow laws in the 19th and early 20th century and could was no longer enforced in 1965. Jim Crow Laws were state and local laws that in the southern part of the United States and were implemented to enforce racial segregation, with a mandate for public places for white people to prohibit black people from occupying or utilising their facilities.

Many white performers utilised the derogatory blackface to portray a negative stereotype of black people, labelling them with traits of “being lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, criminals, or cowardly”. Over time, this became a portrayal demonstrated not only in theatres, but also in the film industry, such as the film ‘The Birth of a Nation’ in 1915.

The appeal of blackface started declining after the 1930s when the civil rights movement began, however, even today in the 21st century, there are still different forms of blackface that is continuing to come up in film industries and other forms of entertainment, such as festivals – painting a face black and enlarging the lips are not the only forms of misrepresentation of black people.

When you look at popular culture, in many television shows and films, the majority of the creators of the characters are white, therefore the characters they create are normally white and in some cases you will find that when these characters are animated, a white person is cast as the voice over actor for the black character. This might not necessarily be black face but it is a perfect example of how there is a need for the portrayal of black characters in film and television, but a reluctance to have a black person portray the characters. This brings us back to the theatrical blackface where rather than hire a black person for teh job, the derogatory representation was preferred.

In Alcoy, Alicante dozens of ‘blackface’ page boys deliver the presents during the Cabalgata.

A popular example is the Three Kings Parade in Spain, where “families gather to fill the streets in remembrance of the Three Wise Men— Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. What was once a purely religious celebration has now become Spain’s most controversial display of blackface.” This parade takes place 12 days after Christmas and is widely celebrated across Latin America and Spain, commemorating the Biblical arrival of the Three Kings in Bethlehem.

Many criticisms have been made at the portrayal of one of the kings, known as King Balthasar, who is represented by a white person in a blackface. “Within Christianity, King Balthasar is depicted as a man of African origin.” Although this tradition of the parade dates to the late 1800s, the criticism on the celebration calls for a change in the representation of blackface. Unfortunately, Spain, “a country with more than 1.3 million Spanish residents of African descent”, is adamant on keeping with white people parading in blackface to represent the king.

Yet another example is within the Jewish community where it seems to be common practice for Jewish children to wear blackface as they celebrate the traditional holiday of Purim. This has sparked outrage within the black community due to the history of black face and its obvious derogatory portrayal of the black race. Most recent in Hackney London, a video surfaced and was circulating the internet of some Jewish children wearing black face surrounded by adults as they laughed and giggled; a pure display of ignorance and evidence of the double standards when it comes to how such situations are dealt with when the black community are on the receiving end.

While it is no secret that racism continues to be a major issue around the world, it is still disappointing and disheartening to bear witness of racism as the impact towards the black community continues to get passed down from generation to generation. One can only hope there can be legislations put in place to make racism as a whole illegal and further more ban such practices, with legal implications if found.