Following the North Star

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Blackface Doesn't Make Me Red

Despite the history of animus associated with the Minstrel Blackface, I am NOT offended by the recent use of it at a private party by NY Assemblyman Dov Hikind. Since the early days of Minstrelsy in the beginning of 19th Century America, hundreds, if not thousands of immigrant Irish, Germans, Italians and Jews had been relegated to the "lowest rung" on the social ladder. There they found no comfort in the underclass except in the "renegade" revelry epitomized by the enslaved Negroes (or Darkies). Slaves sang, danced and seemed to be unburdened by the "demands of white society" Though few white people of that era would have wished to trade places with the Negroe slave, secretly, they desired the "freedom" slaves had. To the white citizen, slaves were "taken care of" They had their food and clothing given to them. They had shelter and, on average, worked far less hours than the white male. It was this "easy living" slave life that was the foundation of the Minstrel mimic.

Minstrel shows were the most popular form of entertainment in America from the 1830's until the 1920's. It's hard to beleive that all of those performers and performances intended solely to mock the condition of the slave or Free Black, rather than show a reverance and (secret) desire for a way of life denied by whites in everyday society. It's evidence is still with us today. Witness the "wigga" or white nigger. Look at the influence of the rap and hip hop culture on white America. Look in the audience of a Jay-Z concert. White faces outnumber the black and brown. Get on the NYC subway and see white kids "saggin" and using the N-word in casual conversations amongst themselves the SAME way they see black youth interacting with each other. Listen to the language. Hear white people "shout out" to their "peeps" on TV and the radio.

I get Dov's oblivious reaction to his critics the moment he appeared in blackface. He, like the minstrels of yesterday, see no harm in their "fantasizing" about a life they themselves can't live. It's all good fun to "play act" right? What Dov and the minstrels could never understand is, what it is like to have to stay in the mask of the minstrel. To live with the impact and ramifications of white people's "fantasy" as a black person's reality. I have "cool" friends Dov says in explanation of his afro wig and blackface Purim costume. Of course he does. As an Assemblyman and Orthodox Jew, Dov, like the white minstrels of the 19th & 20th centuries, has no time to be "cool". He, like they did, see black life as "easy livin'" or as often stated, "shiftless and lazy". The ultimate black stereotype.

Nothing Dov did is new. Nor am I mad at him for doing so. Don't get me wrong, I personally won't vote for him and he most likely just destroyed his chance at running for Mayor of NYC, but, more importantly, what he did was refocus attention on the race realities of America today, and for that, I am glad. 

"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
Conrad Sage,
February, 2013

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