When we moved south back in 1996, I wanted to see, smell, taste and experience all things southern. THIS is where all the shit went down, you know? Slavery. Civil War. Emancipation. Jim Crow. The Chitlin Circuit. Civil Rights Movement. Separate but (un)Equal. I wanted to drench myself in it, soak it up, really feel it down to my core. Half of my heritage blood is spilled all over southern ground – and yet I knew so little about any of it.
What I do know is this – my father was born in 1934. To a family of share croppers. In Marked Tree, Arkansas. On his 6th birthday he was given a sack and sent to the fields to pick cotton. He hated it. HATED. IT. My dad had a brilliant mind & restless soul – he was often whipped by my grandmother when she’d find him hunkered down in the rows, absorbed in a book. She punished out of fear, not cruelty – she knew nooses had a way of finding the necks of smart, educated black boys. And my father was ALWAYS reading – escaping into worlds where his skin didn’t matter. He could be who ever, what ever, he wanted to be. Away from the sweltering fields. No lowering of his eyes and stepping off the sidewalk when white folks passed. No night riders burning crosses in the yard for kicks. None of that yessir, nosir bullshit.
He wanted out.
And got out he did. He was 14 and chatting with another 14 year old, who happened to be white. And female. When word of this lynchable offense reached my grandmother (who, at the time, was a mortician’s assistant) she talked her boss into driving my father up to Chicago – in the company hearse. Oh yes she did. By midnight, my teenage father was huddling in the back of a hearse on his way up north to live with people he didn’t know – cause he flirted/whistled/looked at a white girl. Or Not.
I mean Jesus fucking Christ.
This was in 1948 – seven years before Emmett Till was kidnapped, beaten, shot, barb wired to a 75 pound fan and thrown into the Tallahatchie River in Money, Mississippi. For whistling (or not?) at a white woman.
My grandmother was having none of that.
Way back when I was a kid, there was a chain of restaurants called Sambo’s. There was one in our neighborhood – we’d drive past it every day. But never, not once ever would my father take us there for meals. Which upset me because I really wanted to join the Sambo Tiger Club – and get a free mask.
The thing is – and this was the beginning of many frustrating years between my father and me – he never told me why. I knew nothing about the history of Little Black Sambo nor had I ever heard or read any of the children’s books Helen Bannerman wrote about him. I just knew my father bristled whenever Sambo’s was mentioned. He even changed the channel when the commercials came on -but that was probably to shut me up about the freakin Tiger Club.
My father never talked about blackface. He did talk about passing. He told me about Grandmother Elizabeth, a light skinned beauty, he’d say, with good hair. He told me about an older sister, Lily, tall, fair skinned with long black hair. Another sister, Tina, who was so often mistaken for white the townsfolk would stop and stare a when they walked down the street together. Passing was good, he told me. Lighter was better.
When I was ten, we moved from a lower middle class mixed neighborhood to an upper middle class white neighborhood. 5 miles away. That was my culture shock. I went from being a happy, well adjusted, smart & popular kid to a halfbred nigger loving social pariah. Over night. It was like word got out that a flock of niggers were descending & desecrating the block before we had a chance to unpack the first box. Our house was spray painted with “Niggers go home!”, swastikas and KKK. Snakes were shoved through the mail slot in the front door. Gasoline was poured all over the front lawn in an attempt, I guess, to set the house on fire – fortunately (or not) it only killed the grasss. Oh how I wished that house would have gone up on flames.
I wanted out.
The first day at my new school traumatized me. Really. I was not expecting, nor in any way prepared for all the ugly hatred coming at me. “Nigger” was the word of the day. Every. Fucking. Day. On the way to school. At school. On the way home from school. Nigger was my new name. Every. Fucking Day.
Okay that’s not entirely true – sometimes they’d switch it up with half breed. Cher sang a song about it – and she’s a unique, beautiful badass. So I was cool with that, actually. Half breed I am, then.
Until my father said I wasn’t.
I could not believe my father couldn’t see what was happening to me. How could he not? Or not protect me, from it? I wasn’t even sure how to tell him. I mean – he’d said nothing while white washing the house of the nasty slurs, swastika’s and KKK graffiti . Not a peep while grappling & bagging the snakes, later tossing them in an empty field. My dad was my hero when I was child. He really was. I adored him.
And all that came crashing down around me when I told him that,
Every. Fucking. Day, I was being bullied for being black. His responses?
“You’re not black“.
“Whatever you’re doing to make them call you a nigger, stop it.“
“You’re not a halfbreed. That’s a derogatory word to describe someone who is half Indian and half Black.”
“If you think you’re a nigger, I feel sorry for you.“
Then he paper bagged me. Had me stick my hand in a lunch bag, then asked me “What’s darker, you or the bag?”
Me (utterly shredded, defeated and confused) “The bag”.
Him “Then you’re not black, are you?” Then he slipped his hand in the bag, saying “See? Neither am I”. Even though his skin was about four shades darker than the bag.
I’m ten years old. Being hated on Every. Fucking. Day. Of my life. For being half black. And here’s my black father, telling me he’s not black. That I’m doing something to bring all this horrible shit on me, and I deserved it. He was ashamed of me. Embarrassed by me. Disgusted with me. He drove his shame, anger and denial down deep into my psyche.
I never, ever brought it up again. But in a weird twisted way – I suppose I practiced Blackface, without the grease paint, to get through middle school. I smiled. Pretended to be happy. Pretended not to hear the racial slurs and taunts. Wanted my peers to like me. Accept me. Be comfortable, with me. Which is probably exactly how black actors in blackface felt, you know? Performing for people who hated them, and hating themselves, for it. I know I hated myself.
I didn’t know the history of Blackface until college. Seriously. It’s makeup. Dressup. Halloween. What’s the big deal?
The big deal is this – white audiences didn’t want to see black folks on stage – so white actors wore blackface to make them comfortable.
The origins of blackface date back to the minstrel shows of mid-19th century. White performers darkened their skin with polish and cork, put on tattered clothing and exaggerated their features to look stereotypically “black.” The first minstrel shows mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations, depicting black people as lazy, ignorant, cowardly or hypersexual, according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
The performances were intended to be funny to white audiences. But to the black community, they were demeaning and hurtful.One of the most popular blackface characters was “Jim Crow,” developed by performer and playwright Thomas Dartmouth Rice. As part of a traveling solo act, Rice wore a burnt-cork blackface mask and raggedy clothing, spoke in stereotypical black vernacular and performed a caricatured song and dance routine that he said he learned from a slave, according to the University of South Florida Library.
Minstrel shows were usually the only depiction of black life that white audiences saw. Presenting enslaved Africans as the butt of jokes desensitized white Americans to the horrors of slavery. The performances also promoted demeaning stereotypes of black people that helped confirm white people’s notions of superiority.”
By distorting the features and culture of African Americans—including their looks, language, dance, deportment and character—white Americans were able to codify whiteness across class and geopolitical lines as its antithesis,” NMAAHC says.
It’s been nearly 200 years since white performers first started painting their faces black to mock enslaved Africans in minstrel shows across the United States. It was racist and offensive then, and it’s still racist and offensive today.
Recently, one of the controversies erupting over blackface is a 1980’s photo in Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook. It shows one person in blackface and another dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. At first Northam said yes, that’s him in the photo, and he apologized profusely, for it. Days later, he retracted the apology, saying that was not him in the photo.
Then, in a move that is nothing short of mind boggling, he jammed his foot all the way in his mouth by declaring that he knew it wasn’t him in the photo cause back in 1984, he was trying to be Michael Jackson – with the glove, the shoes, the sparkle and the moon dance. Oh and a tiny bit of shoe polish.
Shoe polish? To be Michael Jackson? The massively talented black megastar who wanted to be a white woman?
Dude STOP. Just STOP.
And here’s the thing – even though I’m not the kind of person who looks for things that may or may not be there – over the years I’ve developed my own weird sense of blackface boycott. Like – I have never seen a Madea movie. Not a single one. And I think Tyler Perry is a genius. I really do. But the stereotypical loud, vengeful, Ebonics speaking black woman is not representative of who I am, or the beautiful black women in my life.
And ya’ll I love LOVE LOVE Nina Simone, yet of all the amazing black actresses in Hollywood, Zoe Saladana (in blackface!!!) was chosen to portray her on screen? The hell? WHY???? Nina was the voice of Civil Rights, writing songs like “Mississippi Goddam,” “Young, Gifted and Black” and “Four Women.” She LIVED the struggle. “I can’t be white” she jotted in her journal, “I’m the kind of colored girl who looks like everything white people despise or have been taught to despise. I’m a girl in front of the public all the time, wide open for them to jeer and approve of or disapprove of.” I’ve got nothing against Zoe. But I couldn’t go there, ya’ll. Couldn’t watch it.