Wednesday, May 02, 2007


[posted by Callimachus]

Blackface haunts the fringes of political discourse. The authentic historical images of it -- like the one above -- shock us today. But really they shouldn't. As the Wikipedia article notes:

Blackface minstrelsy's groundbreaking appropriation, exploitation, and assimilation of African-American culture—as well as the inter-ethnic artistic collaborations that stemmed from it—were but a prologue to the lucrative packaging, marketing, and dissemination of African-American cultural expression and its myriad derivative forms in today's world popular culture.

... Despite its racist portrayals, blackface minstrelsy was the conduit through which African-American and African-American-influenced music, comedy, and dance first reached the American mainstream. It played a seminal role in the introduction of African-American culture to world audiences.

When Elvis Presley or other white acts took songs by black performers and spun them into commercial hits (such as his inferior and muddled "Hound Dog," which properly is a woman's song), that could be seen as blackface without the makeup.

The historical reality of the blackface phenomenon (rooted in America but immensely popular worldwide) is a compelling image that can be adopted to political situations where someone is perceived to be grotesquely pandering to an inappropriate audience, or pretending to be something he or she is not.

In a notorious recent case, a liberal blogger used the image against Joe Lieberman. It used to be here, but it seems to have "disappeared" like a purged Politburo member from a Stalin photograph. The picture is helpfully preserved here, however.

There really was no race component to the argument over Lieberman until this blogger introduced it, which I suppose is why it struck many observers (left and right) as odd and offensive.

The blogger probably wanted to paint Lieberman as a kept clown for the Republicans, who certainly do find in him their only Democratic ally these days. Why not a clown suit, then? Why the blackface treatment?

The undertones of it were revealing, I think. In that a progressive would instinctively identify her political faction with a repressed, exploited, victimized racial group. Which is pretty unnatural, given the social status of a great many progressives. There is no implied insult to blacks in her caricature. It is vicious for what it suggests about Republicans, and creepy for what it suggests about how progressives perceive themselves and others. But that's nothing new.

More recently, Chris Muir, the creator of the conservative "Day by Day" Internet comic strip, portrayed Hillary Clinton in blackface after a string of incidents in which Hillary was exposed adopting black idioms and speech patterns when addressing black audiences. The falseness of it was painfully evident, and I imagine it made many of her friends cringe. Such behavior is fodder for political opponents, and Muir was hardly alone in parodying it.

Unlike the Lieberman case, race clearly was an issue here. But one could question whether the blackface image was appropriate. After all, historical blackface was done for the approval of white, not black, audiences. And historically it was black American leaders who became skilled in both racial idioms, and were able to step from one into the other for effect and expedience. Even in front of the same audience, as the preacher does so wonderfully at the end of "The Sound and the Fury."

[The fact that it is now white politicians who perform this trick (and not terribly well) is a delightful illustration of how far we've come since the blackface days.]

Most of the "Day by Day" Strips dispense conventional pokes at the hypocrisies and ideological blind spots of Democrats and what we mis-call "liberals" in modern America. The sort of obvious observation that nowadays gets dismissed as "talking points," as though one could notice it only when instructed to do so by party leaders. It's mostly gentle poking, more "Doonesbury" than Ted Rall.

The blogger Jon Swift, however, finds that, unlike "Doonesbury," "Day by Day" is "rarely funny at all." That's a common critique of conservative humor, which liberals profess to find an oxymoron.

I agree that it's nowhere near as witty or sophisticated as the liberal version often is. But for conservative audiences, I think, the mere idea of seeing their worldview expressed in these mediums -- newspaper-style comic strips, stand-up comedy, Hollywood movies, what have you -- is so novel as to be entertaining in its own right, whether it's objectively "funny" or not. Horses who could read might pronounce "Black Beauty" the greatest novel ever written. It would be foolish to try to tell them it's sentimental trash.

As to whether all conservative humor is intrinsically unfunny or not, that depends on your point of view. Most politicized humor is, at bottom, cruel and based on twists and libels. If you find one political cartoon amusing and not the other, my guess is it may be mostly a matter of whether you're on the side being laughed at or the side doing the mocking.

Don Imus's recent tumble into infamy strikes me as another case of blackface. That is, he slipped into a blackface act 60 years after such behavior stopped being broadly approved. He was a white man adopting a black man's idiom to entertain a white audience.

Is blackface imagery ever legitimate? I think it can be, as a political image, but it ought to be handled like old dynamite (which it is). Frankly, I wish we stopped hiding things like "Song of the South" from ourselves. Who are we trying to kid? You can't make a better future by censoring the past. You only set yourself up to fall into pits you didn't realize were there.

Some images fall into the gray area, where the audience has to use its judgment to determine if the artist has crossed a line or not. And that judgment will be based in part on the artist's prior record on such matters. When a conservative magazine uses an octopus as a negative image for a mayor who happens to be Jewish, or a German America-phobic magazine uses a mosquito to represent American businessmen, many of whom happen to be Jewish, some people cry foul.

Certainly the octopus and the blood-sucker figure in the filthy historical literature of anti-Semitism. Yet they also are useful images that have been employed widely in art untinged by hatred. Evoking such things does not automatically disqualify you from decency. An audience has a duty to think, and you can't excuse yourself from that by applying blind rules.

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