Let’s Talk About: Black-Face Minstrelsy

About a month ago, many countries including The Bahamas were preparing to face the wrath of Hurricane Irma. Fortunately for Nassau, Bahamas, the impact of the storm was minimal.

However, many people anticipated an earth-shattering storm. Desiree Johnson and her two sons impulsively headed to Toronto, Ontario to escape Irma. Their story went viral since they were featured on CTV news. Their story was also shared on a GoFundMe page, organized by the Gargis family from Tennessee with intent to provide the Johnsons with funds until they were back on their feet. Desiree Johnson and her sons intend to stay in Canada with hopes of building a new life for themselves. You can read more about it on Nassau Guardian’s website (if you’re unfamiliar with it). It caused quite an uproar.

“Daddi Whites,” a somewhat well known Bahamian internet comedian created a parody skit about the Johnson siblings. As you can tell from his name, “Daddi Whites” is white. Unfortunately, he found it necessary to portray them using black-face.

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Since it’s October and we’re getting closer to Halloween, I decided it’d be a great time to share my opinion on the matter. While some might see it as a harmless joke, it isn’t. The issue continues when we, as content consumers, treat it as a joke and not as something deeply rooted in racist stereotypes.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the history of black-face, allow me to give you a brief history lesson.

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For the sake of context, I’m referring specifically to black-face for entertainment purposes or minstrelsy shows. Black-face has been around since as early as the 1600s. Shakespeare’s play Othello is famous for using black-face since Black Europeans were not allowed to perform on stage (source).

The Europeans took these habits with them when they went to America. Ironically enough, minstrelsy gained popularity because of abolitionists pre-American Civil War. Their goal was to demonstrate the cruelty of slavery and humanize slaves. Black-face acted as a mask for abolitionists because it allowed them to protest without repercussion. Minstrel shows included overexaggerated stereotypes of black slaves that painted them as lazy, subservient, and idiotic. It also included music that mocked “slave hymns” and “negro spirituals.”

Post Civil War, the need for the “black mask” was no more. However, they still found an excuse to continue the practice. The purpose was now for entertainment and “accuracy” (because you can’t portray a person of another race without painting your face *eye roll*). It should be noted that during this time, former slaves began participating in minstrelsy because they needed money. They took on the roles of these stereotypical characters such as “Zip Coon” and “Mammy” to make money. Initially, they were using black-face make-up because it helped with exaggeration and the white audience applauded it. Isn’t it peculiar how comfortable the white audiences were with black-face, but not black people?

Since Black Americans were portraying versions of people based on their race, they attempted to dial down the stereotypes a bit. However, it didn’t make an extreme difference since they were still aiming to disassociate themselves from those characters off stage (source).

Black-face minstrelsy show thrived by depicting black people as comical idiots. They were characters put in place to patronize and tease for fancy white giggles. Here’s a video example on YouTube:

 

How would you feel if you knew that was how an entire group of people viewed you?

In Daddi White’s video, he and his “co-star,” a black man, depict the Johnson sons as desperate beggars, in the most negative way possible. The youngest is told to knock on doors and beg for food, as he’s teased about his size. They talk about how their mother must be a prostitute to earn money (in a much more vulgar way). Not only that, but they scream and yell in the airport like idiots. It’s degrading, to say the least. I get it, it’s an unusual situation, but it’s not funny. A mother leaves to possibly give her children a better life is far from a bad thing. Insinuating that all she’s capable of doing or willing to do is sell her body is a sad assumption. Assuming that the only thing on her sons’ minds is food (based on their appearance) is demeaning. Especially since they’re in an unfamiliar environment with nowhere to go.

Not only that, but the fact that “Daddi Whites” is a white man in the Bahamas means that he has a fair amount of privilege. Whether we choose to acknowledge that or not, it’s true. He shouldn’t be given a “pass” just because he’s Bahamian. He’s still white, and it’s still inappropriate mockery. He’s still using black people as the butt of his stupid joke. Haha.

To conclude, don’t paint your face black if you’re not black. It’s not funny. You can dress up as a character without painting your face. Although the intentions might not have been malicious, the end result was still negative. Black-face is racist. Period. Point blank. Don’t do it.

 

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-Sara B.

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