Thursday, February 14, 2019

Blackface Controversy and America's Perception of Real Black Faces

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Nationwide  C'mon. I need ev'rybody singin'. Coon Man (aka Virginia Governor Ralph Northam) you take the lead. I need all eleven seceding Southern states to join in: "I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten." Now Northern States I need you to chime in. After all, you insured the enslaved cargo and the enslavement ships; exported the harvest from the enslaved labor; and ultimately removed the troops from the South ushering in Jim Crow. A monumental betrayal of African-Americans! Sing from your gut: "Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land."

The ships that appeared off the coast of Africa didn't emblazon a Confederate flag but a red, white and blue flag, with stars. And we were all led to believe enslavement was a southern peculiar institution: "Den carry me back to ole Virginny." The real black faces know better.

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Not too distant from America's enslavement era, Jim Crow, and institutional racism, a picture of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (Gov. Northam) in minstrel black face with a watermelon grin - standing next to a Ku Klux Klansman recently surfaced sending shock waves through America's racial cortex. At first Gov. Northam admitted to it and went on to give us the standard white people's "I'm sorry" explanation. And then the retraction: It seemed after some serious contemplation in which Gov. Northam probably envisioned the black face of the current Lt. Govenor Justin Fairfax (Lt. Gov. Fairfax) becoming "The Governor" Gov. Northam quickly gave us a different take. Instead, Gov. Northam confessed to another black face minstrel show: The one he dressed up like Michael Jackson, black face and all. We all could surmise, Gov. Northam must have been referring to an earlier version of Michael Jackson - because we all know there would be no need for black shoe polish for the latter Michael. To further convince us, Gov. Northam was willing to showcase his moonwalking talents for the press before being talked down by his wife. For many of us, Gov. Northam had already "moonwalked" on his admission of guilt.

Keeping the black face jig going, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring shortly thereafter, admitted to wearing a minstrel black face posing as rapper Kurtis Blow during his college days. Blow told the Washington Times, "When you paint your face, that is the most egregious and disrespectful thing you can do considering what we've been through. It's opening up some deep, historical scars." Kurtis Blow penned the popular rap song "THESE ARE THE BREAKS" which illuminated the vicissitudes of black life. I just wish White America would listen to Kurtis Blow and put the "THE BREAKS" on this runaway black face minstrel show. That doesn't seem to be happening anytime soon.

Participants in these minstrel shows keep rearing their jigaboo heads. According to NBC News, when Virginia State Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment was managing editor in 1968 of a Virginia Military Institute yearbook it was seasoned with racist language and students in black face. Looking to capitalize on the recurring historical black face trend, GUCCI started selling a black turtleneck-style sweater that covered the mouth with an opening in bright red lips. PRADA got in on the black face act as well. The PRADA monkey-like trinket featured exaggerated red lips. Both GUCCI and PRADA have apologized and pulled these products from stores and on-line. Spike Lee, T.I., Dapper Dan, amongst others are boycotting these brands. You can count on this real black face to join them!

How soon do we forget Virginia is a state where Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are still state holidays: legislative actions which institutionalized SAMBO. Although we applauded the taking down of some Confederate memorials on public lands, we are quickly reminded that Virginia's minstrel tradition has been handed down from generation to generation. It is as American as apple pie, baseball, pickaninny and coon. The father of the black face show was Thomas Dartmouth Rice who was also known as "Jim Crow" and created a vogue for the genre. The pioneering company, Virginia Minstrels, had its first performance in 1843.

The black face minstrel ghosts of Virginia striking up songs with the fiddle, bones and banjo are now haunting us via the depictions of Gov. Northam and Attorney General Herring in black face with watermelon eating grins. The real blackface: Lt. Gov. Fairfax is facing charges of sexual assault by two women and possible impeachment. It looks as if Lt. Gov. Fairfax can't find anything to grin about because the historical black face minstrel shows were designed solely for the denigration of real black faces.

Although the Democratic leadership is calling for Gov. Northam to step down, the Gov. is pushing back on any idea of resigning and has now committed himself to reading black culture: "Roots," Ta-Nehisi Coates, and others. Gov. Northam says this experience has enlightened him and moving forward he will use his position to promote racial healing.

Let's see how serious the Gov. is about healing and if we can get "Coon Man" to take the lead in singin': "REPARATIONS" for the real black faces.

Tolson Banner is a writer and columnist. He can be reached at

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