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Breaking the Taboos of Blackface Minstrelsy

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When I first visited artist Mark Steven Greenfield's studio a few years ago I felt as if I'd been dropped into a mine field loaded with taboo, political correctness, and liberal guilt. I found myself face-to-face with large sepia-toned prints of white actors in . . . blackface! These repugnant relics freaked me out -- I honestly didn't know how to react. There were eye charts superimposed on each photograph, not the usual mix of letters for checking vision, but some sort of text. I slowly sounded them out: S-O-T-E-L-L-M-E-W-H-O-S-T-H-E-N-I-G-G-E-R-N-O-W-?; W-H-A-T-C-H-O-O-L-O-O-K-I-N-A-T-M-U-T-H-A-F-U-C-K-A-H-? The messages left me reeling. I suppressed a strong urge to exclaim "I'm not lookin' at nuthin'" and run for the door!

I didn't run, but after the initial jolt, I had to examine my reaction. How had this artwork had such a disorienting affect on me and evoked so many emotions -- shock, guilt, fascination, repulsion, shame, fear, and confusion? What did I really know about blackface minstrelsy? The subject has become "disappeared" to the point that most of us know little about it aside from its racist implications.


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Mark Steven Greenfield, from blackatcha series, Nightmare, 2001, Iris print, 38" x 24"


Mark maintained his cool and maybe even took a little pleasure in my discomfort. He had been through this many times, not just with white folks like me, but also with blacks, including angry family members. I knew I wanted to show this provocative work at my gallery, but I needed to understand my reaction to it and be able to intelligently discuss the work with others. Mark suggested I read John Strausbaugh's Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture.

First published in 2006, Strausbaugh's book is a taboo-busting, eye-opening look at race relations and popular American culture. Strausbaugh takes us on a fascinating ride through the history of blackface and its pervasive influence -- from the first Africans brought to Portugal in 1441 as exotic curiosities, to slavery, white actors blacking up for Shakespeare's Othello, the wildly popular minstrel shows of the 19th century, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Jim Crow, Vaudeville, Rock, Hip-Hop, Blaxploitation films, Negrobilia, Gangsta'Lit, Ebonics and more.

In 1832, a white ghetto boy from New York, T.D. Rice, began performing his song Jump Jim Crow, dressed like slave with black grease paint and absurdly wide red lips, while shuffling across the stage in the character of a Southern Negro. He became the first blackface superstar, and for the next half century minstrelsy would be the dominant form of American entertainment.

"However shameful we find it, blackface has played a large and integral role in the formation of American popular culture. It existed before the heyday of the minstrel show, and has persisted long after the minstrels faded away . . . Although it was certainly racist, it was sometimes something other than that, a reflection of the complex of neuroses and pathologies that mark relations between Whites And Black in America -- a complicated web of love and hate, fear and guilt, attraction and repulsion, mockery and mimicry."



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Mark Steven Greenfield, from Doo-Dahz series, Portrait of Rosetta Duncan, 2010, pen & ink on Duralar, 36" X 24", currently on view at Offramp Gallery through June 26, 2011.

 According to Strausbaugh:

"Simply condemning it all as an entertainment that pandered to White racism does not begin to account for its complexities, its confusion, its neuroses. It simultaneously laughed at and wept for Southern Blacks. In the years leading up to the Civil War, minstrel songs proposed both pro-and antislavery positions. After the war, minstrel performers were as likely to be actual Blacks as blackfaced Whites."

With the wave of immigrants pouring into American at the turn of the 20th century, New York City became the famous "melting pot." Many ethnic groups had to learn to live side by side and accept each other's differences. Much of this was accomplished through humor, reflected on the Vaudeville stage. Black actors in blackface shared the stage with other broadly played ethnic stereotypes. Most of the light-skinned ethnic groups managed to blend in with white America, but the stereotypes persisted for Blacks:

". . . it cannot be doubted that the images of Blackness that were most familiar to many White Americans into the twentieth century were not Blackness at all, but some version of blackface. Blackness as interpreted and re-created by White people, often in mockery, but sometimes in genuine and sincere imitation."

From Black Like You:

"The cakewalk is one of those intriguing confluences of Black and White American cultures. Blacks on the plantation had developed it as a satire of their White masters. Their backs stiffly arched, their butts held tight, they strutted, bowed, and twirled their canes in a blatant parody of the way tight-assed, stiff-necked White folks moved. White folks loved to see Black dancers execute a fine cakewalk, and demanded to be taught how to do it, apparently unaware that they were being mocked."

Everyone should read this book. It is an invaluable guide through the mine field I encountered on first viewing Mark Steven Greenfield's work. A broader understanding of blackface makes me squirm a little less, gives me new insight into race relations and popular culture in America and lets me look beyond the indignities blackface engendered without forgetting them.

Cross-posted from Jane Chafin's Offramp Gallery Blog.