The Blackface in our Closets Author: BobRDate:2019-02-13 13:00:00
The blackface saga in VA continues to spawn news reports and online discussions. It's an awful situation, but there is one upside - we (as a country) are finally having a discussion that was overdue decades ago. Regardless of one's intentions, the reality is that it hearkens back to a terrible period of our history, and for our fellow black human beings, it's a painful reminder of the horrors their ancestors endured, and the casual racism they continue to face daily.
It also has us all going back to our high school and/or college yearbooks (and photo albums) to see if our history is tainted. The answer - yes, we are all tainted. I looked at my high school yearbook and guess what? There was a blackface photo.
I didn't grow up in the south. I grew up in a small town in upstate NY, a farm town, really. The school was lily white, with the main differentiator being what Christian church you went to. It wasn't until I was in my sophomore or junior year that a black family moved into town. It was a non-event. The guy in my class immediately made friends. It was the 70s, and the hippy love rainbow mindset was stronger than the redneck small town mentality. He dated his white female classmates, and no one cared (well - maybe their parents cared, but I was not privy to any of that).
As it turns out, the Senior Play the year we graduated was M*A*S*H. Not the TV series with Alan Alda, but the movie with Elliot Gould. The movie had come out 8 years earlier, and was really fairly adult material, but the drama teachers went with it. I was a full-blown stoner at the time, so I don't remember anything about it. As an adult decades removed from high school, if I hadn't seen the pictures, I'd never even know our class did that.
The black kid in our class got the leading role of Hawkeye Pierce. I am not really sure who got the other parts except for one: "Spearchucker Jones".
Yes, that is correct. When was the last time you saw the movie? I don't remember that at all, but reading the synopsis of the film, the doctors apparently brought in a former college athlete as a ringer for a football game. Supposedly, he was a champion javelin thrower, but let's be real. It was just an excuse to call a black athlete "Spearchucker" for cheap laughs.
In an egregious display of poor judgement, not only did the drama club teachers leave that character in the high school production, they cast a white kid in the role. You don't even have to ask - they did him up with brown makeup and fake "braids". Nobody stopped and said "hey wait a minute - this really isn't appropriate", especially since the black kid's parents (the one playing Hawkeye) would be in the audience to see it. Did they put whiteface on the black kid to match the movie character? You already know the answer to that one.
The "white kid" who was blackfaced by the drama teachers is someone I reconnected with years ago, and he is a good conscientious progressive. I asked him about it, and he said he couldn't believe the teachers did that, and that he's mortified and ashamed of it. I feel bad for him, that it's a potential time-bomb from his past that someone could use against him.
But that was the mindset. He didn't know to refuse it, and no one in the school thought to question it. Would that fly today? Of course not. But back then, we weren't that far removed from the Civil Rights era. It's hard to imagine, but that was small town America in the 70s - not just in the South, but everywhere.
So before all the self-righteous condemn our politicians for their actions as young people in a different era, take a look at your own history, and look at their actions and words from their more recent history. We all deserve to make mistakes, learn from them, and improve ourselves.
But most importantly - we need to learn from the past so we don't repeat it.