Slimantics: When it's appropriate to dress in 'black face'


Slim Smith



Today, let's talk about all the situations where it is appropriate to dress in "black face." 




Now that we have produced that comprehensive list, let's talk about to what degree politicians connected to black-face incidents in college should be held accountable. 


In recent months, there have been reports of various state political figures who were members of fraternities or clubs at a time when black-face photos were recorded for posterity in their college yearbooks. 


To date, none of the politicians have been personally captured in black-face in the images, but their friends and associates were. Guilt by association? You could make the argument that, at the very least, these officials did not appear offended by it at the time. It's the "company you keep" argument and cannot be dismissed entirely. Does it reveal something about these people's character or their private beliefs? Is it part of a pattern? Or just an isolated, unfortunate incident that the person had no control over and may not have even been aware of? 


In an email from a reader, the case was made that its unfair to criticize people "outside their time." 


The reader pointed out the example of Stephen Foster, writing: 


"He died in poverty at age 37 but not before he had written over 200 songs. He was 100 percent American, the greatest of American musicians. 


"Do you realize when he was on stage, he was in black face? His songs were written in Negro dialect. His song "The Old Folks at Home" was written about slaves longing to return home. 


"So, are we smart, self-righteous modern people supposed to ban Stephen Foster's songs? Really?" 


Although I am not aware of any movement to ban Foster songs -- what would the Kentucky Derby be without the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home"? -- the reader raises a defense that often accompanys criticism of our ancestors. 


The thinking goes that it is unfair to judge a person of an earlier era by the standards of today. There's some truth to that, of course. Even the most enlightened people of earlier times, would be judged, in some respects ignorant, bigoted and wrong-headed today.  


But in choosing Foster, I believe the writer may have chosen a poor example by which to make his case.  


Considered in the context of his time, what we can discern of Foster from the historical record strongly indicates his use of black-face differed significantly from the common usage. 


His music certainly suggests as much. The lyrics, although written in the black dialect, touch on themes common to all - love of home and family, a nostalgic yearning for the past, an appreciation of the natural beauty around him.  


Understanding that, could it be that Foster, who died in 1864, was making a larger point in his music? Is Foster making the point that the sentiments expressed are human qualities shared by all, even blacks - something that seems obvious today, but was far from accepted in Foster's time. 


But what of black-face? 


It's important to remember that in Foster's time, blacks were not permitted to perform before white audiences. There are no photographs of Foster in black-face, so we do not know if his make-up was presented to make a black man's features comically exaggerated. Although it is speculation, when you consider the nature of Foster's "black" lyrics, it's reasonable to suggest that his use of black-face may not have been the caricature we typically associate with black face. 


Now, compare Foster's use of black face to the far more common use of it. 


Overwhelmingly, black face and the accompanying "minstrel" music were used as a device to mock, humiliate, dehumanize and caricaturize black people. It was just as abhorrent then as it is today. Human decency -- or the lack of it - transcends time periods. What's wrong is wrong, whether it happened in 1880 or 1980 or today. 


As we consider the current state politicians who have been connected to the use of black face, there is no "context of their time" argument to be made. 


That this practice persisted in some of our colleges more than 20 years after the Civil Rights movement changed the racial landscape is something we should all regret and never seek to rationalize or defend.


Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]


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