Blackface in Berlin
Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, found herself in an apparently awkward situation this past Friday when holiday carolers arriving on her doorstep included several in Blackface. Eyebrows were raised and perhaps the correctness bells were clamoring over lovely German youth sporting black on their faces. Just what was the message?
Blackening one’s face with burned cork , shoe polish or grease paint has a long and complicated history in the United States and elsewhere. In the US the original practice allowed white performers to denigrate blacks in a variety of ways that amounted to crude and offensive stereotypes. But, beginning in the mid 19-th century, Blackface also became perhaps the dominant performance style in all of American theater. It was widely popular and was used as a way of bringing opera and other stage genres to the public. Blackface, in the 1840’s was the “reality show” of today; everywhere and wildly successful. Whites wore Blackface and so (inexplicably) did Blacks. (In the 1930’s and 40’s “Black comics at Harlem’s Apollo theater wore Blackface and said they felt ‘naked’ without it.”
Blackface solidified its hold by branching out into “minstrels”, three-act plays where blackfaced actors, either White or Black, sang, acted and danced, though again generally employing unflattering stereotypes of Blacks.
Some where along the way the symbolic “Darky” emerged perhaps because the verbal co-opting of exaggerated Black vernacular was insufficient. Wooly hair, bulging eyes, huge lips, jet black skin and white teeth further “enhanced” the image of the outrageous Black. Aunt Jemima is a well known, though a very toned-down “mammy” example.
Blackfaced actors and minstrelsy in the US declined with the advent of the Civil Rights movement though it continued to be popular in parts of Europe, especially Britain. These days the “minstrelsy/Darky” stereotype, complete with its gross physical exaggerations seems to have been replaced with the shorthand version of “black on a face.” No need to do more, history does the rest.
Toned-down images are still used to market products which employ the “Darky” iconography: bulging eyes, big lips, etc.
Is Blackface stripped of the “Darky” stereotyping racially insensitive? Can actors, or regular people, for that matter, color their face and convey either a neutral or positive message in doing so?
It turns out that Ms. Merkel’s carolers were celebrating a religious ritual called “Three Kings Day” where part of the observance is honoring the “Wise Men” or Magi of Christian fame. Biblically, they included a Persian, an Indian and an Arabian, respectfully, thus inclining them to a darker color skin. Ritual calls for one or more of the carolers to blacken their skin to recall them.
An apparent act of veneration was interpreted by the press, (possibly Merkel) and others as being racially disrespectful but that does not seem to be the case. Ironically, the US national shame both about the institution of slavery and the denial of Civil Rights is generally associated with Africans and it seems that the Magi even failed to fit that bill.
The reaction to children and the Magi says a lot about how far we have come and how far we need to go where a true understanding of race is concerned. Perhaps it is also a cautionary tale where a “smartphone and 24-hour breaking news society” is stripping us of our capacity to reflect and see the nuance in any situation before we react.
( Credits: Amazon, Wiki, Telegraph, NYDN)