So, why are blackface theatrics racially offensive?

As FDB’s resident American, albeit a ‘recovering American’ with some relative sobriety due my 13 years of residency in (and now citizenship of) Australia, I can understand to some degree why many Australians could not see the racial offence in the Hey Hey It’s Saturday blackface skit.

However, denying that the skit was offensive can not rely on any sort of excuse that such an offence can not occur in Australia. There’s certainly people present in Australia who reasonably can be offended by such a skit, starting with Harry Connick, Jr.  I do confess to harbouring some cynical suspicions that the Hey Hey producers needed some outrage for the benefit of ratings- and Harry was a handy person to have around to be outraged.

If there’s any viable excuse for not understanding why the skit was offensive, it could be due to the fact that many Australians may be ignorant of the use of demeaning, stereotypical blackfaced characters in popular entertainment for many decades. Bear in mind that ignorance of why something is racially offensive doesn’t make it any less offensive nor excuse the offence.

The primary reason why Harry Connick Jr, a New Orleans native, took offence at the Hey Hey skit is in part because he’s very well aware of the history of the use of blackface to stereotype and demean Africans in a predominantly Anglo culture. Mind you, simple commonsense should tell you, even if you’re utterly devoid of any knowledge of the history of blackface theatre, that making-up yourself to look like a certain ethnic person and then acting like a buffoon is highly likely to be offensive to the depicted ethnicity (and I’m talking to you too, Borat). Aside from his knowledge of the history of blackface stereotypes, the commonsense explanation is in no small part why Harry took offense at the Hey Hey skit.

Blackface in theatre has been around for a long, long time- since the 1830s, in fact. The blackface tradition was carried forth into motion pictures as they became a popular entertainment form. Typically, a white actor in blackface makeup was dressed in ‘dandy’ attire, though often tattered and second-hand to indicate the low socioeconomic status of the black person being portrayed. Blackfaced characters also commonly employed mispronunciations and malapropisms to reinforce the popular racist stereotype that blacks were stupid and unable to be educated, but attempted to act ‘above their station’ or be ‘uppity,’ inclusive of the character wearing garish garb which they mistakenly consider to be stylish. As the early 20th century wore on, actual black actors appeared in film and theatre- in blackface makeup which emphasised the eyes and lips. A comprehensive history of blackface and the common stereotype characters can be found on Black-face.com.

Blackface theatre portrayed and propagated stereotypes of African-Americans so pervasively that black actors couldn’t get work in early 20th century film unless they themselves played the stereotypes…


Hattie McDaniel in
‘Gone With The Wind”


Bert Williams


Billie Thomas as
“Buckwheat” in
‘The Little Rascals’

Blackface stereotype characters carried forth even into television programs of the 1970s, inclusive of Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Good Times, What’s Happening and Diff’rent Strokes. Black actors playing roles which more resemble real people is really a rather recent innovation in popular culture and entertainment.

A lot of Australian commenters on news items regarding the Hey Hey skit who claim to not recognise the offence try to lever the excuse that the ‘Jackson Jive’ troupe were merely spoofing the Jackson Five, not blackfolk in general. However, the ‘Jackson Jive’ troupe…

much more closely resemble the blackface ‘uppity coon’ minstrel characters who sing the old ‘negro’ song ‘Camptown Races‘ in the 1942 Warner Brothers Bugs Bunny cartoon short Fresh Hare

than they do the Jackson Five:

The Hey Hey skit actors, who have since apologised, claim not to have intended offence. While the lack of intent to offend may be true, the players simply didn’t think this one through. The skit would have been just as offensive in 1989- the only difference being that 20 years ago, no-one in Australia was brave enough to stand up and say so. The 2009 version of the skit was also undeniably racially offensive. That it was even considered for repetition was fully thoughtless, on the part of the Hey Hey producers and the skit actors as well.

Harry Connick Jr should be highly commended for the bravery to stand up to the Hey Hey producers and audience and call this skit out for what it was- racist rubbish.

-weez

Fight dem back · 8 October 2009 · Discussion