Thursday, February 7, 2019

My Blackface Career

Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as the Nubian princess Aida at the 2017 Salzburg Festival, bronzed like Trump.
And at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in the HDTV performance I saw. How hard was that?

OK, I have no plans to run for office in Virginia or anywhere else, so I could keep this to myself, but I don't think I should. I was maybe 18, more likely 17, an unbearably raw white-boy freshman from a very small and faraway town—and I was invited, I don't recall by whom, to play the part of an enslaved black person in a video presentation, for educational purposes, of, or more likely from or about, Mrs. Mary H. Eastman's 1852 Aunt Phillis's Cabin, or, Southern Life as It Is, in brown face and hand makeup but a dignified jacket and tie, just reading my lines straight—I'm sure I'd remember if I'd been asked to read any dialect, or encouraged to do any clowning. and I don't, and I imagine it was a very small part. The book is pure propaganda against Mrs. Stowe, obviously,  and I would have been Uncle Bacchus, the good-hearted but helplessly shiftless opposite of Uncle Tom—refreshing the memory from Wikipedia, it looks very proto-libertarian, in that nearly all of the characters are educated white men arguing philosophically about their helpless dependents, who have hardly any voices at all; less a novel than a tedious treatise. No wonder Mrs. Stowe won.

I never saw the project, if it was even completed, and I didn't become friends with any of the people doing it, if it was for a class it wasn't a class I was taking, it was a very long time ago, but there it is.

I'll tell you what the single worst thing about this project was, if it's not obvious. It's not that I wore something like blackface, though I feel nothing but hot shame over that. It's that there wasn't one single black person involved in the thing.

It was at Michigan State University, not Dartmouth for fuck's sake. There were all kinds of black kids on campus and likely an above-average number of black faculty, though I can't be sure of that (I only lasted a year there anyway, I was really unready). There should have been somebody to tell them that you couldn't do this without the counsel of a black person, and presumably that they shouldn't do it without black actors and most likely shouldn't do it at all.

That's systemic racism: where a bunch of white kids can congregate to make a contribution to the discussion of racism, with a perfectly "liberal" intention, without noticing at all the oddity of doing it that way. It didn't occur to anybody. It didn't occur to me. I did my lines on camera, washed, and went back to the dorm in the belief that I'd done something good, and indeed "for" integration. I wish it had occurred to me, but it didn't. We didn't notice it, because it was totally normal for black people to be excluded from everything, not on purpose, but because nobody had ever thought about doing anything about it.

This isn't meant to build up a case to excuse Ralph Northam, just because I might think I deserve to be excused, or the cheer squad of Black Night at Covington Catholic for that matter. It's to praise, perhaps, the culture of sensitivity we have now that prevents things like my Aunt Phillis's Cabin from happening and would have prevented Northam's yearbook from existing as well. It's to plead, also, that white people try to remember to invite persons of color, invite them and listen to them and not assume they know it all by sheer goodhearted intuition or reading smart op-ed columns. Everybody needs to be in the conversation or we'll all be doing it wrong.

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