What Year IS This?

I have something to say about blackface. You’re shocked. I know.

I woke up this morning thinking about my full weekend full of family and kids and guests in our home. Mason had his girlfriend visit from the West Coast and that added to the number of kids in this house. Two 20-year-olds, two 18-year-olds, and a 16-year-old. Plus, my oldest, Mallory, came by for a visit as well. Am I absolutely crazy or what?

Don’t answer that. I am crazy. This isn’t news.

What is news, however, is that the Academy Awards were on last night and I was too busy doing work and enjoying meals with the revolving number of people coming and going from my house. Six children coming and going and stopping to have breakfast or dinner and then running errands and trading cars and trying to stay on top of who needs to be picked up and when. It was, as expected, a glorious weekend for me and The Cuban as we like all the busy-ness of the house and the life breathed into it with laughter and serious discussions and music. Always with music.

Then, I had to go and read the news this morning. Monday mornings are, at times, filled with moments of checking back into reality. Apparently, Billy Crystal hosted the Oscars and did a bit where he put on blackface and resurrected his impersonation of Sammy Davis, Jr. A reference that, at best, is remembered by people who were likely offended the first time he did it nearly 30 years ago. I’m old enough to remember Sammy Davis, Jr. but I have to wonder if the cultural relevance of that performer was worth the long stretch back into Crystal’s repertoire to include a black musician in a number performed at the Oscars. Especially during a year when the controversial movie The Help had two black actresses up for awards where they played maids.

Black actresses playing maids. In 2012.

I just had to put those two sentences next to one another to make certain that my head doesn’t explode into pieces when I add that a white man put on blackface at an awards show. With that inclusion, I am forced to gather that the awards are no more germane to anything important about film and art than the moral courage it took for black actresses to take a role portraying them as mere caricatures. Surely, their performances were worthy and it was difficult to play, but I don’t give it a pass based on that.

I thought that the arguments about actors in blackface was over. My assumption is that we didn’t have to discuss that anymore. Black people spoke up and said it was offensive. If the intention was that white audiences wouldn’t have been able to see performances about and by blacks, then it’s long lost its luster. White viewers got to peek inside the entertainment of blacks in terms of music and dance and drama without having to give black entertainers their due. By that definition, it was cheating. A sly way to rubberneck the lives of people who were considered second-class citizens and poke fun at their “otherness” without having to be in the same room.

In 2012 I am, once again, left scratching my head at how far we haven’t come because I had this conversation today all over again. It was around the dinner table with my children (and other people’s children) and it opened up a dialogue my family is comfortable having about race. But I didn’t need to have it again. Especially in the context of the Here and Now of today when I told my children that this didn’t happen back in the 19th Century at a minstrel show, but that it was on television last night.

I’m not really crazy. I’m just beyond the hackneyed debate of things like white actors in blackface. I thought we all were.

Photo credit to Kate Raynes-Goldie


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