Mom, I asked, why do we collect depictions of people in blackface?
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Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I saw blackface every day.
That’s because my mother collected blackface figurines, cartoons and drawings.
She had the worst of the worst.
There were the Tex Avery cartoons, where someone caught the wrong end of a stick of dynamite. There were pictures of black caricatures eating watermelon.
We had a couple of lawn jockeys, too.
One day, I asked my mother two questions that had been on my mind since childhood: Why did you collect depictions of people in blackface, and why did you keep it so close to our front door?
She told me that she wanted to remind me what the world thinks of black people.
At the same time my mother explained to me her subtle, or maybe not so subtle, lesson, I was learning exactly the same lesson as I went back and forth out of our South Side home. I realized she was preparing me for a world that might see me as a threat.
Mom’s educated guess hit the nail on the head.
Halfway into February, which is Black History Month, we learned about Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook. On his page in the yearbook, there’s a photo of a man in blackface standing next to someone dressed as a Klansman. Once Northam was outed, he admitted to being one of the two young men in the photo — although he did not say which one — and apologized. And he’s since backtracked on that, saying he’s not in the photo at all.
Then, before we could even move on from Virginia elected officials behaving badly, the Commonwealth’s attorney general, Mark Herring, admitted that he had used blackface years ago when he dressed up as rapper Kurtis Blow for a college party.
A lot of folks don’t see black people as human.
They see us as costumes.
And Herring’s statement admitted as much.
“It sounds ridiculous even now writing it,” he said. “But because of our ignorance and glib attitudes — and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others — we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup.”
In 2019, we’re hearing about something Herring did 39 years ago.
If Herring is truly paying attention, finally, he might want to think about the lyrics in a song by the man he mocked that day.
In the 1980 song “The Breaks,” Blow rapped about a series of unintended circumstances while saying, “Well, these are the breaks. Break it up, break it up, break it up.”
Missteps by white people when it comes to blackface are hardly exclusive to politics. It gets around.
Take the fashion world.
Italian fashion designers Prada and Gucci recently pulled bag charms, which are accessories for purses, and black cashmere scarfs from their clothing lines when it was pointed out that they resembled black monkeys with exaggerated black lips, much like the art my mom collected.
When I look back at all these blackface incidents, from Tex Avery to Prada, I don’t think these people deserve any breaks.
Is this what they think of black folks?
It turns out that a “hit dog will holler.”
And mom was right.
Evan F. Moore is a digital content producer for news with the Chicago Sun-Times.
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