Black Face, White Face

by Glenn R. Geist

Your Face, My Face

Back in 1961, the book Black Like Me by John Griffin was a shocker. He darkened his skin to pass as a black man and toured the South. It was enlightening, to say the least, to white people at a time when segregation wasn’t looked at directly because it was – you know – just the way things were. There was a movie version in 1964 that made quite a stir. Griffin wrote that everywhere in the South he became accustomed  to the “hate stare” received from whites.

Of course he used a prescription drug and an ultraviolet light to darken his skin, so it’s not technically blackface and the project did a great deal to make white Americans open their eyes to the uncomfortable truth. Thinking about events in Virginia, I have to wonder: is it the blackface or the intent? Does it matter if the intent is humor or enlightenment and are those mutually exclusive? Are we adult enough, brave enough to ask questions like that?

When Eddie Murphy performed a Saturday Night Live skit called “White Like Me” in 1984, it seemed to be informed by the movie of 20 years earlier, With Murphy made up, somewhat convincingly, as a white man — but things had changed. It was mockery not didactic revelation.  I have to admit I thought it funny then, but looking at it today, the gross mockery of white people, the fantasy about whites not having to pay anything for anything, being served Champagne on the bus, getting bank loans without collateral while sailing care-free and prosperous through life appealed to our hip self-image as enlightened young people.

I don’t think it’s aged well.  I laughed at the mockery of the way white people walk, talk and behave, because you know, comedic truth is a kind of truth and really we white people are all so guilty for being born in a former European colony.

Again it seems mean rather than humorous now,  just as his “Raw” routine about AIDS and homosexuals seems inappropriate today.    I didn’t think as much about the struggles of most Americans trying to get ahead with the country turning conservative again. Perhaps the picture of a white man’s secret paradise hasn’t stood the test of time.

Thirty-five years past that point today,  I no longer know what to think. Eddie seems offensive and racist to me now but perhaps less so to others. We’re all so much more sensitive, more prone to see things without humor, more prone to seeing society’s inequities and hypocrisies as intrinsic and absolute properties of race rather than historical circumstance — and less willing to see the other guys perspective. So if someone thought it was funny to pretend to be a famous and admired black musician in 1984, racist intent is assumed.

Perhaps if a white man played Othello we also wouldn’t look for motive but issue irrevocable condemnation. It’s different if a black person plays Alexander Hamilton I guess, but Is that objectivity or the lack thereof? The reasons for all this are beyond my patience and willingness to discuss, but we are evolving somehow and  yet we’re refusing to talk about it. Many are stuck in the binary  “four legs good, Two legs bad” morality mode which relieves us of painful thought or introspection or fights with the agencies of righteousness.

At my age, I feel like Moses on Mt. Nebo knowing I won’t see any of this resolved and the view of the promised land remains shrouded in clouds of uncertainty, but it does seem that animosity increases and mutual respect and tolerance are still riding in the back of the bus, avoiding eye contact. I’m not Moses nor was I meant to be. I’m not even a wise man, but just an old one tired of mankind destroying himself in seeking vengeance for ancient and ancestral offenses. Can’t we just get along?

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Posted by on February 11, 2019. Filed under COMMENTARY/OPINION. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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4 Responses to Black Face, White Face

  1. Michael John Scott Reply

    February 11, 2019 at 9:16 am

    “I’m not even a wise man, but just an old one tired of mankind destroying himself in seeking vengeance for ancient and ancestral offenses. Can’t we just get along?”


  2. Glenn Geist Reply

    February 11, 2019 at 11:45 am

    It’s not as though those idiots aren’t offensive, but our inconsistencies reveal much. Mock old people. Mock the Mexican, the Indian, the Jew, The Muslim the Irishman – hell you can insult anyone with not much trouble. If you’re against bigotry, I’m on your side but I mean against bigotry in general and in deed. Be as angry about blocking voters and Gerrymandering and intimidation and disenfranchising all minorities and I’m on your side.

    So is it a good thing that the Minstrel Show was once widespread and very popular entertainment, but now it’s mostly drunken Southern frat boys and doing it can ruin you? Miracles don’t happen, slow improvement does. Our grandchildren will mock us as reprobates, not as enlightened – hell they already do.

  3. Bill Formby Reply

    February 11, 2019 at 6:46 pm

    There was a time when Don Rickles was one of the funniest stand ups around. No one was left out when it came to mocking people. While I still think he was funny I am not sure he could make a living today. As I think back over the years and the many jokes I told I would also likely be an outcast in today’s society. I guess my days are passed. I even have trouble telling Alabama – Auburn jokes for fear these will also be banned.

  4. Glenn Geist Reply

    February 12, 2019 at 8:40 am

    I’m not sure Will Rogers could make a living today and famed wit Mark Twain would be black listed for having put the N word in the mouths of his characters. Actually he seems already to have joined the ranks of the permanently unforgiven.

    The poet Keats wrote that his name was written on water. He was wrong, but it’s true of a lot of people’s reputations today. What’s in a word? Why, everything!

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