2009-10-21

The Blackface Debate Continued-Spike Lee Had It Right


Someone the other day asked me how I felt about Bamboozled after I shared my views about blackface and why I felt it to be offensive. I briefly stated that I wasn't offended at Bamboozled because the circumstances in which blackface was used was completely different than the context we have seen recently in Australia and in French Vogue.




I guess for those who have never seen the movie, I will give a synopsis. A black network executive is told by his white boss that he is "too white" and all his television shows about blacks are too "whitewashed". The executive isn't able to quit due to a contract, so he concocts the Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show for the sole purpose of getting fired. It is literally a minstrel show staring Mantan and his best friend, Sleep n' Eat. The show displays Mantan and Sleep n' Eat's exploits in the watermelon patch. Mantan is a nod to Mantan Moreland, and Sleep n' Eat is a nod to Willie Best. His boss loves it and the show becomes a mainstream hit, not only appealing to black audiences, but other races as well. Fans of all ages and races are referring to themselves a "nigger", and no one is offended because "it's all in good fun."



The movie is pure satire, but the sad thing is I see it happening every single day in the entertainment industry. There isn't much difference between this:



and this:



I don't normally agree with Spike Lee, but he is right on this one.There is a certain expectation of what black is, and as a black person you are supposed to fit into this mold and be part of a great big monolith. I remember growing up getting asked by white kids why I didn't "act like the others", not realizing that they had never met the others, just saw them on TV. I never once questioned why these white children didn't see me as the norm, since I was the only black person they knew in real life. Why was I "other" and the people on TV appropriate in their stereotypical "blackness?" Why is it people always asked me why I talked different? Why did they ask me what is it like to live in the ghetto, when I lived in their neighborhoods and had never lived there? Or if I could dance for them. Or if I used Crisco in my hair. These kids had never seen me in the ghetto, had never been friends with black people prior to me, but they knew how black people were supposed to be because of what they saw on television or what their other friends and family told them. They had no real direct experience with black people, just perceptions to go on, and they stuck with those perceptions. Why?

When we challenge these people and their perceptions we are "sensitive", "too politically correct", or we can't take a joke. We see entertainment and blame the entertainers, when we need to blame not only the entertainers, but the corporate entities that actively market them. We always talk about how other blacks and their perceptions of what "acting white" is, without taking into consideration what whites think "acting black" is, and it is usually without the luxury of knowing what "black" is up close and personal.