Are All Instances of Blackface Alike?

Perhaps there is a difference between donning it to mock black people and donning it to resemble someone, as Mark Herring did.

Mark Herring
Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring blacked up his face in 1980 when dressing as Kurtis Blow. Herring admitted what he did and apologized. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s yearbook page contains a photo of a man in blackface next to someone dressed as a Klansman. Northam admitted that he was one of the men and apologized, then said perhaps he wasn’t in the photograph at all.

Is it right to treat these two acts in the same way, as unforgivable acts of racism, even white supremacy?

I wonder if we are allowing social progress to detour into a kind of reflexive shaming. I wonder if all blacking up is alike, or if even blackface contains shades of grey.

Perhaps there is a difference between blacking up to mock black people, as the person pictured on Northam’s yearbook page seems to have done, and blacking up in affectionate imitation of a black person, as part of seeking to resemble said person, as Herring did. One indication that the latter is reasonable is that it was common among highly enlightened people in times hardly as removed from ours as Al Jolson and The Birth of a Nation.

I think of the early ’80s when Herring dressed as Blow—specifically, 1984, when I was in college at Rutgers University. That Halloween, a friend and I dressed as George and Louise Jefferson. I was Louise (I did a mean Isabel Sanford in my day) and my friend was George. He was white, and as part of his role browned his face. No Afro wig, but still.

We lived in Demarest Hall, an unusual dormitory with hallways dedicated to academic and artistic themes, which was very artsy, bohemian, nerdy, and politically committed in flavor. Needless to say, the political commitments were left and lefter. Demarest of this period is perfectly summoned in Junot Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and it was such a community in itself that to live there was essentially to attend Demarest rather than Rutgers.

As such, Halloween for me and my friend was mainly at the dorm, and nobody batted an eye at his being in blackface. We even won the dorm’s costume contest that year. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if today that friend of mine is worried that a photo from that night may turn up and get him denied a promotion.

That same year, two female friends, one white and one black, “switched” races for the night. The black one wore whiteface and the white one wore blackface. Not with an Afro wig or big red lips, but thoroughly blacked up. I believe she wore a head scarf, which could be seen as a “black” garment under the circumstances. Their idea was to ridicule the very idea of racial categories. They went about with an ironic air, the black one chirping “I’m white!” and the white one chirping “I’m black!”

Yet the black woman was what we would today term a highly woke individual. And no one chided the white one for, say, failing to attend to the fact that blackness is not just a matter of skin tone but of grappling with the coded hostilities baked into a fundamentally racist society. She was read as making a little joke, a wise one, even—and remember, this was a dorm full of people voting for Mondale, renowned (and often ridiculed) for being gay-friendly in a way alien to most of the campus beyond at the time, very comfortably interracial, replete with international students and all manner of the “different,” and professionally intolerant of the repressive, bigoted world of Reagan’s America beyond our dorm doors.

This was 35 years ago, in the age of Cheers, Atari, and New Coke. Does our nonchalance then about imitative or ironic blackface qualify as antique? After all, in some ways our society’s ethical assumptions have beneficially progressed beyond this era. For example, occasionally in that dorm, as in all dorms, incidents would occur that we would now call, and treat as, date rape. That term didn’t exist, nor was it a topic of discussion. In that, Demarest of 1984 was backwards compared with now.

Maybe a true progressive, a true anti-racist, should have reported my George Jefferson mimic and the “I’m black!” woman to the higher authorities? I’m not sure, especially since sensibilities on imitative blackface were different as recently as 10 years ago. On an episode of 30 Rock—a sitcom with a sensibility directly channeling the Demarest sensibility—the Jenna Maroney character dresses as a black football player and her costume includes brown makeup. There was no outcry over this, since the moment was perceived as an expression of Jenna’s cluelessness, presumably let pass by the “sensible” writer characters on the show.

Only since then have we gotten to the point that a similarly arch, satirical show, even from the left, would sagely avoid even that kind of blackface. The idea, apparently, is that whenever any white person puts on brown makeup, it can be read as a salute to, or at least not attendant to, the brutally dismissive blackface practices of minstrel performers from the 19th century well into the 20th. To wear blackface is to condone white men prancing around onstage talking in cartoonish syntax and promulgating an idea that the essence of blackness is resounding ignorance, sexual rapacity, and buffoonery.

But minstrelsy was a very long time ago now. Ever fewer people now living experienced it live. While we must never return to minstrel-style hijinks, does it really make sense, does it really serve a purpose, to ban anyone ever putting on brown makeup as part of mimicking a person of color regardless of his or her intent? Must we really have it that a white person dressing as a black person must do it with his or her own pale skin on view? The likely outcome will be a tacit societal rule that black Americans are the only people in the country who are never to be imitated, even in praise, except by other black people. And what purpose would that glum, peculiar stricture serve?

Yes, many say that intent doesn’t matter and that the key is how a message feels to the receiver. Okay—but there is an extent to which we control how we receive a message, and tarring Mark Herring as having channeled Al Jolson exhibits a certain hypersensitivity.

That’s a predictable take, yes, from someone who has written here recently in defense of Anders Carlson-Wee’s use of Black English in a poem and the meteorologist Jeremy Kappell’s inadvertent distortion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s name. But my consistent concern is the culture of heightened sensitivity that has arisen over the past five years or so, that has drifted beyond what even Demarest-minded people can embrace.

If Carlson-Wee was racist for using Black English in his poem, why did no one lob the same charge at Michael Chabon for the speech of some of his characters in, for example, his acclaimed novel Telegraph Avenue? Kappell slipped and said Martin Luther Koon because in speech we often reproduce a sound from before (or anticipate one afterwards—Koon anticipates the oo in Junior as well). And last week I heard a white woman in a question session at a conference say “blacklash” instead of “backlash” for the exact same reason, and no one listening cared. What mattered was the content of what she was saying—the intent, as it were.

Much of this special kind of vigilance, which leaves many people who thought of themselves as on the barricades a few years ago scratching their head, can be seen as a quest for power. To get someone fired from his job and publicly shamed for, say, having blacked up to dress as a black pop artist 40 years ago is to wield force, to have an effect; it is a kind of whip held at one’s side.

If we not only ban brown makeup even as part of an affectionate costume, but also declare that past use of brown makeup is sufficient for banishment from polite society, then we lay claim to a wisdom that people just a few years ago lacked, and accuse the recent past of deep ignorance. Could we not instead acknowledge gradations, the layered kind of communication we call wit? I can’t see the Demarites of 1984 as unintentionally benighted. We were lefty college students—a kind of normal. We would have burned in effigy someone who blacked up with minstrelese or disrespectful intent, in the vein of Northam. But I cannot honestly say I feel any shame about that Halloween night in 1984, or that anyone else who was there now should.

Ralph Northam must go. But must Mark Herring?