Askia MuhammadColumnistsOp-EdOpinion

MUHAMMAD: Dear Megyn Kelly — I Always Appear in Blackface

This should come as no surprise to most folks: I’ve always appeared in blackface.

So to see someone like NBC’s golden girl Megyn Kelly’s career quickly go down the tubes over a comment about blackface is a bit disconcerting. That’s because I’m not as rigid about blackface etiquette as most folks.

On two occasions, I have defied nature and blackened my own face even more, for a Halloween prank. The first time was in the 1960s when my roommate David Hammons — who would later win a MacArthur Genius Award — convinced me to go to a party in Los Angeles wearing blackface makeup. Then again in the 1990s, I went to a District Curators party here in D.C in blackface.

I never got any scorn for those clown incidents, but I did learn one thing: outside of some college fraternity parties, no one finds blackface stunts funny. Now that wasn’t the case 100 years ago when comedian Bert Williams was all the rage on vaudeville.

Williams, a Black man, wore blackface makeup every day in his act, even though he is a Black man. It was his Victor/Victoria way of cashing in on the prevailing “coon” entertainment formula.

By his blackness-in-blackface, Williams called into question the possible realness of White blackface performers who only emphasized their artificiality by recourse to burnt cork; after all, Williams did not really need the burnt cork to be Black. Neither do I. That’s what I thought was the joke. I’m already Black, ha-ha-ha. But it’s still not a funny joke.

In addition to his blackface, there was another irony: it was Williams’ on-stage cakewalk routine, which he presented as a Black person performing a dance in a way that lampooned whites who had mocked a Black dance, that originally satirized plantation Whites’ ostentatiously fussy mannerisms. In other words, he was a Black man mimicking a White man mimicking a Black man mimicking a White man. That’s funny.

What Megyn Kelly’s critics don’t get is that today Black folks know all about White folks having fun at their expense, and — you guessed it — it’s not funny.

Though Williams was wildly popular — he was the most popular Black comedian of his age, setting the stage for all those who came after him — and financially successful, his non-removable blackface required him to always enter theaters from the “colored” entrances, restricted the places where he could eat and where he could sleep on the road, required that he perform in front of segregated audiences, and even required that he accept second billing, even when he was the main attraction.

In other words, in the eyes of his peers he was just a lowly “negro” with a small “n.” Why one day, after things had gotten so bad in vaudeville that the Ziegfeld Follies performers decided to go on strike. Well, Williams was so isolated and estranged from the other performers that when he showed up for work at the theater, he was the only performer there. Not one of the other entertainers thought enough of Williams to even bother to tell him they were all going on strike.

Today, there is cultural retrenchment on the part of White folks who are getting angrier and angrier about the genetic recessive aspect of whiteness: that is the genes associated with White folks — blond hair, blue eyes — are dominated by the genes associated with the darker people — black or brown hair, brown eyes.

So White folks who dread the consequences of rapidly declining White birth rates compared to high birth rates for dark people — dark people who already outnumber whites 7 or 8 to 1 in global population — White folks have taken to lampooning Black folks, pretending that their mirth will soften the effects of their centuries of mistreatment.

Let me just tell you something else. It’s not funny.

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Askia Muhammad

WPFW News Director Askia Muhammad is also a poet, and a photojournalist. He is Senior Editor for The Final Call newspaper and he writes a weekly column in The Washington Informer.

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