Blackface.Posted: September 3, 2009
Some media attention is being focused this week on a scene in the most recent episode of the early-sixties advertising drama Mad Men, in which Sterling Cooper partner Roger Sterling, at a country club function he’s hosting, performs a song in blackface. (The still above is from that scene.) The moment shocked audiences as a reminder of our unenlightened past, as if it were from a past we have left behind.
But if you look around and listen, you’ll discover we haven’t left it behind.. Slate today has a feature on “urbanized” cartoon-character t-shirts, including one depicting a black Bart Simpson; and anyone listening to the radio will hear white singers attempting to “sound black.” Indeed, the phenomenon of white suburban teenagers dressing and talking “black” is so well-known now as to have become a cliché. The only difference is that (actual, non-cartoon) people don’t put black makeup on their faces anymore — but I would argue that’s a superficial difference. We may have changed the form blackface takes from the one Roger Sterling employed, but we have not changed the substance.
White people have been appropriating black styles of performance and presentation since Reconstruction (sometimes in admiration, sometimes in parody, and sometimes in an ambiguous blend of the two). To find other recent examples, one has only to look at all the scenes in movies of the last twenty years in which some white middle-class grandma gets up at a wedding reception and performs hip-hop, a disjunction clearly intended to be received as hilarious in itself. Blackface the way Roger Sterling did it is no longer approved, but our society has its own ways of doing it now, which are so much a part of our fabric that we don’t think about it. Any more than Roger did.