Race, Social Justice

From Shirley Temple to Rachel Dolezal, blackface is an American tradition

America: A land of apple pie, baseball and racism.

Racism is alive and well in America. There’s no denying it.

The recent controversy of Rachel Dolezal’s co-opting of Blackness, Dylann Roof’s atrocious violence in South Carolina, and the rise in the desecration of Black churches have confirmed our gravest fears. On the brink of the alleged leading country of the free world’s birthday, we are reminded of the historic skeletons residing within its proverbial closets.

Injustice is regrettably thriving. The tradition of violence against people of the African Diaspora continues to be as synonymous with America’s cultural identity as baseball and apple pie.

Within and outside of activist circles, terms like ‘white privilege’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ have become the topic of heated debate, the Twitter-verse and blogosphere often outing the antics of frequent perpetrators like Katy Perry, Iggy Azalea, and even Taylor Swift. Although the current trend of pop divas channeling Blackness in attempts to boost record sales or to suggest some sort of credible authenticity, the extreme case of Rachel Dolezal’s self-identification as a Black woman is more sinister than gawking at a twerk teams a la “Shake It Off” or sporting chains like ‘Sheezus.’

Dolezal’s attempt to master Black performativity is a modern day minstrel show, seeped in white privilege.

She’s far from the last. Neither is she the first.

Minstreley treatment of Blackness as mere fodder for the masses, whether for monetary gain or as a route towards fame, has deep historical roots, often stemming from white femininity. Its contemporary persistence, as bell hooks suggests in Killing Rage, “strips away the component of cultural genealogy” associated with Black womanhood.

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Early perpetrators include the iconic author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe’s narrative enactment of blackface perpetuated racialized tropes that still persist today. Her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was actually penned in support of the abolition. But it led to the literal blackface performance of Vaudeville’s Duncan Sisters, who played the novel’s protagonists Topsy and Eva during the 1920s: Rosetta Duncan donned dark face paint to play the part of Topsy. Side by side, the Duncan sisters performed songs like “I Never Had A Mammy” for nearly a decade to an adoring audience.

“America’s little darling” Shirley Temple followed in the Duncan Sisters’ footsteps with her feature film The Littlest Rebel. Young Temple appeared on screen reminiscent of a miniature Aunt Jemima, her hair wrapped up tight in a scarf and her skin painted pitch black.

A few years later, Judy Garland implored a similar tactic in her portrayal of an aspiring performer whose love for jazz leads to attending auditions as a blackface singer.

One might argue that things have improved since minstrel show’s heyday and Hollywood’s tolerance of blackface, but then we are reminded of Dolezal’s unforgettable performance and her donning of a Diaspora that falls outside of her own.

Much like Stowe’s novel, Rosetta Duncan’s Topsy, Shirley Temple, and Judy Garland, Dolezal’s privilege as a white woman might momentarily mask the ominous intentions behind her desire to channel Blackness.

But the nature of her actions, like those that came before her, is racist. Its narrative ensures the erasure of Black womanhood.

In the aftermath of blackface’s legacy, I can only wonder if the co-opting of Blackness by white women will ever stop.

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Dianca Potts

Dianca Potts

Dianca London Potts earned her MFA in fiction from The New School. She is the prose editor of LIT Magazine and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. She is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a VONA Voices alumna. Her work has been featured in Kweli Journal, The Village Voice, The Toast, and Obsidian. She currently resides in Brooklyn.

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