October 2009 can be seen as odd month for Black Americans. Two separate events (three if you count America’s Next Top Model’s hapa model shoot [link]) involving the act of blackface made national media headlines.
To don blackface now is generally considered in poor taste to most Americans, but that doesn’t mean people in other countries have figured that out. And in case you didn’t know, blackface is a theatrical act that was commonly used to portray Black Americans in an unflattering caricature that over-emphasized the darkness of our skin, the size of our lips, and the mannerisms of some in our culture when the practice of blackface first began.
The first incident that made national headlines is the now infamous Jackson 5 incident from the Australian variety show Hey, Hey It’s Saturday. Five men with their faces painted with black-as-midnight greasepaint did a serious, with no malice intended, meant to be taken humorously, imitation of the Jackson 5. One man in the group imitated Michael Jackson by painting his face as white as a cloud. The men called themselves the Jackson Jive. [link]
A week later, French Vogue, photographed the controversial model Lara Stone in blackface. ( She’s controversial because she’s a “curvy” size 4.) The magazine is no stranger to controversy though and has even been known to court controversy. In April 2009, the magazine raised eyebrows with its photo shoot featuring pregnant models smoking cigarettes. [link]
While the blackface photo shoot received outrage because of the use of blackface, outrage also existed because people were concerned about why more black models weren’t being used in fashion magazines. This was such a concern that this latter controversy concerning the use of black models in the fashion industry overtook the issue of the model being in blackface. [link]
So what’s the difference between the Jackson Jive incident and the French Vogue incident? Context.
Even though the Vogue model was painted in blackface, she was not “blackface.” She was not a black buffoon with overly exaggerated lips and skin as black as the midnight — another exaggeration, who was shucking and jiving like those people in the original blackface would have you believe that that is what “those people” [niggers, blacks, spooks, spear chuckers, porch monkeys] do.
She was elegant; and she was so elegant, people wanted to know why French Vogue didn’t use a real black model in the shoot.
However, the Jackson Jive was an image every black person has been working to distance themselves from since the invention of blackface.
The men acted like buffoons in black-as-midnight greasepaint. Although they were mocking a group, they did it using the natural skin color of the group. How often do we mock people based solely on their skin color? Customs? Sure. Religious practices? Yep. Skin color? Rare. (Sorry Albinos.)
For example, in Japan, it’s still common to see some blackface on TV. (The coloring is done in context.) Also consider that with Barack Obama being the first person of color in the White House, there will be those who don the paint in order to imitate him (and Michelle).
So what does this mean to the future of blackface? Well to use a turn of phrase that was also used in a movie that featured blackface: if you do go blackface, never go full blackface.
And for an example of context, look at this video of a Japanese Stevie Wonder impressionist. Can you see how he is working in context?
And look at this Louis Armstrong impressionist, do you think it’s the same? [link]