BREAKING NEWS: Keenan Ivory Wayans takes on remake of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation tentatively titled The Nation’s Been Birthed, Sucka. Johnson and Johnson slated as supplier of blue-colored contacts and baby powder during the film’s production.
False alarm. I couldn’t help myself.
An intriguing yet peculiar occurrence that has manifested in African American popular culture over the last two decades is the performance of whiteface or black actors portraying white characters. Often “dressed” in chalky white makeup and blue contact lenses, these caricatures of white folks often trouble or legitimize whiteness for a non-white audience. On the surface, whiteface performers often exaggerate widely recognized and aesthetically pleasing aspects of white people and culture from a minority viewpoint – light eyes, light colored hair, swanky clothes, snobbish attitude. The ultimate aim, however, is to present the audience with how an Othered body subverts whiteness as normalized discourse.
Like the historical shifts of race dynamics noted in American history, inter-performance of race reflects the social-cultural implications of these shifts in the United States. Minstrel shows of the 19th century headlined white performers in burnt cork makeup interpreting and signifying the deemed inferiority of the African American experience. The popularity and enthusiasm for blackface minstrelsy reflected the need for white Americans – especially those in the South – to retain nostalgic notions of white supremacy through entertainingly re-enforcing supremacist discourse.
Perhaps more importantly, besides the lack of an included marginalized voice in blackface minstrel shows with the exception of African American actor Bert Williams, is the intentional disallowance of African Americans to participate outside of their subjectification. Minstrel shows were intended for white-only audiences while shamelessly disenfranchising the black experience. Because of the visible and uncontested markers of race framing this era of American history, its popular culture reflected supremacist notions of race and white superiority as normal.
The Passing Narrative in African American Culture
The antithesis to minstrel shows as an authentic performance of blackness was the passing narrative produced by African Americans in the early 20th century. These narratives, wrought of traumatic experiences indicative of the effects of white supremacist discourse, suggested passing (for white) as a coping mechanism of the racially tense and violent social climate of the early 1900s and ‘20s. This option, limited to melanin free or melanin-intolerant African Americans, further complicated black identity and gender politics. Many of the noted passing narratives for men of color like James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man often framed their decisions to pass in light of an extremely violent event like a lynching. Johnson’s anonymous narrator recounts in horror his witnessing of the lynching of a black man:
“Have you ever witnessed the transformation of human beings into savage beasts? Nothing can be more terrible. There he stood, a man only in form and stature, every sign of degeneracy stamped upon his countenance. .. some of the crowd yelled and cheered, others seemed appalled at what they had done, and there were those who turned away sickened at the sight. I was fixed to the spot where I stood, powerless, to take my eyes from what I did not want to see.”
Johnson’s use of words like “powerlessness”, “fixed”, and “degeneracy” to describe not only blackness but black manhood suggests an acknowledged and deeply engrained obedience to white supremacist discourse. The Ex-Colored Man’s transcribed helplessness also criticizes the bestiality of white men, who, in public record, are the perpetuators and embodiment of normalcy. This critique is complicated, however, by the Ex-Colored Man’s desperation and willingness to become white. The agency here is survival instead of unadulterated enjoyment of whiteness and its attached privileges.
Women’s passing narratives, including Nella Larsen’s novels Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) or Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun (1929) also look to passing as a coping mechanism but in more subtle, nuanced ways. The hyperawareness of respectability and black women’s bodies is especially highlighted in Larsen’s works, often using marriage as a marker of the refinement and acceptability unavailable to African American women and reserved for white women.
For Clare Kendry, one of Larsen’s protagonists in Passing , her marriage to the blatantly racist Jack Bellew is an orchestrated critique of how visible and invisible discourses of race and gender intersect. Clare’s unspoken blackness is subtly brought to the forefront of the text by Jack’s oblivious yet fond referral to Clare as “Nig”. Jack, like the lynch mob in Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, deemed himself a superior being because of his whiteness and manhood. His virulent outbursts about the inferiority of African Americans and bitter opposition to miscegenous relationships ironically manifests in his marital bed through sleeping with his black wife.
The nature of Clare and Jack’s relationship subverts the familiar narrative of a slave woman/slave master relationship through Clare’s willingness to take on the risk of “staging” herself as a white woman and partaking in white American culture. Her “deception” undermines the white supremacist discourse Jack Bellew embodies, simultaneously resisting and perpetuating instilled notions of black womanhood by white America.
Ain’t No Black in the Union, Jack: Early Representations of Whiteface in African American Culture
If the passing narrative is indicative of the desperation to be less afflicted by white hegemonic discourse, then whiteface engages white supremacy as a counterstrike to blackface and (mis)representations of African Americans by whites. George Schuyler’s novel Black No More (1931), I posit, introduces the reader to a predecessor of a ‘postracial’ society and an early glimpse into what whiteface performance empathizes. While Schuyler’s exaggerated characterizations of black intelligentsia like W.E.B. Du Bois and activists like Marcus Garvey warranted a bulk of the novel’s wit, Schuyler was an equal opportunity hater. He develops an intriguing plot centered on the question “what if everybody could be white?”
Black No More suggests that both blacks and whites invested heavily in a racial discourse that carved out problematic niches of existence that intersected at the fringes. A conservative, Schuyler was frequently embattled with his contemporaries in debates about his politics. He argued that Americanness trumps race. In his essay “The Negro Art-Hokum,” a rebuttal to Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Schuyler asserts: “In the homes of the black and white Americans of the same cultural and economic level one finds similar furniture, literature, and conversation. How, then, can the black American be expected to produce art and literature dissimilar to that of the white American?”
While Schuyler’s texts arguably set the standard for critiques of racial identity politics and colorblindness, later performers like Richard Pryor pick up where Schuyler left off. Very straightforward and notorious for sharp, shock value comedy – after all, dude did release an album called Bicentennial Nigger in 1976 fresh out the Civil Rights Movement – Pryor, too, solicited whiteface antics to discuss the changing tide of race relations. Pryor’s one man play Black Ben, the Blacksmith or Prison Play was performed in 1968. Pryor performs interracial roles, including a black prisoner (himself), the white guard, planter, and southern belle, and Black Ben.
Shawn Wayans undergoing his transformation for White Chicks
Black Ben is significant to the framework of whiteface because he complicates not only the minstrel tradition but also breaks ground while inadvertently addressing the question “what does white sound like?” As Glenda Carpio astutely points out: “Pryor operates through hyperbole, piling exaggeration upon exaggeration while turning minstrelsy on its head…Pryor does not replicate the verbal and physical antics of the minstrel stage. Rather, he echoes but ultimately displaces the violence of that stage – its distortions of black speech and bodies – while creating a humor of incongruity that uncovers the sexual and scatological obsessions that fueled minstrelsy” (82). Although Pryor is not visibly made up to look white while performing, his voice characterization of whiteness subverts not only the oral tradition of black storytelling familiar to white audiences, i.e. Uncle Remus, but also gives voice to an otherwise oppressed narrative. Simply put, Pryor uses humor and his voice to coerce his audience to consider what white looks and sounds like outside a white perspective.