There was an article in The New Yorker magazine recently by Dan Piepenbring, who was hired by Prince to collaborate on Prince’s memoirs not long before the pop star died of a fentanyl overdose in 2016.
The book, Prince said, would have to surprise people, motivate them, be “something that’s passed around from friend to friend” – like John Howard Griffin’s “Black Like Me,” he said.
Published in 1961, “Black Like Me” recounted the experiences of Griffin, a white man, when he essentially donned blackface – Griffin had his skin temporarily darkened – to pass as black in the segregated South. In describing the hostility of white people to him, he rendered a service to both blacks, whose experience could be seen and believed for the first time by some white readers, and whites who might properly be ashamed.
Marx said history repeats, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. In 1984, Eddie Murphy staged a skit entitled “White Like Me” in which he purported to “experience America as a white man.”
He went to a newsstand and tried to pay for a New York Times.
“What are you doing?” said the white clerk, pushing his coins back. “There’s nobody around.”
“Slowly I began to realize,” Murphy said on voiceover, “when white people are alone, they give things to each other for free.”
Blackface – or whiteface – is not intrinsically bad if it is done for some greater purpose. Yet that is seldom the case.
We were startled to read the other day, for example, that Kay Ivey, the 74-year-old governor of Alabama, had performed in a skit at a Baptist Student Union party at Auburn University in 1967 wearing blue overalls and black paint on her face as she crawled on the floor looking for cigar butts. The audience reportedly found this hysterical.
This was blackface in its commonest form, a denigration of all black Americans. Ivey apologizes now, but we have to wonder how many more of these skeletons are waiting to clatter out of the closets of white American politicians.
Ivey is a Republican, but Democrats are hardly immune, as witness the case of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who was compelled to apologize after a yearbook photo of him in blackface surfaced earlier this year.
More and more we want to ask, how long has this been going on – when on some level we must know the answer is: forever.
Rachel Swarns, a journalist, has been looking into an order of Catholic sisters who established an elite academy in Washington, D.C. in the early 19th century. They had been remembered as the Church wished, as nuns who ran a school “free to any young girl who wished to learn – including slaves, at a time when public schools were almost nonexistent and teaching slaves to read was illegal.”
That was not true. In fact, as Swarns’s New York Times piece in early August was headlined, they were “The Nuns Who Bought and Sold Human Beings.”
It is shocking. But it, and Gov. Ivey’s reckoning, are all part of a necessary process of re-examining our past as Americans.
It could be worse. We could be in the situation of Arab societies,where this viciousness is still a pop staple.
“On television networks across the Middle East, performers regularly darken their faces in comedy skits to wring cheap laughs from demeaning stereotypes and centuries-old prejudices,” The Times reported two weeks ago.
“Slavery was not formally abolished in some Persian Gulf countries until 1970. In many places, the word ‘abeed,’ meaning slaves or servants, is still the racial epithet of choice for dark-skinned people.”
If there is some good in all this, it must come from knowing that while America’s reckoning seems long overdue, we are, at least, doing it at all.