Blackface Is a white fantasy about the way things used to be
By Verushka Gray, Fri., June 20, 2003
That's how the freshly minted placard on the shed door read as we returned from visiting the farm animals in the small, fenced field behind our cottage. This cozy B&B runs along one of the many highways that crisscross the Hill Country. Hill Country hospitality -- I had heard about it since my move to Austin, and here I was, finally able to experience it myself, firsthand.
My reaction was a delicate balance between grace and umbrage when my colleague, in a casually horrified manner pointed to this particular decorative and utilitarian form of racism. After all, our entire cabin was riddled with "pickaninnies," "coons," and "blackies."
Calling out or pointing fingers at this particular home away from home would serve no purpose, as this kind of subtle -- and not-so-subtle -- racism is pervasive throughout the deceptively Teutonic Hill Country. Insipid memorabilia depicting blacks in a racially suspect manner -- so-called black Americana is all over the American South, all over Texas, and yes, even all over our beloved Hill Country.
You can buy a dancing Sambo figurine in Fredericksburg. You can salt your steak & eggs with an obese, grinning mammy in Marble Falls. Once, at a Canyon Lake greasy spoon, I flicked the bathroom light switch only to find out that I had flicked the nose of a grinning, blackface Stepin Fetchit. And yes, the whole experience out in the Hill Country was doubly troubling for all parties involved because I am a woman of color, which ultimately meant that -- whether consciously or not -- that sign, "Colored Women," was meant for me.
Black Americana (as we'll call it for the sake of this piece) reflects the physical and social abstraction of the black body and person. The mouth, the kinky hair, the broad nose, and the forehead of the black body are stretched and exaggerated to look grotesque, foreign. Blacks in these pieces are almost always depicted in a position of servitude or in positions as entertainers, marketing some antiquated product of some sort. Or in the case of the Colored Women placard, it's a throwback to recent-enough historical events and artifacts that only up until one generation ago kept people "in their place," so to speak.
Independent from our country's nefarious history of shameless land grabbing and that whole imaginary "classless society" thing, these jarring images and their deeper implications go right to the core of U.S. social ills. Everybody knows the face of Sambo and Mammy, but is the question ever asked: Wherein lies the power dynamic? Between the constructor of these images and those whose images are being appropriated, decimated, and repurposed? Who precisely is Sambo entertaining? To whom is Mammy serving dinner? What awaits behind that shed door for Colored Women?
Racism is nothing if not about context. And even though this writer herself is young, black, and vaguely affiliated with the black bourgeoisie, she is still reduced to a morose alarmist at the sight of segregationist memorabilia that specifically references and reduces her perceived person and proud heritage.
In light of this culturally cockeyed barrage, what I needed was to intellectualize this experience, to have it broken down for me. And with these thoughts in mind, I sought out Michael Ray Charles.
Michael Ray Charles is known the world over as a brilliant American painter who, since 1991, has worked with and subverted Sambo-like images, which he refers to as the "evolved Sambo image." His work won him an art director's slot on the set of Spike Lee's Bamboozled. Charles also happens to be an associate professor of art at the University of Texas.
In early May, Charles spoke at the d berman gallery on "The Property of ..." -- his latest (and first for Austin) show. His exhibit explored American culture's relationship with sports and entertainment, two recognizable bastions of black success, and how people involved with those fields are affected by commodification, economic or otherwise. Despite the modern angle, Charles' signature Sambo subversion was utilized throughout to point out the perceived differences between black and white.
"My work truthfully tries to explore what those dynamics are," says Charles. "I want the past to always be present, because if it isn't, the possibilities of moving past or beyond it will never occur."
His installation at d berman had an otherworldly, David Lynchian feel to it. Everything, from the red vaudevillian tent and etched, basketball-style jerseys made from burlap and overstuffed with cotton to the raised parquet floor and piano in the corner, comprised a surreal dream, indicative of the type that might bubble beneath the surface of the collective black consciousness.
His talk could have easily been an art-history course in the evolution of the iconic black Sambo. Charles took the audience from antiquity up until the present, illustrating how this image evolved, asserting connections between black Americana, classical representations within art, and that 20th-century phenomenon -- advertising.
"The mammies and Uncle Toms are reminders of a time that was," says Charles. Historically, blacks in this country have never really had agency in defining what "blackness" is. Someone else has always done it for us. That's how hegemony works when you're on the wrong side of it. "The African-American in our time," Charles attests, "will [not] be able to construct images that truly reflect the African-American as desirable, because in our culture success is synonymous with 'whiteness,' and 'blackness' with poverty and lacking."
"Race" and the inevitable stereotypes that follow are mental creations that have taken on a very specific function in society: to control perception. How is it that these perceptions resonate more than the actual complexity that surrounds the issues of race?
Control of perception makes it very easy to mistake the abstraction for the real thing. The imagery and iconography of black Americana, for example, did not spring from the black imagination. They were created in the white imagination, marketed to whites, and consumed by working-class whites.
These days, all bets are off. African-Americans are among the new breed of collectors of black Americana. Even Charles himself collects these items.
At least he's questioning ...
While I won't go so far as to say that the Hill Country is a caricature of real life with its precious antique shops, lovingly restored Victorian homes, and patina of gentility, I will say that the Hill Country is seen by folks near and far as an escape or return to a simpler time. And I find it ironic that everywhere we went in those hills, we faced many an awkward moment trying to keep things light and liberal in the face of such casually displayed derogatory racial stereotypes.
Most people's perception that the Hill Country is a beautiful, artistically minded oasis is still accurate: Willie's out there in Luckenbach with his wacky tabacky; Ani DiFranco, Michelle Shocked, heck, even the Dixie Chicks have played out at the Kerrville Folk Festival; and Blue Hole is party central for folks of all stripes all summerlong. However, until America, and that includes Texas and the Hill Country, gives up its obsession with classifying people and judging them according to race, ethnicity, and antiquated power trips, black Americana -- along with the cowboy & Indian, the sombrero-lidded Mexican snoozing on a cactus, and special sheds for "Colored Women" -- will never be anything more than disturbed wishful thinking.