There was a time when the practice of white face transformed to blackface was popular. When blackface was a form of theatrical makeup used to represent a black person, and when Blackface minstrel shows were popular. It lasted for about 100 years – between the 183os to the 1930s – and became an American national art in 1848.
But while blackface was popularizing black culture, the stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrels were playing a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes, and perceptions worldwide. These sterotypes included characters who were buffoonish, lazy, superstitious, cowardly, and lascivious and who stole, lied pathologically, and mangled the English language. In fact, Florence Kate Upton’s “Golliwog” in 1895 was described as “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome”, googly-eyed, inky skin, exaggerated white, pink or red lips became common in entertainment, children’s’ literature, toys and games as well as cartoons, comic strips, ads, postcards, food branding like Banania – a chocolate powder in France.
Through the 1930s, many well-known entertainers of stage and screen went on to perform in blackface including Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple and Judy Garland [an extensive list can be found at Strausbaugh, John (2006) Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture. Jeremy Tarcher, Penguin: 222-225].
In the early years of film, whites also performed blackface routinely by portraying black characters. In the first known short film Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903) all of the major black roles were whites in blackface [John Kenrick, Blackface and Old Wounds; musical]. Even the 1914 Uncle Tom starring African-American actor Sam Lucas in the title role had a white male in blackface as Topsy [see John Strausbaugh (2006) Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture. Jeremy P. Tarcher, Penguin]. David Griffiths The Birth of a Nation and America’s first full length feature film in 1915 used whites in blackface to represent ‘all’ of its major black characters [Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (1998), University of California Press, p. 79], but reaction against the film’s racism largely put an end to this practice of blackface in dramatic film roles.
Thereafter, whites in blackface would appear almost exclusively in broad comedies or “ventriloquizing” blackness [Strausbaugh 211-12] in the context of a vaudeville or minstrel performance within a film [Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (1998), University of California Press: 79].
Of course, made-up whites routinely played Native Americans, Asians, Arabs, and so forth, for several more decades, and still do, for example during halloween, but there is no consensus about a single moment that constitutes the origin of blackface, according to Strausbaugh: it as part of a tradition of “displaying Blackness for the enjoyment and edification of white viewers” that dates back at least to 1441, when captive West Africans were displayed in Portugal [Strausbaugh 35-36]. Today, blackface remains in relatively limited use as a theatrical device and more commonly used as social commentary or satire. That is until Rachel Dolezal hit the headlines.
The Dolezals are white, but Rachel identifies as Black. When Rachel Dolezal was a teenager, her parents adopted four black children, one of whom now lives with her and her son, whom she had with her former husband, Kevin D. Moore, who is black. Dolezal has lived a life as a black person. Some argue that she misrepresented and lied about her race. But she didn’t paint her face black, and instead took on the whole persona of a black person: in face, mind, and body. That makes her NOT part of the blackface tradition of “displaying Blackness for the enjoyment and edification of white viewers”. She was forced to ‘come out’, much like homosexuals and transgenders, and, as we’ve been discovering over the years, not everyone who ‘comes out’ is a bad person. Jenner was applauded for changing his identity from male to female and lauded with praise. So, too, many gays and lesbians who proudly and promptly went out and got married immediately upon countrywide same-sex marriage recently. Their biological identity did not limit them. Why should Rachel Dolezal’s?
The Jenner-Dolezal argument is a slippery one though. Caitlyn Jenner can transition and find herself in a community she feels comfortable in without hatred, but Rachel can’t. If Caitlyn has a right to be a woman, Rachel should have a right to be black. Jenner was trapped in a man’s body but identified as woman, and Rachel was black in a white body. She has been a fierce and unrelenting champion for African Americans, politically and socially, doing a first rate job, teaching classes on African American culture, leading NAACP, chairing police committee overseeing fairness in police activities [which is in very short supply]. The black community is better off because of Dolezal’s efforts. For those, white or black – like Baz Dreisinger, an English professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York – who think that it taps into all of the issues around blackface and wearing blackness and that whole cultural legacy, which makes it that much more vile,” get over it ! The so-called ‘deception’, ‘lie’, ‘portrayal’ of Dolezal as someone she isn’t did « not » harm anyone. Her deep commitment to black causes and culture only helped black culture.
The fight for equality is too important to all Americans to lose someone as passionate as Dolezal. Someone who has accomplished as much as she has is not a conspiracy to defraud [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Time June 15, 2015] and seems more a case of her standing up and saying, “I am Spartacus!” Rachel Dolezal is no modern day blackface, and doesn’t like the term ‘African American’, but prefers to be grouped by blood type. I’d say that that’s a way to eliminate racism and branding, but not a deception. She passes the ‘race’ test, because race is not in the DNA; there is no gene for race. Dolezal opted out of this social construct. She opted out of whiteness and into blackness which fences us in boxes. Rachel stepped outside that box, dismantling what was in place. She adopted the cultural elements of a different cultural group not to misappropriate, but appropriate them as her ‘own’; neither distorting or desecrating these elements, but instead endowing them with deep meaning against the dominant culture, which oppresses that group whether in Alabama, in DC, in NY and elsewhere. And although Rachel opted out of her ‘race’ racism isn’t dead which is precisely why she stayed in another identity. Her entire purpose to emulate the black and be like a black person made her a black woman. She wanted a different reality, a different world for blacks so decided to change her own world.
Dolezal did not act immorally. Morality can be subjective, and what is subjective can become objective.