The Minstrel: Paper Bags and Performative Blackness

(Pictured are a few of my ancestors. I included this because I do understand there are varying shades of black and copyright laws prevent me from providing a photo of the comedian in question.)

What is a minstrel? When I google “blackface” (which I did prior to writing this and only scrolled down half the page before almost losing my eyesight to the back of my own head) there are over 27,000,000 results, presumably delineating the history and effects of blackface. I’m not entirely certain to whom these articles are written for as anyone googling blackface has either determined that they will write an article about it or they are well on their way to penning a defense.

Blackface in the traditional sense is overt: white or non-black people literally painting themselves black and affecting AAVE and supposed black characteristics — buffoonery, laziness, and simpleness are a few of the common iterations (apparently blackness has been a comedic costume to drape over otherwise mediocre bodies since we stopped working for fee). Every year the media consumes itself with stories about a politician or group of students or someone without access to the world wide web donning blackface. What the media generally (and intentionally) gets wrong is the dehumanization behind blackface and the more insidious ways blackface operates and moves in and out of popular culture.

In a lot of ways I think that growing up in a black household with black parents and black culture is a gift. No one can turn a phrase with the mental agility of a black mother. No one can comfort and heal all manner of bruises like a black grandmother. No one can strike the fear of god into your core like the black father. I do not consider my experience as a black woman raised by black parents universal, but I find comfort in the universality of my experience when expressed by comedians. When I was younger the threat of being beaten made my blood run cold. I considered my parents’ loud expressiveness and unabashed being embarrassing. Now I can watch Instagram comedians share an apparently similar experience and I can read the comments and laugh. I’m even old enough to share this with my parents without consequence! I have joined the adults’ table.

About a year ago my sister shared with me a comedian whose representation of blackness was so real and familiar it would feel like a shared memory, despite the fact that my own mother bore little resemblance to the loud and (lovably) brash mother he often portrayed. I adored his humor, but I was puzzled — he did not appear to have any direct maternal or paternal link to blackness other than his affect, but people loved him. Besides, it is not up to me to determine a new paper bag test.

Every time this comedian posted a video people in his comments asked about his race. He would respond generally in the negative if at all, as though the questions were an affront to his existence. Perhaps they are — we should not live in a state where we have to prove that we are what we say we are. But we do. His supporters would generally descend into those comments, maligning everything about the questioner — often, perhaps rightly so. It is a dangerous and grotesque place to be, asking for birth certificates and genetic testing. However. . .if one is profiting from their interpretation of blackness, shouldn’t that person imbue a black consciousness in action if not in hue?

So this morning I did a little internet digging and I found the comedian. I found his white mom first. Then I found his white dad. I asked him under a comment about his parentage. He responded with a negative assertion about how I developed my theory (I asked if he considered his show minstrelsy despite his black siblings and he suggested that I needed to stop making assumptions based on photos). There were a number of people under my comment assuring him that black comes in all shades and apparently that haters are going to hate. I responded with the name of his father as my evidence. He blocked me.

I wondered then at my own goals — what did I want? Is this just another form of take down culture? I don’t have the influence nor the power to take down a figure with millions of followers and while he dons blackness and adequate black proximity for some to claim him pseudo black, his whiteness will provide a useful veil when the blackface fades. I consider my aims the same that we as black people generally express.

First I want people to stop wearing blackness as costumes. Wearing blackface is a part of America’s continued insistence on destroying blackness. First in body, next in idea. To be black, according to America, is to be the consistent butt of a joke. Minstrelsy is dehumanizing. While comedians may profit from pretending to be black, blackness in reality is much more diverse. There are places where we laugh together because we must. There is strength and pain and vulnerability and genius and these comedians and their shows miss that. Next I want everyone who wears blackness to know what it means to be black. We are not a monolith. We are that which America is afraid to look upon outside of the mask she has created. I suppose it must feel dangerous to look at what you raped and killed and failed to destroy, but I digress.

I was once afraid of my own blackness. Perhaps afraid isn’t the right word. Ashamed would be more astute. I hated what I thought being black meant — a manner of speaking and not-being: being spoken to and about but never with and being hypervisible and invisible simultaneously. In my ignorance I thought black was something you did, not a being you are.

Thirdly, black is not a voice. It is not in the words we speak or the way we speak them. It is not in the ways in which we dress and the foods we eat. Blackness does not exist in music and film. In its denotation one is black if they are descended from the African Diaspora (please miss me with the “we are all from Africa” because that’s not what I’m referring to here). In its connotation one is black if they can forge existence with the weight of America’s unending, insatiable desire to see us lost to history, decaying in the noose.

Artists who move in and out of black culture abound, and we spend a lot of energy attempting to malign them. Our voices are drowned by the thousands who type with fervor that all of our energy could be better spent in Chicago, that mystical land where all manner of evil and blackness should and does apparently dwell. I would posit that we should stop inviting people to cookouts and giving people passes. We should be suspicious of those who profit from making us into comedy, but are silent when they see our public pain.

Jherine is a writer existing in the south. She is currently working on a collection of poetry that she hopes someone will read.

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