As I went through my tumblr feed, surreptitiously in one of my morning classes, an image popped up which sent me into a rage. The image was of two guys and a girl. All three were white and two were dressed in one of the most distasteful trio costumes I have ever seen. The woman was dressed as “Robin the Hood.” One of the guys was wearing a hoodie with fake gunshot wounds, and the other wore a shirt which read neighborhood watch. As if the allusion wasn’t enough, the guy dressed as Trayvon also was in Black Face.
To some, my rage may seem like an overreaction but historically, Black Face has been used as a weapon against the Black community in America. Black Face minstrelsy first appeared in the United States in the late 1820s. White male performers would use burnt cork to darken their skin and then play into racial stereotypes as a way of getting audience members to laugh. These performances were given the name Jim Crow. As more and more freed slaves began to appear in the North, the performances were used as way of enforcing the segregation of Black people. They were used to say that Black people didn’t belong in white, middle class spaces.
The effect of these performances was not only segregation, but the desensitization of Northerners to the Slave experience. These performances portrayed slaves as lazy, stupid individuals who deserved bondage. Even our “American hero,” Abraham Lincoln indulged in these shows. Black Face continued as part of performance culture into the twentieth century. It was used to sell cigarettes and many of our beloved childhood songs were used in Black Face performance. One song I grew up with – Jimmy Crack Corn – is among these songs. In 1915, the film Birth of a Nation, the first film to be shown in the White House, had white actors portraying black legislators, and perpetuated the lazy stereotype while also enforcing the notion that all black men wanted to rape white women.
As for the initial outrage that sparked this article, not many people seem to truly understand the significance of the Trayvon Martin case. The verdict furthered the idea that people of color’s lives aren’t as important as white ones. People of color are systemically being told their value is less than and that our bodies are worthless. I have known so many families go through this. I’ve grown up with this. I’ve been seeing this first hand since I was six years and this kid Terrance in my neighborhood was shot.
By “dressing up” as Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, these two guys reinforced the devaluing of the lives of people of color and disrespected the memory of a dead seventeen year old boy. They unknowingly continued a tradition of devaluing the lives of black people in America. They made a farce of the identity. But this is not the only case. When Julianne Hough dons Black Face to portray Crazy Eyes from Orange Is The New Black or when Italian fashion designers darken their skin for an African themed fashion party, they too are playing into this systemic oppression of people of color, particularly Black people.
Have a fun and safe Halloween but please remember: an identity, a race, a culture is not a costume to be donned once a year. It is a lived experience that comes with all sorts of oppression and privilege based upon our current societal standards.