So about a week and a half before Halloween I started asking myself the question “What do I want to be this year?” And I couldn’t for the life of me decide what to dress up as; my costume needed to be something unique, witty and require at least some form of an explanation.
So I did what everyone I know does in a situation like this, I started asking friends. The ideas were all over the place I got multiple suggestions to dress up as some dead celebrity, an interesting idea to carry a pizza box as Herman Cain, and then a plethora of run of the mill suggestions like be a fireman, ninja, samurai, or a cop. Now none of these ideas really appealed to me for one I don’t mock life or death so the first was out of the question, the second was interesting but didn’t seem quite compelling, and the last bunch are way to common and cliché. Eventually on the way home I get this idea to dress up as a member of the Tea Party and then my costume hit me across the face like I talked back to my mama; I could dress up as the Tea Party favored candidate Herman Cain but not just with a pizza box … but a full suit, a pizza box labeled tax plan, tea bags fashioned as shackles and … Black Face!
The idea was brilliant, political, clever, witty, slightly over the top and would require a bit of explanation depending on who was looking. But I felt some kind of way about this brilliant idea of mine; I’m what many would call a habitual line stepper since I’m aware of this I do what I normally do when I know I’m dangerously close to crossing a line that I probably shouldn’t cross. I sought opinions from others even though regardless of the response I would I probably do it anyway. So I sample various friends who are all extremely intelligent and the responses I got were kind of alarming. I had a very small number of people declare the idea brilliant much as I thought it was, I had a few people suggest I do brown face instead of black face… this wouldn’t serve my purpose as I was trying to create a caricature regarding Herman Cain not contrast his skin tone to my own. A few people tell me I definitely shouldn’t do it and while I didn’t take this advice I did heed the advice to avoid pictures. The remaining opinions were unanimous, “It’s not offensive because you’re black,” One even went as far as to say “You’re at least half black right? Then it’s not offensive.”
I was taken aback as time and time again these opinions that black people doing black face was not offensive. While yes white people dressing up in black face was and ever will be offensive when attempting to portray a caricature of black people. I would argue that Tropic Thunder consisting of Robert Downey Jr. in black face was probably the most tasteful usage of black face in a satirical way that completely avoided the caricature black face was originally intended to convey. This point is also completely negligent of the fact that at a large number of venues black people could not pursue a career in “entertainment” if they weren’t willing to portray a caricature of black people in black face. Yes I would argue that the larger offense was making black people wear black face to be “black” on stage.
Whether being worn by blacks or whites the mental scars and traumas left by black face and other black caricatures continued for years in television ranging from Amos and Andy to Song of the South to hiding in seemingly innocent cartoons such as the Crows in Dumbo. When society permits, condones and enforces an offense of that level in such a malignant way there will be residual feelings harbored regarding the subject for a long time by the impacted people. Case in point while preparing my costume I had a friend apply my black face for me, said friend’s mother refused to look at me after hearing what my costume was. Having lived through an era that this behavior was condoned, her reaction was understandable and honestly was the reaction I expected (and accepted) by choosing to done this costume.
Which leads me to believe that there may be a disconnect with my generation (and I’m not that old) and individuals born 10-15 years before us. Which I find to be difficult to believe because as I was in High School I remember Spike Lee’s Bamboozled film being released (which I recently realized is sorely lacking from my movie collection) which directly touched on black and American cultural response to a revitalized black face era consisting of black’s dressing in black face and acting like coons. And there I said it, COON… the word I’ve been avoiding using since I started writing this piece, the entire point of my costume was that I very blatantly, very obviously and potentially offensively wanted to state that I thought Herman Cain was a coon. But at what cost, people of my generation don’t seem to get the overall pain that a message like I created should conjure and people older were more likely to be highly offended by it then realize it for what I thought was its sheer simple genius.
So the costumes on and I leave to head to the party we’re attending. But first I have to stop in a grocery store to buy a bottle of alcohol, my first time in public in black face and I feel more than a little uncomfortable as I walk through the store get a few raised eyebrows at my costume. I ask for help at the alcohol stand and request a bottle of patron, the store clerk looks at me and the case quizzically for a few moments before he opens the case and hands me my bottle. No questions were asked, no fights broke out over my black face I purchase my alcohol and onward to the party. So I get to the party with my bottle of alcohol and crowds of other black people and I wonder how my costume will be received. In general it was extremely well received with the occasional confusion where someone thought I was actually Pro-Cain. In a crowd of likeminded individuals who appeared similar enough to me I felt amazingly comfortable. After all it was the Sickly Cat Halloween party, but then… the police showed up. Thankfully no arrests were made and the party was dispersed quickly enough but for a young Herman Cain impersonator the night wasn’t quite over yet some friends of mine suggested another party that was nearby. Hopping in my car I proceed to the next party and am chagrined to find the party was mostly white and I suddenly felt extremely uncomfortable. I mean it was ok to run around in black face in a crowd full of black faces but now that suddenly I’m surrounded by a less static racial dynamic I suddenly couldn’t really stomach my full on costume.
Thankfully by this point I had sweated off my second coat of black face so it was no longer visible that I was wearing black face any longer, but that gut wrenching reaction I had at the second party gave me pause for the night. I mean I did try not to go too overboard with my costume, when asked if I wanted red lipstick to complete my black face I stole a page from Downey Jr. book in Tropic Thunder and responded with “You never go full Samba”. But this experience left me with a few questions. Namely does my generation just not get it? Is it ok to be willingly to make a social or political point but only in select crowds? Or for that matter in this day and age is it every really appropriate for one black person to call another black person a coon?