“The Rest All Look Alike”
September 8, 2009
Last week’s episode of Mad Men was filled with thought provoking social commentary. Daniel wrote an excellent wrap-up, but one point deserves deeper context and discussion.
Roger Sterling’s hilarious rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home”—donning sloppily applied blackface—was just one of the episode’s jaw-dropping moments. Sterling’s minstrel performance was timely, airing only a few weeks after rapper Nas and Nick Cannon’s mock minstrel Youtube video went viral.
While Mad Men situates minstrelsy in the late 1950s/early 1960s, blackface remains a staple of American pop culture. Just swing by your local university’s frat row during Halloween and you’ll see my point. And no, this isn’t a false generalization because, yes, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
That’s not to suggest that dressing in blackface carries a maliciously racist intent, however. Indeed, minstrel shows are just one example of what historian David MP. Freund brilliantly refers to as “recreational racism.” Think of it as the ultimate “What do you call a group of black guys running down a hill?” joke: a collective celebration of whiteness and white superiority at the expense of racial and ethnic minorities. Whites that engage in such rituals of racial entitlement often rationalize their behaviors by noting, “It’s all in good fun”—implying that recreational racism is less incendiary than more overt forms of racial prejudice or discrimination.
The image accompanying this post comes from my own research on a Detroit neighborhood—a community I refer to as Woodline Gardens, to preserve anonymity. It was published in the neighborhood’s local newsletter in July of 1947, quite a few years before Roger Sterling’s fictional performance on Mad Men. Woodline residents were exceptionally proud of their new community tradition, including three separate pictures of their inaugural minstrel show in the community newsletter. The caption of this particular picture reads: “The two white mean are C.R. Richards and C.H. Buckwater, interlocuters. The rest all look alike.”
This picture perfectly (and succinctly) articulates the underlying logic of minstrel shows and other forms of recreational racism. The rest all look alike, as if any race other than Caucasian represented a monolithic group worthy of degradation and parody. The logic of this phrase, rooted in privilege, elitism, and social isolation, wipes any semblance of humanity away from African Americans. Do blacks have individual personalities, morals, or feelings? Nope; they all look alike.
Understanding social isolation is paramount to placing minstrel shows in the proper context of American race relations. Residents of Woodline Gardens, like Roger Sterling, were socially and spatially isolated from poor, black, and poor black communities. Part of this isolation stemmed from physical boundaries (residential segregation), but cultural boundaries (styles of life, patterns of consumption) were also important. This isolation fueled racial stereotypes and precipitated the communal embrace of recreational racism.
Your everyday American probably doesn’t know the historical context behind blackface or minstrelsy. Movies like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and Nas & Cannon’s awkward public service announcement largely fall on deaf ears as a result. To the average person, blackface appears to be a theatrical device employed sporadically across film and television, whitewashed of its less than wholesome history.
But blackface is not without a history firmly nested in contentious race relations and struggles for racial equality. As David Freund argues, it’s recreational racism, but that doesn’t make its continued use any less problematic. Hopefully, with each reference to minstrelsy in pop culture, we move that much closer to a clearer understanding of blackface in its proper historical context. Widespread, accurate historical knowledge is never a bad thing.