Professor of Comparative Ethnic studies and American studies at Washington State University, David Leonard says, “ Racism and blackface is an assertion of power and control, it allows society to routinely and historically to imagine African Americans as not fully human. It serves to rationalise violence and Jim Crow segregation”. Roots of the blackface can be found in the centuries-old theatrical productions in Europe, most famously in the production of Shakespeare’s Othello.
The Jim Crow laws began immediately after the 13th Amendment which freed four million slaves. These were strict laws that detailed how, where, and when the freed slaves could work and how much compensation they could get. It was an effort to control and restrict the lives and development of black people, to take away their right to vote, and to indentured servitude. The legal system worked against black citizens and made sure they became victims of these black codes.
The most ruthless organisation of the Jim Crow era was the Ku Klux Klan. Violence against African- Americans rose during this period, schools for black people were vandalised and destroyed, there would be violent attacks by whites on black citizens at night which often included gruesome incidents where the victims would be tortured and mutilated before being murdered. Families were attacked and forced out of their lands in the South.
The Jim Crow law segregated black people from the whites, there were public spaces restricted for African Americans. It was necessary to have segregated waiting rooms required in professional offices, different water fountains, restrooms, elevators, and building entrances, even cemeteries. African Americans were legally forbidden to live in white neighbourhoods. There were segregated public pools, hospitals, jails, and residential homes for the elderly and handicapped too.
Most recently, an outrage ensued after the revelations by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and the state attorney general Mark Herring when they admitted in February 2019 to wearing blackface costumes as young men. Moya Bailey, who is an assistant professor of cultures, societies, and global studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Northeastern University argues that, “ The very act of darkening one’s skin, regardless of when the offense occurred, is indicative of an offender’s belief system, which shapes the way he or she makes impactful and far-reaching decisions.”
Blackface was not okay back then nor now, these racist ideologies have real-life impact. Bailey warns that the way systematic racism has shaped the American society is a large problem. “I think that’s a much deeper question that has to be addressed, not at the level of the individual, but at the level of society,” she says. “What’s the transformative justice practice around this that actually changes the way that people think so that incidents like these and others don’t happen again? Individual people are symptoms of a larger issue and of a society that has yet to reckon with its racist history.”