In grade school, I was obsessed with Josephine Baker. This was before YouTube, so I’d never actually heard her voice or seen her move in front of a camera. I first encountered the singer and dancer (and World War II spy) in Donald Bogle’s book Brown Sugar, a history of black women in entertainment, which included several pictures of Baker. For Halloween in the fifth grade, my mother made me a child-sized tuxedo based on a photo of Baker I’d seen in Bogle’s book. No one at school knew who I was supposed to be.
Baker was one of the original stars of the all-black musical Shuffle Along, which premiered on Broadway nearly a century ago. In May, I took my mother to see its current Broadway adaptation, Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. The updated show, which was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, has a self-referential plot that’s laid out quite succinctly by its title: It’s a musical about the making of a black musical in the 1920s.
As I’m wont to do in traditionally white spaces, I started counting the black faces around me as we queued outside the theatre and didn’t stop until the lights dimmed. There were only about 30 black faces in the entirety of the 860-seat Music Box Theatre, where we’d come to see a sold-out show in which, aside from one white man who plays multiple white parts, the entire cast—including Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, and Joshua Henry—is black or brown.
I found myself watching how all these different faces reacted to the production, which depicts the obstacles and prejudice confronted by the original Shuffle Along cast and producers. It was as if a second show about race in America was playing out in the audience.
I wasn’t surprised that—while black audience members continued to watch the show without visibly registering emotion—white members of the Shuffle Along audience gasped, clutching their metaphorical pearls, when the characters on stage were told that no one would pay to see “nigger shows.”
The N-word may be the single least complicated way to define racism in this country. Despite the fact that, like much language, the word has evolved in the black vernacular, it sits very rigidly with those who can’t say it. For white people, the use of the N-word often draws a clear line between those who are bigots and those who aren’t. Hearing it frequently elicits horror: That’s racism! That’s what it sounds like!
Yet when Porter and Stokes Mitchell started blacking up—donning the burnt cork of blackface, as was common for black vaudeville actors to do—it was the black audience members who reacted. But this was different from the white discomfort evoked by the word “nigger.” It wasn’t a response motivated by shock, but recognition. The nods, the soft “mmhmms” seemed to come from a shared understanding of the significance and pain of the moment. I glanced at the white faces immediately around me, but couldn’t make out that same level of empathy.
I would love to understand why it’s as difficult for white people to hear the the N-word as it is for me to see anyone don blackface. I went to a New England boarding school and college with white people who liked to drink and listen to hip-hop. I’ve heard “nigger/nigga” pass through white lips more than once. It can embody egregious racism; that’s how it was introduced to me. But it’s also a part of my day-to-day life. I hear the word in music, verse, conversations with friends, the ambient noise of my East Harlem neighborhood, and my favorite podcasts.
As we’ve seen again and again in the public sphere, white America loses their minds when they hear the word in any context outside of a Kanye song. A thousand thinkpieces were born the morning after Larry Wilmore addressed President Obama as “my nigga” at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner—and he didn’t even use the “hard R,” as they say. But even if he had, I wouldn’t have been fazed. It’s a word that can be hurtful, but it doesn’t affect my life the way systematic racism and stereotypes do. In contrast, blackface represents a deep, pervasive cultural pain that I can’t simply walk away from.
From the 1840s through the height of vaudeville, black performers performing in blackface was fairly standard practice, and often the only way they were allowed to appear onstage in front of white audiences. Lowbrow, self-parodying buffoonery was expected of black performers. In fact, it was so expected that, in 1903, African-American actors Bert Williams and George Walker were scolded by white critics for no longer being “black enough” when they suggested that their audiences should read a book for historical context before coming to see their show In Dahomey. Expectations of black actors were so affected by the damaging stereotypes blackface promoted that, to this day, Hollywood has yet to fully recover.
The cultural aftershocks of blackface performance could certainly still be felt in my ‘90s childhood. Boxes of Aunt Jemima pancake mix lined (and continue to line) supermarket shelves, as if her name and image weren’t derived from a black mammy character often played by white men in blackface on the minstrel circuit. I watched Looney Tunes on TNT, where occasionally I’d catch an unedited cartoon like Fresh Hare, which featured Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd singing in blackface in its original ending. I loved old musicals, and the Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson movies on TCM played on the same stereotypes that blackface acts helped to popularize. Even Disney movies like The Jungle Book, Dumbo, and Fantasia were rife with big-lipped, subservient, and marble-mouthed representations of black people.
I first came face to face with blackface in my beloved book of Josephine Baker pictures. There were three or four large photos of Baker in Brown Sugar, and for my Halloween costume, I gravitated towards a shot from Chocolate Dandies—the spiritual sequel to Shuffle Along, which Baker starred in. She played a blacked-up pickaninny in the show, and the picture features her sitting on a fence, cross-eyed and making a face in a crumpled plaid dress. I remember thinking she was a clown, which was appealing to me because “clown” was easier to explain to my fellow classmates than “burlesque star from the ‘20s you’ve never heard of.” I also remember how upset my mother was when she found me practicing faces for my planned costume in the mirror.
We compromised on the tuxedoed version of Josephine Baker after a long discussion about blackface, a totally unfamiliar concept to me at the time. This isn’t to say my innocence was destroyed that day—or anything quite that dramatic—but the challenge of explaining blackface to a young black child is something I often come back to. It’s not as simple as explaining a word: “‘Nigger’ is a bad word that white people used to call black people. We don’t use it anymore.” And while we still live in a segregated America, there is at least some basic closure you can give a child when it comes to slavery or the Jim Crow era: “Slavery is over. The world isn’t fair, but water fountains are no longer separated based on the color of people’s skin.”
There’s no closure when it comes to blackface, because its influence is still all around us. I couldn’t say, “This is a thing people used to make black people do to make fun of themselves for white people, but now we know it’s bad and we don’t do it anymore.” Within a year a Popular White Comedian With A Platform would make a liar out of me. I still haven’t forgiven Tina Fey putting blackface on television not once, but three times on 30 Rock: First with Jane Krakowski, when Jenna embarks on a “trading places” social experiment with Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), again with Krakowski for a Black Swan joke, and then with Jon Hamm for a “satire” of 1950s television. Sarah Silverman also donned blackface on The Sarah Silverman Show. She, at least, somewhat regrets it, while Fey has recently doubled down on her use of racial humor, saying that she’s “opting out” of the discussion.
Unfortunately, as a black person, I don’t really get to “opt out.” The use of blackface will never make me laugh. It’s a form of blatant racism that we still allow on television for a nation to be amused by. Minimizing the impact of blackface creates an environment where someone like Julianne Hough can show up to a Halloween party dressed as Suzanne from Orange Is the New Black in full blackface and plead ignorance when black people take offense. White students on college campuses across the country can come blacked-up to themed parties every year and claim not to know better. Maybe they don’t know better. How can we expect them to, when episodes of 30 Rock are still in syndication?
For black children, understanding blackface—and understanding why someone they idolize would perform as a stereotypical caricature of their own race—means understanding the origins of the systematic discrimination in pop culture that we’re still living with. Like many aspects of black childhood these days, it means beginning to comprehend things that your parents wish you could wait until you were older to learn about.
Even when blackface is used in a safe space like Shuffle Along, in context and done well by black performers (the show’s choreographer Savion Glover is one of the few people who’ve ever been able to make blackface palatable for me, here and in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled), it still draws from a well of emotions that center around being seen by white people as “less than.” I’ve been waiting for white people to understand this for years. The disconnect I saw in the faces of the Shuffle Along audience didn’t give me hope that they will any time soon.
I will always remember the day my mother had to explain to me why I couldn’t imitate a picture of one of my favorite stars. Not only will I forever wonder what the same conversation has sounded like in other black homes, I’ve already begun to dread having the same conversation with my future kids.
I have no idea how to have it with the rest of the country.