I was going to write a parody of the justifications that people are putting forward for Billy Crystal’s blackface yesterday — “oh, its a tribute! Its not racist!” — by writing a similar justification for Fred Astaire’s turn in blackface in 1936, when he made Swing Time.
That’s Fred Astaire dressed up as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Astaire meant it to be a tribute to an artist he loved — and yet, its still incredibly fucking racist. The punchline of the post I have failed to write would have been, “intentions don’t matter, you assholes. Don’t fucking wear blackface, because its never funny, its never complimentary, its never not-racist.”
I googled the damn movie and the damn incident and found out that the internet is rife with people making distinctions between bad-blackface and good-blackface, and how Astaire’s blackface is a tribute, and should be understood as such.
Its not just the internet that’s making that kind of noise — its the New York Times.
HOW should we react today to “Bojangles of Harlem,” the extended solo in the 1936 film “Swing Time” in which Fred Astaire, then at the height of his fame, wears blackface to evoke the African-American dancer Bill Robinson? No pat answer occurs.
The opening image is a coarse Robinson caricature: gigantic shoe soles are upended to show a thick-lipped black face, topped by a derby and above a dotted bow tie. Then the women of a chorus tug the shoes apart to reveal giant trousered legs — at the end of which sits Astaire. The women bear those legs away. Astaire bursts forth, dancing.
What follows, though, is no traditional blackface number. For one thing, his white lips and eyes aren’t enlarged with makeup, unlike, say, Al Jolson’s in “The Jazz Singer.” In “Bojangles of Harlem,” Astaire is far less like a cartoon than that sole-face suggested. For another, after the chorus dances in alternating black and white costumes as if to make a point about race, Astaire builds rhythmic complexity to peak upon peak of glory in the last three minutes.
Here Astaire is subverting racist caricature to celebrate the black tradition of tap dance. His is not a specific imitation of Robinson: Astaire’s torso moves a great deal, whereas Robinson’s deportment was far more upright. In fact, there were black tap dancers whom Astaire admired much more than Robinson: notably John W. Bubbles, whom he found truly great. But Robinson, thanks to his movies with Shirley Temple (“Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” and more), was the most famous black tap dancer in the world; this “Bojangles” song congratulated his achievement.
So I’m not making a sarcastic, funny post, because apparently, this crystal clear example of historical racism isn’t as crystal clear as I thought it was. How in the world are we to expect white people to understand the evils of “blacking up”, when they continue to defend deeply racist shit that happened way back in 1936? Forget talking about modern blackface, forget Billy Crystal’s sorry excuse for a comedy bit — apparently, we still need to convince the general public that Fred Astaire dressing up as Bojangles the Harlem Tap-Dancer is racist.
I want to write about the Oscars, about Billy Crystal and Sammy Davis Jr., but I find that I can’t let this go, not when there seem to be so many people who don’t understand the basics.
White people and non-black people of color, listen: blackface is intrinsically racist. Context does not matter. Your intentions, the intentions of the comedian in question, do not matter. You cannot transform a symbol of hatred and racism into something benign, just because you mean well. You can’t transcend the context. We do not live in a post-racial nation; there are things that you, as a non-black person, just cannot do.
There is history that we have to grapple with, and its too sad, too recent. You don’t have the luxury of ignoring it.
So let’s talk about that history, because I don’t think people understand exactly why blackface is so racist. Blackface was invented by minstrel performers in the nineteenth century, and soon became the trademark of the artform. Minstrel shows were a form of entertainment that was devoted to re-packaging blackness in a way that was sufficiently degrading enough to be palatable to white audiences. Its about taking the richness of black art, music, dancing, and humor — turning it into a degrading stereotype, and then disseminating this bastardized vision of a people as far and wide as possible. Minstrelsy wasn’t just about exploiting racism, minstrel performers were on the front lines of white supremacy, they established an image in the mind of white America of who black people were — simple fools, mindless entertainers, creatures ruled by instinct and lower brain function, not by art, not by ideas, not by ideals of honor or duty. Finally, you cannot understand the legal and political system of apartheid established by Jim Crow, without understanding minstrelsy. Because its easy, very easy, to deny full legal personhood to someone that you don’t believe to be fully human. What better way to spread the message of black inferiority than to propagandize with humor? To teach children to laugh at someone is to forever infantalize them, to forever deny the object of derision the opportunity to be seen as a complex, fully realized person — equal to themselves.
Minstrel performance was one of the main ways in which America experienced blackness, and it became the way that the rest of the world experienced Black America, because we exported blackface and minstrelsy everywhere we went.
Let’s talk about Bill Robinson, known as “Bojangles”, the artist whom Fred Astaire paid “tribute” to by wearing blackface. He was a legendary black tap-dancer who was a huge vaudeville star in the ’20s and ’30s, who broke all sorts of barriers as a black actor in white films, who was the first black man to ever dance with a white girl on film (with Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel, 1935).
Bill Robinson was also playing to a stereotype, because that was the only way he, as a black man, would be allowed to share his art with the wider world. Robinson’s characters were specifically formulated to be as nonthreatening as possible to white audiences. He most often played the subservient, happy-go-lucky antebellum butler, openly deferential to white characters. Bojangles was utterly devoid of any sexuality of his own, never betrayed any hint of his own masculinity, was the eternal foil to his white co-stars.
The fact that Bill Robinson was able to bring a warmth and humanity to the deeply limited characters he portrayed should be regarded as a triumph.
We should remember Mr. Robinson for his artistic genius, and for the grace and dignity he displayed in his work and in his personal life — not for Bojangles, not for the role of minstrel caricature that he was forced to inhabit.
Fred Astaire’s “celebration” of his friend Bojangles didn’t pay tribute to Robinson’s genius, it immortalized him as a minstrel character, as an almost-magical figure representing the mythical pleasure playground of Harlem, as the essence of blackness as understood by white audiences.
Astaire clearly intended for the bit to be a compliment, it certainly isn’t as vulgar as other contemporary blackface routines were. But its not a compliment, its a disrespectful caricature, no matter how subversive the apologist NYT reviewer believes it was. Yes, Astaire didn’t make a n****r joke, and he didn’t eat watermelon on stage. According to Astaire’s defenders, the lack of the most blatant signifiers of anti-black racism make it a non-racist (no, an anti-racist!) work of art.
White people who insist on defending Astaire’s actions today are being disingenuous, plain and simple.
I’m sure that if you’ve spent anytime online today, you will have seen similar justifications for Crystal’s performance. He wasn’t doing a minstrel caricature. Because he was just dressing up as a black man, a specific black man, its okay. He wasn’t dressing up as a “coon”, he was dressing up as Sammy Davis Jr., someone he admires, someone whom he owes a great deal to, as a comedian. Therefore, its harmless.
Except, its not. Blackface is one of those things that simply cannot be reclaimed and re-purposed to fit a race-neutral style of comedy — and if that possibility even exists, it certainly cannot be attempted by a white person or a non-black person of color. Blackface isn’t just about racism, it is racism.
It is never neutral.
reblogging because I’m thinking these days about blackface and what kind of forms it takes in our society today, especially in terms of how we treat Black music.