Seriously, Do We Still Have to Explain Why Blackface Isn't OK?

When I was 11, my mother stopped me from performing at a talent show with back-up singers in blackface. Yes, that was my childhood.

Oct 28, 2011 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

Thankfully, there's no Kodak evidence for this post because my mother saved me from myself at 11.  In the sixth grade, I planned on performing in our local Rotary Club's talent show with my two blonde BFFs, who'd be in blackface. We were gonna be the Supremes. 

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I spent a good chunk of my childhood on Santa Catalina Island, which is 26 miles across the sea from Southern California.  My mom and I were the only black people, aside from a woman whose name was either Frankie or Johnny. I'm pretty sure she was a drug addict. I'm totally sure my mother was the only lesbian in our very white conservative christian town called Avalon, population around 2,000. 

To say I was an outcast on that tiny island -- brown in a sea of white surrounded on all sides by blue -- is to say the ocean's wet. I wasn't self-hating or anything, just aware. I loved my skin and the way the summer sun dyed the hair on my arms a bright orangey yellow whenever I fell into an hours-long Sweet Tarts coma on the beach. In those moments I was the very definition of an Islander and I wore that self-affirming solitude like a wet suit. Lots of kids-can-be-so-cruel stuff just rolled of my back.

Plus, when and if someone called me a name, you know the one, I usually had a witty comeback like "Um, I'm BROWN not black." If not I just ran and told (whatever). And Frances Vernell Andrews did not play that shit. She'd be all up in a principal/teacher/parent's face faster than anyone could say, "But what would Jesus do?" According to my mother, raise hell when a kid who didn't know any better called me "a black bastard." Technically, both things were true, but come on. 

In my book I write about a girl I was borderline obsessed with for a time.

My best friend was a beautiful blonde with brown freckles named Wendy. Actually, Wendy was my best friend, but I’m not so sure I was hers. The sterling silver-plated “Best Friends” necklaces were $16.95 including tax in some plastic crap catalogue, you know the one. What you did was break it in half along a prefabricated jagged line. One girl wore “st ends,” and her soul mate took “Be Fri.” Like every girl in Mrs. Paul’s sixth grade class, I wanted Wendy to wear my “st end,” but we fought over syntax.

“Well, you can’t 'Be Fri' because you’d be a burnt fry,” she joked in front of everybody who was anybody. I laughed before admitting she was totally right. What was I thinking? We never got the necklaces. I worshipped her anyway.

So when Wendy, who lived in a house on Monkey Hill (no lie), asked me to sing in the talent show with her, I jumped at the chance. Me, Wendy, and this tall sociopath named Shelly, who was my other "good friend," were going to perform “Stop! In the Name of Love.” I was going to be Diana, the beautifully brown lead singer.

We practiced to a cassette tape after school. Our repetitive hand motions were legend -- the self defense move for “STOP!” and cork-screwing fingers from head to shoulder for “think it oo-oo-vah.” Wendy was our choreographer, costume designer and makeup artist.

And the really genius part?  Wendy anounced as we practiced poses in her mother's bathroom mirror that we should all wear “foundation,” you know, to look more like the Supremes. Awesome idea. I ran home to tell Frances I needed to borrow some of her Fashion Fair. She asked me what for and I told her. Wrong.

"Can you believe these little fools wanted to perform in blackface?" I heard her say over the phone to an auntie back on the mainland. So Frances talked to Wendy’s mom. In the end I performed a solo “Wind Beneath My Wings” and won third. 

At the time I had no idea what my mom's problem was. It'd be fun! Hellooo? The Supremes were black. Why not be authentic?

What I didn't know as a child is that blending authenticity, performance and race is dangerous. Two-stepping in front of a backdrop of white girls in blackface would have blurred the link between otherness and pride in my 11-year-old mind. Sure, it was tough being the only black girl in a town that valued what was blonde and blue eyed, but my brown skin was MINE. I owned it.

My skin, my color, my face? They were all precious. Things I couldn't wash off in world that was slippery at best when it came recognizing my beauty, my uniqueness, my place. I'd have to recognize all that myself and the first order of business in that department would be to not give it away all willy nilly to a white girl for a talent show. My brown skin, an indelible part of my being, wasn't something that could be rented out for a day or say, um, Halloween. 

This is why when Lesley wrote about a campaign against racialized costumes started by 10 students at Ohio University called "We're A Culture, Not a Costume" it really, really resonated with me. I hate occupying the "I'm a black girl, so I know" space, but sometimes it's really all I have to go on. Degrading my skin, my beautiful almondy-brown-with-occasional-splotches-from-eczema skin, into "make up" for a "costume"? Come on. That's simply not OK.