Thursday, February 14, 2019

Of Shithouse and Blackface

Julie's recent "editorial" on FACEBOOK addressed "offensive" words and concepts.

She said she was not offended when described as "built like a brick shithouse."

It was intended as a compliment.

She then theorized on the motives behind the Governor of Virginia's use of "blackface," including darkening up to enter a contest as Michael Jackson.

We'll probably never know what was behind the governor's infamous yearbook picture: someone in minstrel black standing next to a Klansman. The governor denies it was him in either guise on his yearbook page. Hopefully it was intended to point out that the KKK should not be targeting black people, and instead posing together as one.

We do know that the governor of Virginia has not been "racist" in appointing blacks or in allocating funds to black causes. His black classmates in college say he treated everyone the same.

Julie's point is how far do we take "being offended?" To the point of forcing people to resign their jobs?

"Shithouse" just on profanity alone could offend some people. Some feminists might resent the term.

But if Julie and many others aren't offended, should the term be avoided now, and worse, censored in any book or movie made years ago?

"Blackface" as well as "Yellowface" has led to the virtual banning of everything from "The Jolson Story" to old Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto movies on the late show. Al Jolson would be surprised to know he is now viewed as a racist and a hater. He thought he was being sympathetic. Of course it was a naive time, the minstrel age, but those shows involved singing joyous songs. For hate songs, don't look to blackace 78's, look to the angry "Johnny Rebel" 45's sold on indie labels in the South not too long ago. The ones now being offered as downloads in hate forums.

Just how much steam the governor of Virginia was letting off, we don't know, but we do know that "blackface" as performed by Al Jolson, involved ballads known as "tearjerkers," because he sang them with such sincerity. The upbeat songs, such as "Camptown Races," were sung with guileless enthusiasm.

Minstrel shows and racial 78's were motivated not by hate, but by humor. Humor is often a device to break down fear. If people feared blacks, the Minstrels were showing that these people were harmless, "colorful," and good natured. The "coon songs" of the 78 rpm era did not tell people to hunt down and string up blacks. The songs, in essence, said, "don't be frightened, these people are harmless. They like watermelon and fried chicken and playing the banjo." Simplistic? Now un-PC and offensive? The intent at the time was not so malicious, nor was it restricted to one minority group.

78rpm records had plenty of "ethnic" and dialect humor making fun of anyone un-assimilated, and talking funny. "Cohen on the Phone" was a huge seller. It was stereotypical but not intended to incite hatred. There was Italian dialect, Dutch dialect (Weber and Fields) and Irish and German comedy, too. Some top comedians of that era performed in a variety of dialects.

People even back then were aware of the line between comedy and ridicule. Joe Welch, a Jewish comedian who presented himself in a very stereotypical way, was once arrested for "impersonating a Jew" on stage. Even he was surprised there was a law against such a thing.

One of the most successful comedians of the day was Bert Williams. He was black, but light-skinned. He "corked up" for the stage. His classic song was "Nobody," a serio-comic lament. Ziegfeld made him a star, and he rivaled the era's other top stars, Eddie Cantor and W.C. Fields. Talking about racism, Bert once said, "Eddie, it wouldn't be so bad if I didn't still hear the applause in my ears." Bert wasn't talking about racism from the audience. The audience loved him. The racism was in being denied the same hotels as white performers. What happened off-stage to black people was more racist than "blackface" on stage.

Today the cry is "no blackface," because blacks were oppressed by slavery Southern states. There isn't a similar cry against "redface." The Washington Redskins haven't changed their name, and in this case, it wasn't slavery in the South, it was an entire people swept off their land, North and South, and confined to a few desolate reservations. Nobody is too offended by anti-Semitic humor even though 8 million Jews were killed in the 1940's and today, an Orthodox Jew is going to be targeted for his appearance. Around the world, Jews remain the most persecuted minority on the planet and their homeland is regularly threatened with obliteration and sanctions.

It comes down to intent. Kenan Thompson on "Saturday Night Live" last week, appeared in a sketch in which he told a group of people that blackface was "NOT ALL RIGHT," and that included "COSTUMES." Yet, "Saturday Night Live" had Darrell Hammond playing Jesse Jackson and Fred Armisen playing President Obama. Should those shows be banned?

Today's PC craze has led to Scarlet Johansson withdrawing from a film role as a transgender. She's an actress...but she's NOT a good enough actress to play a transgender? The role must go to one?

If that type of thinking was around some years ago, Julie Newmar would have not been cast in "MacKenna's Gold" or "F-Troop." She played Indians. In "MacKenna's Gold" she most certainly was made-up to have darker skin than her own.

Would she have won a Tony Award? Maybe not. In "Marriage-go-Round" she played a Swede. Julie is not even 50% Swedish in ancestry, was born in California, and has no Swedish accent. Today, the role would go to a Swedish woman. Or, oddly enough, to someone black. Recently the French woman Joan of Arc was played by a black woman on stage. Everyone applauded this. People applauded when the white founding fathers in "Hamilton" were played by blacks and Latinos, and when casting calls for replacements specified that whites need not apply.

Was Julie "racist" when she played Hesh-ke in "Mackenna's Gold?" Of course not. Was that role implying that all Apache women are murderous? No.

Some years ago, some comedians openly declared that their aim was to be "offensive." From Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce to Sam Kinison and George Carlin, they acknowledged that being "tasteless" was a choice. They felt making people laugh and making people think, and challenging our views, was a good thing. Now? Megyn Kelly was fired for even asking if "blackface" was so bad on Halloween. She was racist? No, she was wondering if a little white kid could wear a Black Panther super hero outfit or an Obama plastic mask. If dressing up as an Indian was wrong. If wearing the Michael Jackson white glove and spangled outfit was wrong. Of course, dressing up as Jolson now would be wrong. Obviously. But also, obviously, Jolson sang in blackface with good intentions. That should be recognized in liner notes to a "Jolson Story" DVD. We don't tamper with "Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain and we don't tamper with Shakespeare's Shylock which many find anti-Semitic, or Dickens' Fagin which also, depending on who is playing it, can be quite offensive and stereotypical.

Years ago, in a letter Julie sent me, she wrote "morality is how you behave toward people." The Governor of Virginia, today, has not been racist. Al Jolson was not racist. George Jessel (who also wore blackface on stage in the vaudeville days) once walked a black actress/singer into a restricted club. When blocked at the door and asked who had reserved a table, Jessel said, "Abraham Lincoln."

How people behave toward each other is their morality and it should define them. The comedians such as Don Rickles who "offended" everyone? Not racist. Malcolm X, who routinely called out Jews as despicable, and had no use for any "blue eyed white devil," was a racist. That he pushed for civil rights in his own way, does not mean he wasn't offensive.

Equality would mean that we allow the Wayans Brothers to make a movie called "White Chicks" and not only be in whiteface but in drag, too. "Dragface" is allowed because not a lot of women are "offended" by men prancing about lisping, mincing, and cartooning femininity with their effeminacy. We do not want "blackface" now, but perhaps under special circumstances, we would. If "Black Like Me" was remade, would a white man be hired to play Griffin, the white man who darkened his skin, or would it be played, ala Godfrey Cambridge in "Watermelon Man," by a black man who "whites up" for the start of the movie?

Similarly, if a transvestite is allowed to use the ladies room because he "identifies" as a woman, should some white woman who "identifies" as black be forced to resign her job? Or would it be all right as long as she admits, on bended knee, "I am white, I know this, but I "identify" as black. Genya Ravan, a brilliant R&B singer, was acknowledged, as Dusty Springfield was, as Janis Joplin was, as someone who sang soulfully. And yet when she met Etta James, Etta sourly grunted, "How DARE you sing black?" Really? Should Maria Callas have said to Leontyne Price, "How DARE you sing Italian opera?"

Dick Gregory's catch-phrase was: "We all have problems."

A problem is whether to constantly point the finger, declare our suffering greater than somebody else's, and to also insist that what WE find offensive must always be banished from everyone's view.

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