Bamboozled in Beantown

BY JONAS BLANK

The little black doll stares with an impish, big-toothed grin. Its lips are broad, slathered in vaudeville red. Its skin is jet black, blacker than any human, the more to contrast with the reckless smirches of red.

The blackface doll is one of the central metaphors of Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled,” the director’s film about the abuse of African-Americans in the media. It is a relic of an age we cannot wish away, a reminder of insensitivity, bigotry and subjection. It is an image that Lee suggests has not gone away, a symbol of the racism that lingers in even the most public places.

Like bars in Boston, for example.

I stood near the side of the stage at Harper’s Ferry, in the heart of the Allston bar circuit, watching a very capable cover band run through yet another rendition of a much more famous band’s hits. I was having a good time, enjoying the atmosphere, the lights, the faces in the crowd.

That is, until I saw some faces that I never hoped to see in public.

Hanging on the wall to the left side of the stage was a large mural. Painted at about eye level with the band on stage were two blackface characters, about five feet high. One played the saxophone. They looked just like that little black doll in Lee’s film.

I thought that I was somehow misinterpreting the image, so I asked the other students around me if they saw what I saw. They did.

A few weeks later, I decided to call Harper’s Ferry and ask them what the display was supposed to be. I was told that it has been there for about ten years and depicts “famous blues artists.”

I couldn’t understand why one would choose to pay homage to famous blues artists by depicting them via offensive racist caricature. But admittedly, I’m no art expert. Some friends that I talked to suggested that blackface has been used, in more recent times, by African-American artists as a way of reclaiming the offensive image. Just this year, white New York artist David Levinthal debuted his exhibit, “Blackface,” a display of old blackface collectibles, in Washington in hopes of reminding people of the horror of racism. Some of Levinthal’s collectibles were used in the movie “Bamboozled.” African-American artist Kerry James Marshall has painted moving, politicized canvasses such as “Altgeld Gardens,” which depicts blackface-like characters in a housing project littered with empty phrases like, “more of everything.” And a 1999 musical paid tribute to Al Jolson, a white actor who played many blackface roles early in the 20th century. Controversy ensued when the director chose not to use blackface in the show.

But I couldn’t find any research to indicate that blackface caricature has ever been used as a form of homage. Most of the blackface essays I read included terms like, “abomination,” “racist,” “embarrassing” and “product of an earlier time.” The technique was first in the early 19th century, when white actors would put on black greasepaint to play “black” characters like “Tambo,” “Jim Crow” and “Zip Coon.” Many shows were crude, comedic imitations of African-American music and dance, while others used blackfaced whites because real African-Americans weren’t wanted in the performance. In the 20th century, black actors in blackface appeared in such shows, and they remained popular even into the 1950s. That didn’t sound like a history worth immortalizing on a mural — especially not in front of a predominantly white audience.

I never found out who the mural’s artist was, so I couldn’t ask him what he meant. He may well have had a very good, very historical, very racially sensitive reason for painting what he painted. I can’t claim to know.

But my reaction got me thinking. Was nobody else offended by this? Didn’t anybody else react the way I did?

Activists and scholars are sure never to let us forget that racism is still alive in America. They point to the flying of the confederate flag, burning black churches, men not being served in restaurants. Yet despite high-profile incidents of racial profiling and racially motivated violence in states across the U.S., I often feel like popular opinion holds that the locus of racism remains in the south, where most of my family is from. Southerners, so the stereotype goes, are the racists, the confederate flag flyers, the Klansmen. Their enlightened betters in the Northeast and West, the reasoning goes, could teach them a thing or two about tolerance.

But Boston, it turns out, it hardly a model of that. This purportedly enlightened city, brimming with intellectuals and professors and college students, has had more than its share of recent racial troubles.

In fact, the blackface issue has come up before. A south Boston bar called Tom’s English Cottage faced local outrage last year over a display that included stuffed monkeys, black faced coconuts with large red lips, and an ape wearing a crown that was displayed during Black History Month. The poor bar owner protested that it was a harmless display meant to convey a “jungle” theme.

If you believe what you read, African-Americans in this city have at least as much to worry about as those south of the Mason-Dixon. Former Boston Globe reporter Kenneth J. Cooper, who is African-American, wrote a piece for the Globe this year in which he noted that he finally felt physically safe enough in this city to go to Fenway Park or get off at the Savin Hill T-stop. In the early ’80s, he notes, “I would have done none of these everyday things …. I would have feared risking verbal abuse, assault, or worse from whites I didn’t know and who didn’t want anyone who looks like me around.”

Just this past February, a 26-year-old teacher at a Jamaica Plain high school was stopped twice within two weeks by police looking for black suspects. The second time, he was publicly patted down just steps from his school. His middle-school students decided to march in protest.

As I suspected at Harper’s Ferry, part of the reason so many African-Americans are led to feel “out of place” is because of continuing geographical segregation, to a degree that some say is worse here than elsewhere.

“The black-white divide is the most difficult one to bridge in this country,” said William Frey, a demographer with the Milken Institute, a nonprofit economic think tank in Santa Monica, CA. “It’s endemic in older cities like Boston. . . . You don’t have that same kind of segregation in the South or the West.”

Discovering what I did of Boston’s racial problems was a sort of pyrrhic victory for me. It validated, to some extent, my belief that the South isn’t more racist than anywhere else — that while racism is expressed in different ways in different regions, the underlying tension is the same. I have some ammunition now against the pompous demagoguery of pious professors who snuggle comfortably in their all-white neighborhoods, decrying racism and pleading for unity from the security of their ethnically uniform enclaves.

Yet the tragedy remains intact. Even this city of progress, it turns out, is a city of America and its conflicted legacy.

I’m not happy there was a blackface mural on the wall that night, but I am grateful for what it reminded me: Racism is alive, it’s everywhere, and it should be opposed whenever and wherever found. Just don’t tell me you have to look south to find it.

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