My first exposure to blackface was through mid 20th century cartoons.
In Chile growing up in the 1980s, television programming included dubbed shows from the United States. Some cartoon episodes showed characters with car-tire-dark skin and large lips in the shape of infinity (associations my seven-year-old mind made). They were less witty than their main-character counterparts and seemed to function in a slower reality, where their misfortunes could have been avoided had they been cleverer.
By age seven, I had seen Black people on dubbed episodes of the Cosby Show, Different Strokes and Punky Brewster, which I watched regimentally. In my own living experience, I had seen only one Black person: a soccer player from Brazil. There is a strong chance, however, I imagined meeting him from overhearing conversations in which my mother described him visiting the university campus where she studied. If my mind did create that memory, then I did not see a Black person outside of television until my two-week stopover in Venezuela right before moving to Boston at age nine.
However, I knew Black people did not look like the cartoons. These cartoons depicted the characters in ways that were not real, and I asked myself why the illustrators would show people in such strange physical and emotional ways? I had never met someone with infinity lips or who acted with such detachment and sadness, and not in a clinically depressed way, with which I was familiar, but in an inanimate way. I had never read such characters in books nor seen them on television with live actors (I had not yet made the connection to Mammy in “Gone with the Wind”). It had to be a targeted reason, and it made me uncomfortable.
I was brought up to treat people politely and to think that all humans are equally important. If someone was nice to me, I should be nice back. If someone was not nice, I should focus on my reaction and still be kind because I did not know the person’s circumstances, and I should tell the adults in my life.
The caricatures distressed me because I knew they did not represent anyone, and I suspected their role was to ridicule. I did not have these particular words to articulate my reaction, but I was able to name my sadness and discomfort. Those cartoons were treating some people badly and unfairly rewarding others.
I learned of blackface many years later, and I made the connection with these old cartoons just a couple of months ago, when Pampi was preparing for her performance honoring Josephine Baker and Scott Joplin in connection with the piano she painted, also in their honor, for Street Pianos Boston. Now that I can interweave blackface within historical and cultural contexts, I can intellectualize my experiences with those old cartoons.
A child knows when people are treated as less than people. Children are sophisticated, and their feelings and reasoning capture the essence of experiences. Although blackface is condemned by many, we still see racist instances of its use, as each Halloween shows us. I trust that even children who put on blackface for Halloween feel some discomfort inside, even if they outwardly defend their actions.
As adults we can influence change. With our sense of right and wrong, we can carry messages of transformation, and not just with people who already think like we. I trust we can affect behavior and thoughts to strengthen systems of respect and kindness.
NOTE: With Thanksgiving a.k.a. National Day of Mourning (www.uaine.org) just two days ago, I must state the obvious and note that dressing up as an “Indian” for Halloween is equally terrible. See here for more (includes links for further reading) – nativeappropriations.com/2013/10/so-your-friend-dressed-up-as-an-indian-now-what.html