I view blackface as a period in American entertainment and industrial history that motivated nativist sentiments and the desire to control and solidify the images and identities of black people and consign them to comforting, yet dangerous reservations in the national consciousness. For blacks and some whites, the performance of blackface is loaded and charged with some of the most torturously fearful ideas about blackness, the self — so dense with shame and cruelty — and perhaps the very erasure of self. 

The unnerving social and cultural elements embedded in the functioning of how blackface appropriates the black self renders black people as mal, inferior. Blackface and minstrelsy heightened the received New World idea of “black,” and sought to stabilize the concept of “black” by morphing African slaves in the New World into international icons of institutional subservience — among other things. 

There are the unsettling images, shockingly racist artifacts, a closeted culture practicing an uneasy avoidance of a period in our history that continues to generate undealt-with feelings regarding the various ways in which blackface is viewed and interpreted. The echoes of blackface have arrived in our community and have alighted on, and affixed themselves to us as lingering reminders of their continued influence on our imaginations and sensibilities.

 The blackface incident at OPRF High School uncovered and illustrates dormant, unresolved, in-need-of-repair issues that will not be ameliorated by status-quo responses. I think the high school incident, coupled with a re-examination of minstrelsy periods, could enable a valid teaching and learning moment — one that could shape and support a communal deep-dive into one of the most culturally-charged periods in our country’s collective memory. 

Intermittent rashes of “courageous discussions” about race have flared up and sputtered out over time in our communities, so this is another call for upright, well-meaning people to resist dodging the anxiety associated with the period and get up close to this most-avoided American historical landscape.

I recommend that citizens invite and encourage the reading of a decided-upon communal text and have conversations about it. Here are a few suggestions:

Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, by Eric Lott

Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, by Michael Rogin

Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930, by W. Fitzhugh Brundage

The goal of this communal read should be to establish a common reference point from which the community could possibly discuss — in all of its complexity — the use of this historical bookmark of blackface minstrelsy as a lens through which to examine, generally and specifically, issues of belonging, identity, and equity. 

A great deal of scholarship has been generated about the personalities and events, the popular trends that were captured and generated and sometimes sustained over time. It is a reminder of power relationships, another deep psychic cut inflicted upon the African in the New World and on the nation. Many people continue to feel the hurt and regret, calculate the harm that ensues from the continued performances of white people putting on black face and, stranger still, the peculiar phenomenon of black men putting on blackface as well. 

These themes, though not as overt in our time as they were during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, remain as lingering specters, influencing at a deep level, the ways black and white Americans negotiate the commons. 

This unexplored, veiled territory, should not be so swiftly and dutifully swept under the rug of memory. 

George Bailey is a longtime Oak Park resident and a retired Columbia College professor.

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