The poem I, Too was written by Langston Hughes over 90 years ago. It reads:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at that the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
According to an article on Smithsonian.com, the poem “capture[s] a series of intertwined themes about the relationship of African-Americans to the majority culture and society, themes that show Hughes’ recognition of the painful complexity of that relationship . . .” Yes, a painful complexity indeed. This poem is beautifully written and really resonates with me. For that reason, I will be using it as inspiration for my next few posts during Black History Month. With that being said, let’s proceed with my first poem-inspired writing.
The 18 lines by Hughes are powerful. Following the recent unveilings of government officials wearing blackface, the words of Hughes continue reverberate throughout the souls of black folk years later. People often claim to not see color; however, failing to see the experience and discrimination that comes with a person’s shade and ethnicity leaves society in a regressive state.
I don’t have the energy to break down all of the reasons why blackface is wrong. (There are plenty of people who have done a wonderful job laying it out. Please see here, here, and here, for starters.) The history of blackface has plagued America as an immature act, and a tasteless form of entertainment. Be it celebrity or commoner, some have found it amusing to adorn themselves in sludge-like substances and exaggerate their features, making a mockery out of black skin and attributes. For years, black people have voiced the pain this erects whenever their skin is diminished to a parody. Nevertheless, there are some people who insist on running headfirst into insensitivity, either to be enlightened by Twitter backlash or remain enslaved by their egos. (Face palm) This is exhausting. Why is it that in the age of information people insist on being uninformed or playing dumb whenever they’re faced with repercussions?
And please spare me these “past behavior” rants. True, the photos that have resurfaced weren’t taken just yesterday. Still, this isn’t as harmless as a frat boy dousing himself in blue body paint to match his school colors for a football game. This isn’t as innocent as a woman getting a facial with a clay mask of a different pigment than hers. This wasn’t an impulsive, rambunctious teenager’s slip of the tongue. Unlike the previous examples mentioned, there is a plethora of information available to remind us of the devastation blackface has caused given its historical context.
This. Was. A. Photo. This is how I’d imagine the thought process would be: “Let me darken my skin, taking black or brown goo, smudge it over my face and proceed wear blackness as a costume. Not only that, but I’m going to forever etch this moment in time with a still photo. Afterwards, I’ll go home, exfoliate, return to my original hue and bask in the privilege of knowing that I can go about my day without having to experience the actual plight that comes with being black in America.” That is truly ignorant.
The photographed individuals were adults who would later go on to become public figures. Now before you get all “throwing-stones-while-living-in-glass-houses” on me, please let me explain. We’ve all made dumb decisions. Yet, the fact of the matter is not all of us are running for a public office. Holding a public office requires (or should require rather) a higher standard of character given the responsibility, judgment, and leadership involved. Being a public representative, you tend to represent a group of people from various backgrounds. You have to be more mindful of how the things you do affects others. That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to make mistakes as a public figure. It simply means that who you are will be dissected, and your actions could yield extremely consequential results. Currently, the political base of these reps is outraged and insists that the public figures step down.
It doesn’t matter if it was the 1880s or the 1980s. It doesn’t matter if Adam Levine just performed at the Superbowl, or Michael Jackson’s video just broke the color barriers on MTV. Blackface is inappropriate and offensive. “Blackface reinforces the idea that black people are appropriate targets of ridicule and mockery and reminds us of stereotypes about black criminality, and danger. This . . .can serve to support implicit bias and discriminatory treatment and in areas from law enforcement to employment,” says David Leonard. The Washington State University department chair of critical culture, gender, and race studies expounds more in this Vox interview here. Mr. Leonard further explains why not feeling racist or not intending to cause harm is beside the point when wearing blackface:
“In many ways, one’s intent is irrelevant…. The harm, whether it’s harm in terms of eliciting anger, or sadness, or triggering various emotions or causing [black people to feel] both hyper-visible and invisible at the same time, is there. When someone says, ‘I didn’t mean it that way,’ well, their real question should be not ‘Did I mean it?’ but, ‘Am I causing harm?'”
Blackface minimizes my experience with being black. It makes the black experience something to be considered only in jest. It makes the lopsided numbers of mass incarceration, stop and frisk, housing discrimination and the like, mere fragments of our imagination rather than indicators of America’s true character. It negates the reality that simply “being black” has resulted in lynchings, bombings, shootings, and other tragedies.
If you still are unable to understand why blackface is offensive, then I ask that you too approach this subject from an empathetic standpoint. Dr. Perry, Psychologist and founder of the MakeItUltra Blog, wrote a beautiful piece on what it means to be empathetic, which can be found here.
Blackface is not only reprehensible but it reopens wounds of injustice and inequality. If those wounds are not your own, empathize with the pain of others. Decide to swap apathy for compassion, switch disdain with respect, change hatred into love—only then will you begin to see that I, too, am human, just like you.