I’ve been thinking about Radike Samo and the fans done up in blackface at the Tri-Nations.
It’s been argued that the fans’ boot polish and Samuel L. Jackson wigs were making a kind of tribute, the sincerest form of flattery. In the particular I don’t doubt that this is the case — polysemy being what it is. And polysemy being what it is blackface cannot escape the burdens of its context. Blackface goes back a long way and not much of it has lasted as tribute over the years…possibly none. Al Jolson isn’t a face to be recognised anymore, he’s a trivia question.
James Baldwin once described his Uncle as “white,” saying that his Uncle had “Daddy’s distant eyes, the same tension in the mouth. Strange, to see your father in whiteface.” For Baldwin the whiteface/blackface thing was about miscegenation and he wasn’t referring to happy suburban mixed race couples. Baldwin was referring to white men fucking black women because they owned them. The white men who saw themselves in blackface everyday, in the features of the children they had conceived and now owned.
Professional sports, as it happens, also has a long history of owning bodies, black bodies especially, and exploiting them on an industrial basis. Curt Flood comes to mind, but even those sportsmen who have been paid squillons have received but a fraction of the squillons they actually earned, and usually in a restricted marketplace where there are few employers and a seemingly endless number of athletic young men who might sell their mojo a little more cheaply. Especially if they were looking to remit some of that income to a family not doing so well in a small island country not doing so well.
Blackface is unavoidably about the theft of the body, a usurpation of black sovereignty that goes so far back that no level of particularity, meaningful specificity, is going to overcome the delicacy of those long suspicions of dealing in stolen goods. Blackface is never going to be a good look.