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Sunday, February 10, 2019


The revelations in Virginia have been seized upon by commentators as a teachable moment suitable for explaining to clueless white folks why it is unacceptable to wear black face.  But in their eagerness to hammer home the message that one ought not to do it, they have left unanalyzed the obvious and rather deeper question, Why do it?  What is the attraction of putting on black face, of smearing shoe polish [ugh] on one’s face?  I do not think it is difficult to extract from this question an important and long-understood, but too often neglected, element in white Americans’ engagement with slavery and its aftermath.

Let me start with something less weighted with moral significance [and thus less fraughtfraught being the old past participle of to freight, which is to say, to weigh down or load up with heavy storage objects.]  What is the attraction of dressing up on Halloween as ghosts, ghouls, and goblins?  The simple answer is that it is a way of robbing terrifying things of their power to frighten us.  But a more complicated and accurate answer would be that little children [and the rest of us, needless to say] are both frightened of and attracted to their inner desire to “be bad.”  All of us have secret aggressive and sadistic fantasies buried deep in our psyches.  One way of dealing with these desires is to express them in safe, neutered, permitted forms on ritual occasions.  Another way is to project them onto outcast persons and kill those persons or punish them or enslave them or exile them in the pathetic hope that by doing so we will remove those desires from ourselves and be cleansed.  There is nothing peculiarly American about the psychodynamics of these processes.  They are universal.  One need simply read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Portrait of Dorian Gray to see them given elegant literary treatment [or Oedipus Rex, for that matter.]

Africans came to the Americas originally as enslaved workers, and slavery was from its inception on this continent a particularly brutal but highly productive form of labor exploitation.  [Those interested in my views on the subject can read Chapter Three of my book Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.]  Generalized bound labor became transformed into racially encoded chattel slavery in the early and middle eighteenth century, and the bodies of Black men and women then became screens onto which were projected the repressed sexual and sadistic fantasies of White men and women.  Black women slaves were routinely raped by White owners.  Black men were fantasized by Whites as both uncontrollably aggressive and as excessively sexual.  White women had frissons of delicious terror at the thought of being raped by Black men with outsized genitalia.  [The irrepressible Mel Brooks captures the fantasy of the monster with a huge penis in his over the top scenes with Peter Boyle and Madeline Kahn in Young Frankenstein.]

White people are drawn to Black music, to Black comics, to Black athletes, projecting onto them their fantasies and forbidden desires.  The “one drop” definition of Blackness peculiar to American slavery was both an economically effective way of expanding the supply of slaves and an expression of the attraction and terror of forbidden desires.

That is why White people dress up in black face.

The truth is of course other.  It was expressed best by W. E. B. Du Bois in the Preface to his classic work, Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880:

“I am going to tell this story as though Negroes were ordinary human beings, recognizing that this attitude will from the first seriously curtail my audience.”


David Zimmerman said...

Perhaps an even more apposite Mel Brooks comment on the fascination of white folks with black sexuality occurs in "Blazing Saddles," when Madeleine Kahn [more-or-less as Marlene Dietrich] cavorts behind Hizzoner the mayor's desk with the new and very black sheriff, Cleavon Little, marvelling at the size of what... turns out to be his forearm.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

right on!

Dean said...

David Zimmerman slightly distorts the scene from "Blazing Saddles." It takes place in the dressing room of Lili Von Shtupp, the entertainer portrayed by Kahn. Following her performance, she invites the new Sheriff Bart (Little) to her room and seduces him. At that point she discovers in the dark that what "they say about you people" is "twoo!" Later, she plies him with "schnitzengruben" (fifteen, to be precise), enormous phallic Bavarian sausages. I don't recall a forearm twist. In any event, in Blazing Saddles Brooks addressed race in America perhaps more incisively than any movie ever has or will address it. Of course, Richard Pryor was one of the script-writing team. said...

Not to be too gross, but fore-arms have their purposes too.---at least in some circles.

Anonymous said...

Does it matter if one of the accused expanded Medicaid in the state for the affected group? Or must identify politics stamp out working class solidarity?

Deaan said...

More from Blazing Saddles comes to mind as reflection of Prof. Wolff's remarks; indeed, IIRC, the opening scene introduces the Governor's white posse armed and riding horseback to a site where Blacks and Chinese in chain gangs build the railroad. The posse leader demands of the former, "Sing us a nigger work song!" The workers with Bart at the lead feign ignorance and instead sing a deliberately unctuous rendition of Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick out of You." Frustrated, and with utter lack of self-awareness, the white posse proceeds to instruct the Black workers by singing "Camptown Races" with Dionysian, if also silly, abandon. The whites in control had appropriated the Blacks' music. They condescended to perform it, only to discover to their mild embarrassment when the sheriff rode up and caught them "prancing around like a bunch of Kansas City faggots," that it had unleashed wellsprings of pleasure.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

An absolutely splendid description of the scene! By the way, idly surfing the web, I discovered that the great Gene Wilder line, when talking about the good, honest, god-fearing people of Rock Ridge, "You know, morons" was actually adlibbed by Wilder! It wasn't in the script.

David Zimmerman said...

I thank Dean for the correction. But doesn't Cleavon Little correct Madeleine Kahn about precisely what she is enthusing about? I may have that wrong too... It's been awhile since I've seen he movie.
Anyway, nice further comments about "Blazing Saddles."

David Zimmerman said...

So, memory does not fade that much.... The scene in question ends:

"Oh its twue its twue!"
"I hate to disappoint you ma'am, but you're sucking on my arm"

Dean said...

Good sleuthing, David!

LFC said...

I saw Blazing Saddles when it came out but not since, and do not remember anything about it beyond its being very funny and clever. Partly b.c was a long time ago, partly b.c I don't have a very good memory for movies unless I've seen them more than once and/or the scenes are esp iconic (to employ an overused word) as is true, for ex, of a couple of scenes in Apocalypse Now, which appeared after Blazing Saddles but is from roughly the same era.

s. wallerstein said...


I don't think that you have an especially weak memory. Rather that some commenters have an incredibly good memory.

I saw Blazing Saddles and I don't recall anything at all from it. The Producers, which was previous to Blazing Saddles according to my often faulty memory, made more of an impression on me, but I can't recall details or specific jokes from that movie or from any movie of so long ago.

On the other hand, I have a very good memory for the words from songs from the 60's and even from the 50's.

I don't remember names of fellow students from the university or even of all the professors that I had. A short ago I learned that my high school yearbook was online and when I glanced through it, I saw many classmates whose existence had entirely gone down the memory hole.

Sex seems to help my memory. For example, I remember the whole Profumo affair which took place in 1963, but not the details of Watergate, which took place 10 years later.

LFC said...

your last paragraph is amusing. Wouldn't want you to think your sense of humor was unappreciated.;)

s. wallerstein said...


Thank you very much.