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 fraught – fraught 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.”