When Blackface Works: Comedy and Nuance

by Tami Winfrey Harris

When I first caught a glimpse of Don Draper (actually actor Jon Hamm) satirizing an Amos ‘n’ Andy-type character during 30 Rock’s annual live episode that aired last week, I laughed…hard. Then I winced. I reckoned the backlash would be bad. The clamor wasn’t as loud as I feared it would be, but some smart people that I admire took issue. According to the Washington Post:

Jamil Smith, a segment producer at MSNBC’s “The Melissa Harris-Perry Show,” and Talking Points Memo reporter Ryan J. Reilly, however, both expressed their disapproval for the moment on Twitter. Smith tweeted, “And #30Rock has Jon Hamm in almost-kinda-yeah-actually-it’s-Blackface,” to which Reilly responded, “ ‘hey blackface will be okay if we’re meta about it,’ ’’ attributing that pretend quote to “no one.” Smith replied with the hashtag “#Fail.”

And my friend and fellow Clutch contributor, Renee, wrote:

Blackface is not simply something that is part of American history, it is an ongoing phenomenon – no matter how many times African-Americans state how unequivocally offensive this is. This skit attempts to place Blackface in the past — and by so doing — ignores the people who continue to be harmed by it. We are not post racial and we are most certainly not post Blackface. This is also Hamm’s second racially problematic skit. Yes, I’m counting.

Hamm did, after all, appear in an afro wig, smears of brown makeup, overalls and adopt a stereotyped old-timey black dialect. Explained that way, the skit would seem offensive, racist. But it wasn’t, at least not in my estimation. We are not living in post-racial America–not by a long shot. But race, racism and racial bias are more nuanced than they were in the 1920s when Amos ‘n’ Andy first aired, voiced by two white men. For that reason, I think we need to interrogate race with the more nuance. I don’t think blackface, or even, dare I say, “the N word” are always racist in their use.

Let me say first, that I am no apologist for hipster and ironic racism. And I’m not the sort who thinks comedy cannot be analyzed or that it can’t reveal the biases of a performer. I’ve discussed these things here. When determining whether so-called comedy is racist or a commentary on racism, it’s important to ask, “What’s the joke here?” As Asian American comedian Kate Rigg said to Andi Zeisler in Bitch magazine:

Kate, was Sarah Silverman saying “chink” in her one bit about jury duty different from you saying chink?

KR: You know what, it actually was not. Because her joke was not about the word “chink,” it was about racism. It was actually a very good joke, a very socially responsible joke. And everyone freaked out : “She said ‘chink’!” I’m offended when I see comics get onstage going “…and then I went to the Laundromat. Ching-chong, ching-chong, ching-chong!” Then I’m fucking offended. When someone tells a joke about Asian people and there’s no actual joke – the joke is the Asian people. The joke is [racist-comic voice] the funny way they talkie-talkie! “They don’t use proper diction! Only verb and noun! Verb and noun!” I just heard a comic that I respect doing that fucking joke the other night. An Asian comic. And I was like, “Dude! Write a punch line or you’re just being racist!” Read more…

In this case, 30 Rock was poking at both past and present racism in media. Character Kenneth the Page introduced the segment by saying, “NBC had the first two black characters on TV — sort of. For ‘Alfie and Abner,’ NBC hired one African American and one Caucasian because they thought two black people on the same show would make the audience nervous. A rule NBC still uses today.” He set up the satirization of past racism, while acknowledging that while everything has changed, everything has also remained the same. It’s hard to find a fully-actualized black character on television…in 2012. Blackness was not the joke here.

I was similarly unfazed last month when CNN reporter Susan Candiotti read an uncensored slur, found on the Facebook page of Jacob England, one of two suspects accused of shooting five black people in Tulsa, Okla. England (and Candiotti) used the word “nigger.”  This isn’t comedy; this is news. The suspect’s naked racism may help shed light on his motivations. Candiotti didn’t say “the N word” with animus, or, I imagine, lightly. She used it in the context of a quote in the middle of a news story. I’m no fan of the word, but “Nigger” isn’t like “Candyman.” Say it too many times and something bad happens. It does no good to the fight against racism to hide its reality.

Bottom line? Context–it matters.

We’re not too far from the bald racism that 30 Rock mocked. It is certainly understandable that folks would have a visceral negative reaction to blackface. But I think we need to sit with that reaction and move beyond it to evaluate what we see. It is exhausting to pull apart and weigh race in pop culture. But it’s necessary to move the fight for equality forward.

  • lulu

    i’ve seen the original amos and andy years ago- a stereotypical mess- the actors they used were good actors , but wrong show – and even the mammy characters and the ignorant broken english black men somehow managed to put dignity in their roles when they had no choice but to play these roles- i dont know if black film students study old movies with black characters in but they need to so they will see that much has NOT changed- the voices may still be modern but these characters are still around in movies .. just think about and see and they are
    1. The magic negro.: the black person that supports and guides the white character.

    2. “Mandingo Negro” : that the black men has some special prowess and has no control over it

    3. Sambo: that black people are always happy and carefree.

    4. Mammy: that black women are overweight, caring church going, care giver, and has a large bust.

    5. Welfare queen: that black women are lazy, always give in, have lots of children

    just think – this has not changed..

  • be

    Well it didn’t work for me. IMO Tracy’s character plays a version of Amos and Andy every week. Don’t like Tina Fay every since the scene in the Mean Girls when the Asians were calling each other nigga. It’s just isn’t funny anymore especially looking the the landscape of network television. I simply find no humor in it at all. I tired of laughing about stuff that isn’t funny. Tina Fey was the head writer at SNL for years and approved some of this tomfoolery similar to what we saw in this skit. Yes, context matters, but ALL of it matters not just what you see on the screen, but the people behind it too. I can’t really approve of people like Tina who sits in a place of power and white privilege who is a part of the problem ( see Tracy character on 30 rock) and think this skit was anything more than was it was: To Get Laughs.

    I said it before when you open the doors a flood comes in. When Robert Downy Jr. did his black face people laughed including black people. Well it slowly erased the line we set years ago. Two white girls just did black face on the Real World to mock a black cast mate. I am not going to applaud some elementary skit on “race” as some deep intellectual commentary. It wasn’t.
    I also don’t think black people need to be told “we don’t get it”. We don’t need people to explain to us “the joke”. If we don’t like it , it doesn’t mean we didn’t get it.

  • Pseudonym

    I don’t understand why people would be offended by “black face” this skit when the entire point of the skit was to show how offensive black face was/is.

    Tracy Morgan’s reaction said it all: “Oh, hell no: I’m not doing this!!!!”

    hiLARIOUS!!!!! “Sir, I am asking you as a human being to please stop talking like that!”

    hahahaha!!!

  • LemonNLe

    Agreed! I was hysterical especially after Tracy roughed him up and you could tell Jon Hamm’s character was scared! I’m gonna need more people to used critical thinking skills first before always being “offended” by something that is satire. No one seemed to have a problem when Dave Chapelle did it so why now?

  • Pseudonym

    I was actually shocked at the shots at NBC and even the open acknowledgement/shame finger point at the network for contributing to the discrimination against blacks in their television programming. That was pretty BOLD!!!!

  • libby

    @ LemonNLe
    Yes because we all know it’s takes tremendous critical thinking skills to understand this two bit skit. SMH.

    Rent Hollywood Shuffle and get back to me.

  • be

    I would have enjoyed a skit about SNL not hiring any black women ( Sorry Maya), but rather having black men dress up like them. I wonder why Tina Fey didn’t do that skit you right what you know right….oops I forget she was apart of it.

  • http://shannonsezso.com ShannonRenee

    There is a difference between racist and tasteless. The former has malice intent to cause injury and the latter may still cause injury, though it lacks intent.

    The skit was tasteless and tacky, not racist.

  • AJ

    Context–the writer definately makes a good point. I especially appreciate her end quote: it’s hard to disect our own emotional response to racism in pop culture but it is neccesary to confront it and move forward. Still can’t bring myself to say the phrase “when blackface works” cuz it’s too much of an oxymoron. But still, she makes good point.

  • Trivia

    Fun fact (because they included it at the end of their faux clip)–the NBC peacock was developed from a performance by an African American dancer, Maudelle Bass, who was hired to perform in a colorful costume (designed by Diego Rivera) at a meeting of NBC executives to demonstrate the impact of color. From that meeting/performance they voted to become the first network to move forward with color program and the peacock developed from her appearance dancing up and down a drum in her colorful costume.

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