REFLECTIONS ON WHITEFACE MINSTREL SHOWS
I cannot believe what you say because I see what you do. (James Baldwin)
Today the curtain went up and Act IV of a poorly scripted and badly performed white face minstrel show was on stage. This not bingeworthy series features a lead character who is public servant who has painted his face with a mask of lies. This white face minstrel show is nothing new. It is a tired, worn out melodrama made up of forked tongued monologues, double speaking soliloquies, and predictable, sympathetic villain style plot points that the corporate media has been featuring like a soap opera rerun since last week.
This production combines some of the most popular theatrical formats practised in the United States — the minstrel show, the musical, the lyrical tear jerker, and the nostlagic melodrama — patched together erractically and framed in emotive, plaintive, wistful, heartrending, pathetic lies, spoken by a character type who is part of the culture and society here and has been praised as being one of the good people on one of the sides.
If you are not familiar with the white face minstrel show, please, be patient, and read on. Once you are familiar with it, trust me, your way of listening to white people in the United States will be changed, for good, and for ever.
Act I: Wearing a mask of sincere-looking confused contriteness, with the yearbook photos shown above as a backdrop, the man those photos stands poignantly alone, acting vulnerable and appearing remorseful, pleading for forgiveness for his actions. Wearing a mask a dew-eyed self-reproach, he carefully delivers, in a humble voice, the common line spoken by white supremacists when their actions are deemed unacceptable: I did, he entreats the audience to believe, not realize my actions would offend others.
For those of you unfamiliar with the language of white face minstrelsy, please be aware that these simplistic, short, sometimes grammatically confusing lines are rich with hidden meaning.
For example, I did not realize my actions would offends disguises a profound meaning which goes like this: I need to say something quick that will make them think I am sorry. Because nowadays I have to do that. But I will not do more, because this is not about being honest about what those actions mean.
It is about appealing to the emotions of those who have been hurt by my actions, by making it seem as if my actions hurt me as well.
If I do my best acting in this scene, then the rest of the play will center around me, and I will be able to suspend audience disbelief and convince everyone watching and listening that I just a normal, feeble individual who, just like them, is capable of making mistakes, and, just like them, is worthy of forgiveness.
They will leave the theatre relieved to know that I fit safely into the simplistic paradigm so favoured in the United States as a framework for discussing deeply pathological and dangerous behaviors: that we all are human, and we all make mistakes, but that does not mean we are bad people.
Act II: After a dramatic curtain close in Act I, a moment of sentimental silence follows, which allows the memory of the protagonist’s sad clown face to establish his stock character. The curtain rises again, accompanied by gently challenging music that signals the beginning of an obstacle the protagonist will face. The man in the photos returns to the stage, no longer weakened with regret, but now strengthened by the mistaken logic because his face is covered in one particular photo — by one of the costumes that are motifs for hate-filled ideologies that are directly related to nearly 150 of years of violent activity that has caused the suffering and death of countless human beings —because the audience cannot clearly distinguish which of these costumes he is wearing, then there is no need to discuss the issue of what these costumes mean, nor his use of them.
In the white minstrelsy show, this is a crucial plot point, that must be played with all the talent the actor can muster. It is absolutely necessary that the audience become convinced that it is nigh on impossible to identify him in the photo. Doing this creates a challenge for him, and hence we arrive at the obstacle the protagonists of all classical drama must overcome. In this instance, not only must the protagonist successfully dissuade the audience from believing there is a way to relate him directly to the photo. He must also sway them to empathise with him, put themselves in his shoes, that is, understand how it feels to be accused of being in the photo. Doing this will disguise the vilaainous nature of his character and allow the audience to like him enough to not start booing, walking out, or otherwise looses interest int he show.
If his acting skills are remarkable, he will manage to convince the audience that whatever evidence of him being in the photo, wearing one of these costumes, is purely circumstantial. There is no proof that he is in the photo because his face is not clearly visible. And, furthermore, in true Machievelian-inspired paranoia — a common state of mind in the United States — there may even have been a plot formed against him, because, even though the photo appears right under his name, it is entirely possible that he did not place the photo there. Someone, anyone — and most likely someone who simply wants to ruin his political career, his happy family life, and him, by pandering to current trends of malcontent —simply has it in for him.
And, if he manages to do this, he has escalated the drama from gaining the audience’s empathy, to controlling their interpretation of the events.
In very good thriller genres, this tactic is called gaslighting, and the objective is for the villain to confuse the audience into believing that they are delusional about the villain’s true nature, actions, and intentions.
Gaslighting is quite a sinister, but very common practice, both onstage and off, and requires superior acting skills as it must be done with a subtle, precise, and deadly form of dissembling that is a rare gift granted to only the best players.
Act II is perhaps the most challenging one for the performer. He must reach deep within to perfectly craft lines with a sophisticated and understated tone of confidence, utilising words that present variations on the theme of: You can’t get me for this. Those variations include phrases that are repeated often enough to attain an illlusionary veracity: There is no proof of that photo being me, There is no proof I am in that photo, I will have that photo digitally and foresenically examined to prove to you that it is not me in that photo, etc.
In white face minstrelsy language, this actually means: I do not actually care if this photo offends anyone. In fact, I am offended that some people are accusing me of being in it.
Done properly, this sets the stage for the climax of the performance — the moment when a white supremacist, now reframed as an heroic protagonist who must overcome the obstacle of people not believing that he is not a white supremacist —must go on a perilous journey whose objective is to show the audience that he is nothing more than a human being, just like them, who, just like them, has human feelings, human fears, and, most importatnly of all, human rights.
This Act ends with a bit more subtly challenging music that fades romantically away, as the protagonist leaves the stage, slowly, hunched as if burdened — as, in fact, he is — with the responsibility of maintaining this delicately balanced suspension of disbelief — this cleverly crafted lie that he is nothing more than a pitiful, fragile human being who is the victim of cruel accusations for which there is no evidence whatsoever.
And if he has performed this Act well, the audience now sits on the edge of their seats, racked with anxious suspense, fully invested in seeing how this tragic hero will persevere and succeed in obtaining justice for this cruel act that has been perpetrated against him: which is simply his being held accountable for his actions, but in the world of white supremacy, is an affront to his very dignity as a human being.
Act III: Tropes, themes and timing are critical to the success of great drama. Therefore, this scene is staged with one of the most important melodramatic tropes/themes in the United States — that of the loyal, steadfast, faithful person who Loves the villain and is able to do so because he or she (most often a she who will remain at the villain’s side till the very end, whether tragic or triumphant) is able to see the innocent, tender, easily-broken human it in them.
With this in mind, the man in the photos returns to the stage using his wife as a silent chorus of affirmation for the irrational 40+ minute stream of back peddling, shallow, meaningless, trifling, trivial, hollow statements he delivers in a firmly confident and gently passive aggresive tone. Nothing he says has anything whatsoever to with addressing any real issues about the photo.
His wife’s anguished looks of concern are meant to encourage the audience to see him through her unconditionally loving eyes, and accept his unacceptable behaviour and his outrageous request that we “work with him to help him do better.”
White face minstrelsy uses stategies like these to be sure that people like the man in the photo become the central subject of the issue, as well as include them in the game of pandering to his narcissistic demands for unconditional love. That is, he demands that those offended by the photo be as faithful in their devotion to him as his loving wife. Doing so will help them overcome their own prejudices as well as force them to be responsible for the issue by having to tell the offending party why they are offended as well as take responsbility for changing his behaviour.
This clever distraction tactic has been a plot point in white face minstrelsy for quite a while now and it has worked very well. In fact, there is a million dollar industry based called diversity training that has made many white supremacists wealthy as they lull millions of people into complacent delusions that the United States is a multicultural society made up of good people on both sides, and all that needs to be done to stop the reign of social terror that white supremacists perpetrate is to embrace them with kindness, compassion, understanding, and the sincere desire to help them learn to do better.
As for timing, this Act is a stroke of temporal genius, as it is staged on a day when another powerful play is being enacted nationwide — the most anticipated gladiator sport day of the year — the Super Bowl. Inebriated as they will be by this timeless, monolithic battle of titans, the audience will be able to see the protagonist’s struggle as some kind of parallel battle of himself with his own demons, and they will cheer him on, convinced that what he his struggling with is the defense of his own inherent humanity against a foe from some mythical mysterious place that originates outside himself. That is, he is constitutes a one-man team who is up against a foe that has trained with determination to defeat him, and that foe is made up of a force that would rip apart the very fabric of the United States wth its needles called Truth and Justice.
This stretagey make teh audience believes that this play is not about the lies white supremacists tell, but the struggle that they — wearing minstrel show masks that make them appear to be nothing more than weak humans who make mistakes — must face in order to maintain their rightful place in a democratic society, where everyone’ rights are respected, even those whose behaviour is such that it causes people to die.
Being troped, themed and timed as it is, this act passes quickly, and is cathartically released with the roars of the audience, who have channeled their anger, disappointment, and grief about economic, social and politic conditions in the United States, into a gladiator style ball game that allows them to release these emotions and feel the sweet smell of phyrric victory over the enemies of fear, anxiety and despair that haunt them in their every waking and sleeping moment.
The curtain falls and the intermission is announced. The audience gratefully retires for refreshments in the comforting light provided by corporate advertising and the American way of life, which casts a rose coloured hue over the grim realities of their society, and hides its ailments behind healthy-looking images of happiness that is solely based on the ownership of material goods. However, being accoustomed to this from birth, the audience is happy to bask in this light while they cheerfully munch snacks, check their phones for messages from what they believe is the real world, make small talk, empty their bladders and bowels of the waste products of their illusions, remind themselves that what they ars seeing on stage is, as Gil Scot Heron sang, not really your life, it ain’t nothing but a movie, and thereby relieve themselves of the heaviness of the performance. That accomplished, the house lights dim and they return to their seats for the finale.
Act IV: Thanks to the superior acting skills of the protagonist, and the support of the corporate new media production companies, this show has firmly convinced the audience that this is a hero’s journey and not a white face minstrel show.
The costumes shown in the photo are no longer hate-filled motifs of white supremacy. They are merely a props in a drama about one person’s heart-rendering journey from playing and innocent childlike dress-up games — using costumes of a violent racist ideology — to a dramatic moment of dazzling enlightenment about his universal human nature, which is, like everyone else’s, simply the reason why he makes the mistake of doing such things.
And, while the audience may have been successfully convinced that this deluded hero’s journey is worth watching, they have, in fact, been so successfully lied to that they cannot see this is a recycling of Forrest Gump-style plot points about some white man wandering around in what appears to be a senseless and pointless universe, making ambiguous statements that appear to be simplistically profound, but mean nothing at all, with plots points and a structure that has no reason to exist, other than because some white man/men wrote a screenplay about some white man doing this, and some white men invested lots of money to have some white men in a film industry, created and controlled by white men, pay some white male actor millions of dollars to be the lead in a film about a white man who does this kind of white men stuff for nearly two hours, and does it so well that people of all clours are so bedazzled by what is cleverly packaged as mysterious white man wisdom, that they give up everything and begin following him as if he is some kind of sage, prophet, or saviour who alone holds the keys to things they do not understand— but, I digress.
If the convoluted Forrest Gump analogy I provided has confused or distracted you, do forgive me.
The fact that I deviated from the issue at hand shows how easy it is to become distracted while attempting to follow the plot points of the white face minstrel show.
Because detours are a fundamental feature of narratives of white supremacy and tend to inform the scripts of their dramas. In this case, the simplistic, confused Forrest Gump stock character type provides a non-threatening persona for the protagonist that allows him to be in close proximity to the audience and not instill any trepediation in them — as well as convince them to accompany him on the meaningless journey to his individual enlightenment.
This is commonly known by phrases such as leading one down the garden path, etc.
However, by paying careful attention, one can easily return to the main elements of the drama. Just think of those old-fashioned stories that have phrases such as: meanwhile, back at the [location of the action].
In Act IV, the location of the action is somewhere in the the Virginia State capitol building, where the protagonist, heartened by his so-far successful progress on his journey to nowhere— supported by a kind and empathetic audience who want him to victoriously make it to the end, for the good of himself of al of humanity — and in this location, he has returned to the stage with an entourage of serious-looking government officials who will meet with him to discuss his “options”.
This is the part of the white face minstrelsy show that sternly, but ever so subtly, lends a carefully crafted authenticity to the plot. Framing this act with actual government officials and the implication of laws, policies and procedures that place the protagonist safely within the framework of democracy — that is, as an equal memeber of society who must be treated fairly — is the trope and theme that erases any wrongdoing on his part, and from this point on, he is nothing more than a public servant who made a mistake, one which can be corrected within the current constitutional framework.
In other words, his “rights” — those cornerstones of the peculiar system that passes for democracy in the United State — are now safely protected.
This Act confidently informs the audience that the man in the photo that dressed up in costumes that promote hate-filled narratives and behaviors is not the real issue. Rather the real issue is that “democracy” requires this man be given the “right” to an “opportunity” to “do better” and this concept is wrapped up in some shallow idea that “everyone deserves a second chance” — even those who participate in practices that often result in extreme violence, against others, which all to often culminates in Death.
And so, Act IV closes without resolution, as the protagonist retires to the mysterious location of the democratic process, early in the morning, as his fellow citizens frantically begin another day of survival, whilst recovering from the extreme emotions of their gladiator spectacle the day before, and are grateful that someone other them them will continue on with the protagonist on his journey to do better, because, quite frankly, they have too much else to worry about — economic instability and inequality, extreme weather, active shooters, police brutality, sexual harassment, murderous threats against a variety of white and non-white people, their credit score, their lack of adequate health insurance or care, that one person at work who they are certain is out to get them, the traffic, whether or not their ways of relating to other humans is fulfilling their needs, the cost of living, the latest trends, their dietary requirements, their worry that their pet will miss them whilst they are away participating in modern day sharecrpping that may or may nor ensure one more day of shelter and food, and most of all, their progress at becoming better people themselves.
Therefore, Act IV ends by letting the audience leave the theatre without having to worry about how the play ends. This qualises them with the protagonist, because it gives them options — not return for the final Act, or if they would like to see it, be able to wait for it to stream on Netflix, and hope that what they will see will end the suspense of whether or not the tragic hero learns to do better.
I — and I like to idealistically believe, not just me, but others as well — am not one who favours these kinds of endings.
I do not have time to be sidetracked by carefully contrived concilliation cliffhangers.
I want a more definitive resolution to this drama.
And, I do not want Act V to end as follows:
Act V: a tear-jerking press conference is held that features the protagonist being looked kindly upon by compassionate people of all colours who recognise his inherent value as a human being and are happy to teach him the error of his ways. They will put their faith in him and believe sincerely that he will change for the better because everyone deserves a second chance. And, they know deep in their kind hearts, that, depsite, his appearance of being a white supremacist, there is much more to him than that. Because, somewhere, deep down inside of him, there is a good person who has, and will, do good things, and that is all that matters.
And they are particularly encouraged by the fact that he admired Michael Jackson so much that he wanted to look like him. They are impressed that he is willing to demonstrate the authenticity of this respect by moonwalking in a humble and sincere fashion.
Furthermore, given that dancing is a universal expression of joy and peace that all humans like to participate in, then this alone proves it is safe to include the protagonist in the family of man.
The final, heart-rendering, uplifting gesture is of the protagonist holding hands with people on either side of him — people whose colours and hair textures have been strategically chosen to constrast as much difference as possible to his own, yet create a pleasing palette that is easy on the eye — and singing an upbeat, yet somehow accusatory tune, with lines such as before you accuse, criticize and abuse, walk a mile in my shoes.
And this must be done in a cirlce that cannot be, will not, must not be, broken because it that is the shape of these futile practices that attempt to reconciling hate with love — fallacious and impossible tasks that has proven useless for hundreds, and even thousands, of years.
Because hate and love are not the elements that must be balanced in order for people to do better. They are not like the curves of a Yin-Yang symbol that flow gracefully into one another and must co-exist in order for humans to be made whole.
Rather, hate and love are irreconciable elements in every great universal drama about a hero’s journey. You may know them better as evil and good. And every the resolution in every great universal drama about them requires the hero to destroy evil so that good will prevail. For, as long as evil exists, not all humans will be safe to live amongst other humans.
In dramas where the costumes are the hate-filled motifs in the photo, the plot points and lines and actions are nothing less than purely evil ideologies and practices, that have resulted in the suffering of countless human beings in the United States. The final acts of those dramas include at least 4,700 known horrific murders by lynching, burning alive, being dragged behind trucks until they are dismembered and other forms of torture — crimes against humanity — that will continue to happen if the play is allowed to end with everyone as marching, united, into a dangerous future of disremembering, leaving the spectre of the unresolved acceptance of hate crime to haunt every generation to come —in other words, to be plagued by the failure to rid of the world of its evil ideas and activities.
No. This is not the ending I want to see.
If this is indeed meant to be a hero’s jurney, then there can be no reconcilliation with the evil of white supremacy. In order for this to be a true classic of great theatre, we all must become protagonists who vow to fight the battle of good against evil. And we must win it.
In order for this to happen, there can be no more cheap white face minstrel show dramas whose only purpose is to attempt to dissuade us from this task.
Act V of this play must open with with no players on the stage — no one willing to participate in the devious trickery of the first four Acts — and only one prop brightly illuminated for the world to see, a banner that reads:
“NO MORE WHITE MINSTREL SHOW.”
And no curtain will drop, no music will swell, or no audience will applaud, because Act V will not be the end of this show.
Act V will be the beginning of a new drama — one that firmly, clearly, fearlessly, and tenanciously is based on plot points that have no complicated, convoluted, chaotic, confusing, conciliatory, contemptible lines that are meant to allow the absolute wrong behaviours of men like the ones in the photo to be acceptable subjects for white face minstrel shows, carefully crafted performances that do nothing more than continue to dupe us into believing that we must incorporate the evil of their ideas and actions into the good we want to guide all human actions.
Act V will be, simply, the beginning of saying “no” to this antiquated form of theatre.
And the new show will not end until white face minstrelsy is no longer a genre that is played out in the United States, or anywhere else in the world.