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Beyonce In Blackface: Innocent Or Insult?

Good intentions are one thing. Perception vs. reality is another. So goes the story with the recent outpouring of outrage and defensive stances over Beyonce's French fashion magazine photo shoot for L'Officiel Paris. The Houston icon used dark brown facepaint to pay homage to her roots, specifically African singer Fela Kuti, whose story and music left a lasting impression on the singer.

But both Beyonce and the magazine's choice of artistic expression has rubbed some members of the African-American community the wrong way. Others have collectively sighed of frustration, effectively saying, "What's the big deal?"

Like will.i.am and British singer Estelle before her, Beyonce's creative expression may have been misinterpreted - but fairly or unfairly is the question. Estelle, who dipped herself in black body paint for a music video, responded to her critics, "I'm black, so how do I do blackface?"

Damn good question.

Beyonce could very well ask the same thing, but the raw nerves that even the appearance of blackface strikes, intended or not, defendable or not, may be too overwhelming for the naysayer.

Beyonce In Blackface: Innocent Or Insult?

"Seeing a person of color put the blackface on, it's like black on black crime," says Tracey Ricks Foster, a blogger for the Washington Review and a blog show radio host of the African-American Literary Review, the only black thought leader to respond to our requests for comment.

For those who slept through history class and want to know the genesis of the hypersensitivity around Beyonce's latest magazine spread, blackface is one of America's many black eyes when it comes to race relations. It's a complex and deep issue, but in summation, blackface minstrelsy - in which white people portrayed blacks in blackface - was one of the first forms of American theatre in 1830s and '40s.

Beyonce In Blackface: Innocent Or Insult?

According to Eric Lott's 1993 book, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, there were comic songs in which blacks were "roasted, fished for, smoked like tobacco, peeled like potatoes, planted in the soil, or dried up and hung as advertisements."

"When you look at the history of blackface and how it was created by Caucasian performers, they characterized black people as lazy, unintelligent, eating watermelons and fried chicken," says Foster. "The real stereotypes that African-Americans have to deal with today were created then and they are alive and well."

But this isn't a time to hang Beyonce on the cross, says Foster. When asked what she'd like Beyonce to do - she still hasn't released a statement - Foster says, "nothing."

"There's nothing she can do at this point," she continues. [The pictures] will always be out there. An apology is not necessary. This is a teaching moment. We don't need Beyonce to release a statement. This is an opportunity to look back at our history and make more educated choices. That's really what it's all about: being sensitive about choices."

Beyonce's latest mini-plight raises a good question, though: When is it OK to put the past behind us and just let artists be artists? It may be the trickiest question there is, because like magazine art may be in the eye of the beholder, the weight and magnitude of injustices are on the backs of their victims.

 

Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder: OK because it's funny?
Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder: OK because it's funny?

A 31-year-old, like us, may look at Transformers: Rise of the Fallen and think nothing of missiles destroying and sinking military boat craft with bodies falling into the depths of the seas to their death, but would any survivors of Pearl Harbor think differently?

Rocks Off's daughter, who during 9/11 was tucked in the belly of our babymama, who herself sat less than two miles from the Pentagon during that still fresh tragedy, may, down the road, see planes crashing into buildings on TV and in theatres and she won't cringe and gulp like we do. She may look at a scene in a slasher movie in which a man is beheaded by a chain attached to a moving vehicle and not see anything.

We do. We were in DC during 9/11 and we're from Texas. Like we said, the eye of the beholder.

Put it in that context and maybe the answer to the question of when to put our past behind us is never. Folks may debate that no living black person in America today was ever a slave, but when nooses are still being put in black firefighters' lockers, the scent of slavery still lingers in the air.

Folks may say the president is black and we live in a post-racial America, but you don't have to go far on the Internet to find Obama in blackface. Hell, we were just walking the halls of Congress last week lobbying and the Confederate flag hung proudly outside a Mississippi Congressman's door. That's a form of art that means different things to different people. It won't be forgotten.

So how do we save ourselves the drama? How do Beyonce, will.i.am, Estelle, and any future musician, walk through the raindrops like Robert Downey Jr.? Does it have to be in a comedic context like the original blackface was?

You have to admit, Downey in Tropic Thunder was beautifully executed if not for the very fact that everyone laughed and he didn't catch heat like Beyonce is now. In a sense, he was wearing blackface to mock actors who wear blackface.

Does it have to be like that? Lighthearted, tongue in cheek?

Beyonce In Blackface: Innocent Or Insult?

"With Robert Downey Jr. I more so understood where he was going with his portrayal of Caucasian performers performing in blackface," says Foster (right). "I got that. And I think a lot of us understood that, but when one of your own decides that they want to take on this type of image I'm thinking it's similar to the N-word controversy.

"Hip-hop artists say they've taken the N-word and turned it around. 'We have taken the strong language, mean and hatefulness and we've turned it around and made it our own. Now everything is good.'

"It's still the N word regardless," she maintains. "How do you take something derogatory and make it something positive? I've never seen it."

Foster says instances like Beyonce choosing this form of artistic expression comes down to the school system not educating their children properly about African-American history and African-Americans not choosing to educate themselves, and what you have is a formula for individuals making choices that can offend groups of people.

Better educate people and yourself and maybe you have less incidents like this one is Foster's philosophy. Art becomes more sensitive.

But that's not realistic.

"I realize the world is not made up like that," says Foster. "The world is not a candy store. It's not sweet."

"It's not chocolate," she exclaims.

Politically correct or not, some do try.


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