Feb 10, 2019
Virginia’s governor says it’s not him in that yearbook picture which features two white men, one dressed in the hood and robe of the Ku-Klux Klan, the other sporting “black face.”
Whether or not it’s him, that picture opened the book on a long list of white politicians who also wore “black face” – along with judges, news anchors, company CEO’s, cops, talk show hosts....
Most of them echoed what a Democratic Party official in Virginia said about the famous picture: the men didn’t intend any harm, they probably just got carried away with a bad joke.
Well, “black face” is not a joke. The Ku-Klux Klan is not a joke. They are part of the long history of oppression aimed at keeping the African-American population in subjection.
“Black face” was the dirty justification for the monstrous abomination which was human slavery. Starting decades before the end of slavery, white minstrel shows toured the country, featuring white actors with their faces painted black. The black characters they played were always the same: buffoons, simple-minded, scheming, lazy. One of the best known of these characters was Jim Crow, an ignorant man, a target of humiliation. He was spat upon, punched, and had animal shit thrown at him – all for the amusement of white audiences.
Frederick Douglass, the former slave turned abolitionist, said those shows were “the filthy scum of white society.”
Slavery ended, but Jim Crow didn’t disappear. Over the years, Jim Crow became the symbol of the legal system of “segregation.” The idea that infused legal segregation was the same idea behind the “black face” of Jim Crow. The black population was supposed to be inferior, unable to function as free men and women.
But Jim Crow was only a symbol. What kept the black population subjected first to slavery, then to legal segregation was systematic, vicious violence. In the century after the Civil War, that violence was carried out by the Ku-Klux Klan. Started by the old slaveholders, staffed at first by officers of the defeated Confederate Army, the KKK continued under the leadership of local sheriffs and other officials.
Thousands of people were lynched over 100 years. Most of them were black, but not only. Whites who had any relationship with black people became targets. Jewish people were targets. So were Italians and Mexicans. Women were killed, even children. But black men were the ones most often beaten to death, or burned to death in a roaring fire, or hung from the limbs of trees, castrated, their skin flayed off their bodies.
They were, in the words sung by Billie Holiday, the “strange and bitter fruit of the gallant South.”
Jim Crow, as symbol and legal system, was done away with because the black population refused to accept the subjugation to which “white society” condemned them. The KKK, the vicious instrument of violence, was stripped of the hoods it hid behind by a black population that organized itself, armed itself and mobilized massively.
The slaves had fought to gain their freedom during the long 250 years of slavery. Their descendants fought during the Civil War for the same reason. They fought during Reconstruction, setting up governments, organizing schools, setting up hospitals and other medical facilities for poor people, black and white, who had never had anything. They fought during the populist movements of poor farmers, black and white. As soldiers returning from American wars overseas, they fought the indignity of Jim Crow and the violence of the KKK. During the Civil Rights Movement and the urban rebellions, they fought for their freedom.
A politician with “black face” today may only be denigrating the black population. But behind his disrespect is a long history that no one should forget. Freedom is like a bird on the wing, hard won and easily lost.