Monday, March 31, 2008

Blackface, Ghetto, and Class

Some of you know that I do my research and writing in the different ways that class is manifested in Black culture, particularly in the literature. I was reviewing my e-mail messages and came across a query from an academic listserv about what does it mean for suburban upper-middle class Black youths to pretend to be from the ghetto. The person posing the inquiry wanted to know if the youths were engaging in "blackface."

Of course, I find this line of inquiry problematic. For one, I couldn't discern what the writer meant by "blackface." Two, the question denies class diversity among blacks; implicating somehow that urban, middle-class Black youths are not black because to pretend to be from the ghetto somehow blackens them. And three what does it mean to "act ghetto"? Are there certain behaviors among blacks from urban, potentially, less economically advantaged areas that are intrinsically different from Blacks from the suburbs?

I wonder is there anything worth while in engaging this line of inquiry. Besides, I find the use of the word ghetto in relations to Black communities really problematic. My mother, a woman without the credentials of some of my colleagues, always told me that me and no other Blacks had the right to claim the word ghetto to describe U.S. Black communities. That, in fact, we had been hoodwinked by White sociologists who were as ignorant as we were. Then my mother sat down with a stack of books and had me read about the origin of the word ghetto, its relations to Jewish ghettos in Europe, and how such ghettos functioned. She asked me one thing: "what's the difference?" I noticed immediately that Jewish ghettos were communities that functioned despite racism. There were bankers, butchers, tailors, newspapers, etc. Post-integration Black, urban communities, I argue, have ceased being ghettos.

But to get back to the scholar's line of inquiry: blackening one's face, as Bert Williams did, was a performative act used to appease white audiences in portrayals of Blacks with which whites were comfortable. So when black middle-class youth are "acting ghetto," who is their audience? Other black upper-middle class kids? White upper-middle class kids? Who? Are they performing "blackface"?

As my son prepares to move into the District to go to Howard U. I have noticed that his physical posture is slightly changing. The inflection in his speech is shifting. He's not speaking as clearly. He's dropping the last syllables of each word. I know what this is about. It's not an easy prospect for a sheltered, upper-middle class (upper income with his parents' combined resources) African American young man to get off the metro train and stroll up Georgia Avenue to Howard U. amidst the folk. (Which is why Howard runs a shuttle from the metro to campus, but my son refuses to take the shuttle). Real or imaginary, he knows that he is different from too many of the folk in the community around Howard, and as a matter of survival he is attuned to the cultural codes that set him apart. Well, he's not doing blackface, he is intuitively shifting his posture and demeanor to fit in, or at least to be as inconspicuous about his privilege as possible; just as he did when he enrolled in school and realized that to survive he had to adapt.

So maybe my esteemed colleague on the listserv is referring to something quite different in his reference to blackface. All I know is that Black men have no choice in this culture but to be chameleons, able to adapt whichever posture is necessary for survival. That is the beauty of the performative natures of our existence. If it is acting blackface, then so be it. But I don't think that such a negative appellation is necessary to describe cultural shifting and performance.

My colleague's entire line of inquiry reminds me how privileged some Black academics are, and how their line of inquiry almost always implicates their own bias and elitism about class; a conversation that we woefully need to have aloud.

1 comment:

E. said...

I find this intriguing.

I often have to deal with the shifting constructions of my identity. People will call me names (pimp, son, homie, my n***a, playa, and on and on) based on what they think they see.

Sometimes I ignore it and move on but other times I have to check the person who is trying to mold my identity into their preexisting notion without my permission.

This goes deeper. The real connotation of acting ghetto is that one is acting ignorant. And acting "ignorant" has a two way value.

Playing the role of a colloquial brother goes a lot further than being the professor amongst working class people who do not appreciate arrogance.

On the other hand, playing ignorant or being down, in "high class" situations is a tactic some use to show otherness and solidarity with their roots which included many plain-speaking, proverb-oriented teachers.

Being blackface to me is some kind of intellectual reversal. What does that really mean? Sounds like a sound byte or something.....not a real question of true identity.

Acting ghetto can be showing love, masquerading, embodying a troubling identity, or simply toying with another's image.