One of the most fascinating and shameful chapters of United States History is the development and flourishing of minstrelsy and the infamous minstrel show. In this so-called “art form” White vaudeville actors blackened their faces and drew on exaggerated features (e.g. lips, eyes), put on garish outfits and wooly hair and poked racist, hurtful fun at Black people. In the moment of the minstrel show Whites simultaneously displayed their hatred and love of all things Black. They hated our skin, they hated our features, and they hated our very presence. But, they also loved our music, dance, humor and artistry in general. Although minstrelsy emerged in Medieval Europe with singers and troubadours traveling from town to town to entertain, black-face minstrelsy was a product of White supremacy and rose to its heights in the post Civil War era.
At some point in this era the minstrel changed from a White performer blackening his face to a Black performer blackening his face. As famous minstrel performer Bert Williams once said, “I’m a Black man playing a White man who’s playing a Black man.” The absurdity was not lost on the actor and while minstrelsy was one of the few venues in which Black actors could perform, most understood it as a form of degradation and were more than ambivalent about their participation in it. The Black female minstrels helped to cement in the US psyche the imagine of Black women as sexually promiscuous and/or overweight, overbearing maids or “mammies,” capable of only caring for White people.
Finally, by the 1960s we began to see Black characters in roles where they were fully human—not only maids, butlers, chauffeurs, and other servile positions. Of course, Black filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux had produced more humane portrayals of Black people beginning in 1918. But, those films had limited distribution and a limited audience. Actors like Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Douglas Turner Ward, Diana Sands, Claudia McNeil, Al Freeman, Jr., Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, and others created more realistic visions of Black people and Black life.
But, now despite the gains and sacrifices of the Civil Rights movement and a dedicated group of Black actors, film makers, and performers that include those mentioned above as well as Cicely Tyson, Denzel Washington, Maya Angelou, Spike Lee, John Singleton, Anna Deavere Smith, Danny Glover, and Ava DuVernay, reality television seems determined to take us right back to the minstrel show.
Several weeks ago, the cable network VH-1 decided to air a program, “Sorority Sisters” that shows women who belong to the “Divine 9” sororities—Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta, and Sigma Gamma Rho. Initially slated to air this past summer, a storm of protest delayed its debut. However, despite the overwhelming opposition from the various sororities’ corporate headquarters and individual members and supporters, VH-1 decided to go ahead with airing the show in December. Black Twitter ® and Facebook ® went crazy. All kinds of campaigns to boycott sponsors and boycott the show have emerged. Some of the organization’s corporate headquarters have made statements threatening legal action. And, there are some who argue, “Where was all of this passion and anger when VH-1 and Bravo put on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Basketball Wives, and Love and Hip Hop? All of these shows degrade and demean Black women.” That’s a fair criticism. My response to those shows was the same as my response to “Sorority Sisters”—I don’t watch them!
I see all of these shows as attacks on Black women and I have no intention of participating in the glorification of “ratchet-ness!” The primary difference for me is that “Real Housewives” are neither real nor housewives; “Basketball Wives” are not married to basketball players, and “Love and Hip Hop,” …well, you get the idea. “Sorority Sisters” is comprised of actual women who were initiated into Divine 9 organizations (I can’t say if any are financially active members). Also, the other series are about individuals who have decided to pimp themselves much like “The Real House of Beverly Hills (or New Jersey),” “The Kardashians,” or “Honey Boo-Boo.” They are not about 100 plus year legacies of brave women who made the uplifting of Black people and Black womanhood their central focus. They marched, protested, and sacrificed for racial and gender equality. They built job centers, registered Black voters, dug wells in Africa, and built and operated schools. They all have a legacy of service, scholarship, and sisterhood.
It is unfortunate that too many in the general public only focus on “wearing colors” and “step shows.” It is unfortunate that some members create rivalries based on demeaning those outside of their group. The histories and legacies are important and worth preserving. So, while I can’t tell individuals how to “sell themselves” (and make no mistake, they are selling themselves), when you try selling me in the process I have a right to speak against it.
I detest minstrelsy. It’s not something we have to do anymore. But, as long as you feel compelled to tune in to “Sorority Sisters” all I can say is “Welcome to the minstrel show!”
Stay Black & Smart!