Images of people in blackface
have been a source of both disturbance and fascination to me. These images
are intensely powerful in both their literal statements and in their ability
to allow the viewer to create a context through the bias of their own
associations. Generations of African Americans have suffered grievous
injury at the hands of people whose livelihood was derived from creating
and reinforcing stereotypes through blackface minstrelsy. The creation
of a stereotype was an essential element in maintaining white America's
illusion of superiority. It characterized us as buffoons and tricksters,
as inherently lazy and immoral and perennial children who were dependent
on the paternalism of our "masters" for survival. Slavery, even the post
emancipation more subliminal variety, was contingent on making its victims
appear to be less than human. The images I've used are taken from late
nineteenth and early twentieth century photographs of vaudeville and minstrel
show performers. Ironically, Blackface minstrelsy, through its wholesale
appropriation of African American culture, is recognized as the "America's
first indigenous musical-theatre genre". Manifestations exist to this
day in everything from black standup comedy to the "crews" and "posses"
of hip-hop. My work entreats the viewer to look at these images, while
at the same time looking through them, to discover an alternate context.
It is my hope that the work might offer a glimpse into the origins of
some conscious or subconscious contemporary thinking with regard to race,
color and gender. If you are discomforted by what you see, I invite you
to examine those feelings, for out of this examination will come enlightenment.
The Significance of Face
By Grace Carroll, Ph.D.
The black faced, big lipped, bug-eyed, caricatures that are the centerpiece photographs of Mark Greenfield's series, represent performers in the infamous minstrel shows. Shows that traveled throughout the United States and which, in some instances, were the only contact non-slave owning whites had with black images. Shows which represented the pop culture of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Shows which Mark Twain described as genuine nigger shows, which to him "had no peers" and were "thoroughly delightful." Clearly delightful and entertaining to whites in their time, however, today many would like to delete memory of this period of time. However, Greenfield's art forces one back to this time filled with horrific injustices toward African Americans. Concurrent with the atrocities of slavery, lynching, castration, rape, and other ungodly acts, both physical and mental, the first minstrel performance, thought to be in New York City in 1843, was birthed. Within a year, black face being put on white face to perform white perceptions of black life became the single most popular form of live entertainment in America!
The blackface minstrels were in so much so that blacks later followed suit as a way to make a living and advertised themselves as the "real thing." Sadly however, they, too, had to be buffoons, stereotypes, and caricatures to generate a living in the minstrel business. Some historians implied that the blackface minstrels were imitating black slave speech and mannerisms. This may well have been true in a rare case; however, the exaggerated black faced, watermelon eating, dimwitted, shuffling, singing, happy-go-lucky minstrels were not imitating any aspect of black reality. Slaves were not happy. Slaves did not sing and dance all day. Quite the contrary, hard-working black people were making sacrifices and being sacrificed daily to ensure that work was done. Upon the backbone of slave labor, whites and their institutions were able to thrive. The blackface minstrels allowed false perceptions, stereotypes, and belittling images of blacks to dominate their performances and consequently dominate the view of blacks held by whites and others. These indignities persist in the mindset of Americans and have spilled into the collective, international psyche regarding perception of black folks.
Mark uses text in the form of an eye chart to present cloaked messages over the blackface images in his pieces. The text is significant in many ways and leads to divergence and convergence of memories, thoughts, feeling, attitudes, and senses. At initial glance, one doesn't know that the text is anything but a random set of letters. You wonder why these letters are put on the image and begin to investigate the piece more carefully. This investigation requires careful deciphering of these letters to make out the actual words - words that titillate, tease and challenge the appreciation of the piece being viewed; words that finally jump out and scream at you; words that evoke an emotional and visceral response much like the image alone does initially.
A parallel deciphering process is needed to match the words with the image. What is intended by this dichotomy of one's senses - reading one thing and seeing another? How do you deal with these mixed messages the pieces present? It forces you to reevaluate your initial response to the blackface images by creating questions that challenge the images. What does Mark mean in texts that read, So tell me who's the nigger now? or Sometimes we become what we hate. This questioning process and the resulting self-analysis in one's attempts to answer them can lead to an about-face from ones initial perception of the piece. You begin to wonder about how and why you feel certain ways when you see blackface images; begin to question the propriety of white men dressing in blackface (and often in drag); begin to force yourself to acknowledge your feelings about stereotypes, caricatures, and their relationship to one's life and world view. Mark graciously triggers this about-face by creating art that does more than adorn walls. His art pieces facilitate a self-dialogue in those of us who view his work - a self-dialogue which results in a more acute self awareness and awareness of how we view and treat others.
An insightful Egyptian proverb says, When the eyes dont see, the heart doesnt grieve. Through "Blackatcha: Behind the Grease Paint and Burnt Cork," Greenfield has provided us with faces to see a paradox in American life. We see blackface minstrels. We see eye charted messages that invoke feelings from the heart. America has never sufficiently acknowledged, made reparations, nor grieved about slavery. We prefer not to see it as it was. We prefer the blackface images of smiling, caricatures. We prefer to believe that racism and colorism no longer exist. We prefer the illusion of equity and delude ourselves into thinking we see all faces the same. However, when we look at Mark Greenfield's work, we know that the faces we wear are often masks, much like the burnt cork make up. Hopefully we will begin to realize that if we don't start showing and seeing our real faces and, if we don't allow ourselves to grieve about slavery and its resulting devastation to black folks then and now, we will not be able to make progress and move forward. We will be thwarted in any attempt to make an about-face from the negative legacy of slavery. Answers regarding how to make this about-face are not readily available. They will not come merely as a result of showing our true faces. Yet, actually seeing what's real versus what is stereotype is a major beginning - a required step forward. If we cannot take this step together our eyes will continue to be blinded by revisionist history, and a socially constructed reality that benefits a few at the price of many. Thank you Mark for helping us see and perhaps for helping us along the path to save face.