A man in Arizona is objecting to an old photograph of coal miners in a bar because it reminds him of blackface. He accepts that the picture isn’t intended to represent blackface, but “a business’ photograph of men with blackened faces culturally says to me “Whites Only.” It says people like me are not welcome.” Ultimately, whatever the reality of what the image depicts (and we’re almost getting into Magritte territory here), “the context of the photograph is not the issue.” It’s a starting line, a springboard for a bigger, nastier conversation. Which is probably one we ought to have, but it makes people uncomfortable, so. nah, let’s just take down the photo.
A few days later, a piece in the New York Times traces a fairly convoluted line between blackface traditions and the soot-smeared chimney sweeps of Mary Poppins, rather ignoring the fact that, whatever the original intent of PL Travers, or Walt Disney, or long-forgotten vaudevillians, or even the blessed St Dick of Van Dyke, sweeps’ faces are black because of the nature of their work, not as part of a secret plot to ensure white superiority. Like the miners, they work with dirt.
And just now, I read that Gucci is withdrawing a (frankly hideous but what do I know?) piece of clothing because it reminded somebody of blackface.
The argument is no longer about whether blackface was “just a harmless bit of fun” (it clearly wasn’t) but whether it was something so heinous that any cultural product that might accidentally remind someone that blackface even existed should be cast onto the scrapheap. Clearly this sets precedents. Should we ban the Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’ because the refrain could prompt flashbacks to Kristallnacht? Or possibly consign the routines of Les Dawson to the margins, not because of his rather unenlightened attitude to his mother-in-law, but because his forename is still occasionally deployed as a homophobic slur?
Beyond the inevitable PC GORN MAD headlines, we need to remember that everything is offensive and hurtful to someone. Coalminers and chimney sweeps and designers of truly horrible jumpers may take offence at the brouhaha that’s arisen from these stories. But as Rashaad Thomas, the author of the article about the miners argues, the context is not the issue. How we respond is the issue.
And increasingly, my response is to search out the nearest coal mine and wonder what it’s like down there.
PS: Katy Perry adds to the fun.