Wearing blackface in the South was the Minstrel Show, and Blackstone used to have them up until the 60s. I have a photo of a Minstrel show in Blackstone with all the town leaders in blackface making fun of black people. But for whites it was an opportunity to public-ally act the fool and put down their serious white face.
When you were in blackface, you didn’t care what people thought of you. That is a great liberation in the South, or anywhere for that matter, because we are all afraid of what people will think.
My wife grew up in Blackstone under the heavy fear of “What will people think,” YOu don’t have to have laws here because this fear of “God” is internalized. No one dares be outside of the fold.
Then there was Blackface Minstrels. There those who were most concerned with what people thought, the leaders, could romp and play the fool liberated from what people thought. They were applauded for being the fool, but in white face, they would be excommunicated, tarred and feathered with public opinion, one’s reputation ruined.
So Blackface was a great liberation from the tyranny of what white people think of white people.
Black Face and Minstrels shows were the natural release valve in the pressure cooker of a racial society…for white people. “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”
We all swim in cultural bowls, and the fish cannot know how their behavior is shaped by the curves of the bowl. Culture is the Shape of Water. As I write on black face I get a better understanding of the move Shape of Water. We can see the shape of water when we look at past cultures and how those in that culture have no option but to behave in the way their bowl dictates.
So what I do is look at the system (bowl) to see what certain customs and rituals occurred rather than judge individuals in that bowl for their “immoral” behavior. This judgment assume we who judge are moral, yet we to swim in an cultural bowl whose shape cannot be seen.
So I ask the question: why Black Face? Was it just to get under the skin of black people? Shy the joy in it. I talked to people in Blackstone who played in these shows, and the shows were the greatest things that happened to the town because all the white people went, and all the respectable people, the council members, etc. where up there acting the fool. It was a liberation, so to speak, from the burden of being white.
Now what is the burden of being white? One cannot segregate suppress other human beings with a collective guilt. We all have individual guilt, and one can say that humanity has a guilt (you know, original sin), but I’m just interested in the collective guilt of a white culture that creates personal value on being more valuable than another collective. So this is about a cultural bowl that shapes its fish into white and black fish, and all the fish must swim with no option in patterns that perpetuate the guilt. So how can one escape the pain of this guilt, and guilt is painful. You just can’t live with guilt. One must find relief some way or another. We create all kinds of escape strategies, but a strategy is never painful. So it becomes a ritual of collective redemption.
So let’s look at the ritual of Black Face. The White face willingly takes on the Black Face: Jesus took on the sins of the world. (now understand that I just exploring here, so walk with me before you leap to judgment) We’re trying to understand the psychology of black face.
In therapy one strategy is to pretend to be the other person to see what it feels like to be in their shoes. And we all have the experience, I guess, when we feel a joyous liberation when we are allowed to play like kids. Let’s remember, to be a superior white person in the south was a serious business. You had to be constantly alert, like a secret police, to report any black person stepping outside of the fish bowl rules. Every white person was responsible to enforce the rule of the bowl. Of course, the KKK was the terror enforcer. But every white person through looks, non-verbal behavior had no option but to swim in the shape of the water.
This, of course, puts every white person in conflict with their own human heart, the humanity. Culture said act this way; you heart said con’t act that way. This creates a tremendous tension in between our mind (collective culture) and individual heart. There must be a release valve. The cultural ritual of Black Face.
Like a racial Mardi Gras, when Black Face came around, all the guilt was released and you could once again return to the racist fish bowl for a while. And then as the tension builds, you have another release. This is what rituals do. They are ways in which we release of built of psychic tension in our individual and collective minds. We all have our own personal rituals that release tension.
The conclusion is that we are all innocent/guilty. No one escapes this ambiguity. And judging others is a release value for our own personal guilt. Judging those in past cultures for Black Face is our way of trying to escape out own guilt.
Our Culture shapes out mind like a fish bowl shapes the water of the bowl, and by analogy, the mind of the fish. And culture is like Russian Nesting dolls, one culture with many sub-cultures down to your personal story (personal culture). So you can see how the Big Doll shapes the small dolls all the way down to my personal doll/mind. All of these dolls are unconscious from the most part, but when we begin to awaken, the awakening goes up the dolls like dominos, one myth after another falling over.
These dolls confirm us from the Big Mother down to the small me. By mother I means that culture is our mother, our womb in which we knock about. Inside the mother doll, we have no option but to see the world in the shame of that womb. There is no choice because to have a choice whether to see the world framed by the mother doll or not would mean that you would have to be outside of the doll in order to choose whether to see and believe the doll reality is real or not. I say there is no choice because when you are outside of the Doll, you don’t see the doll because the doll culture is not real.
Can you see that. When you suddenly discover yourself outside of the Doll of Culture, from you personal culture working your way up, what you are outside of just drops off. You don’t have to decide to do what culture tells you to do or not. Just as there is no choice when inside the doll culture; there is no choice when you are outside of it.
If culture tells you to put on Black Face, and it is OK because culture does it, and you suddenly see that this is wrong, even though your Doll says it is right, you just don’t do it. You don’t choose not to do it, you just don’t do it. There is no option. You heart won’t let you.
So is one guilty when you obey the morals and commandments of your Doll Culture? Are you guilty when you have good intentions and would not hurt a black person, but you don’t realize that putting on Black Face does hurt them because you culture says it doesn’t, you culture says you are actually honoring them by mimicking them.
Are you guilty or not? This is a Zen Koan. If you say you are guilty you are wrong; if you say you are not guilty you are wrong. You are innocent/guilty. But out logic forbids us from this ambiguity. Logic says you must be either/or. You are either innocent or guilty. You can’t be innocent/guilty.
But you see, we are all guilty of obeying the Culture dolls. We condemn the dolls of the past, while not seeing the Doll of the present. We all live inside Culture or World Dolls. Who among us has been raised by wolves, without contact of human culture? We are born into these dolls. Our purpose, our spiritual intention of our heart is to wake up to the dolls, starting with out personal story on up to the American Doll Culture, then Western culture, and finally human culture…and that is Buddhism. To wake up, to make the unconscious.
Lynching Parties and Minstrels shows hang together. Being the Chosen Race is an Old Testament in costume. While the Hebrews conceived of themselves as the Chosen People who had a special covenant with God, and, of course, when you are special that is affirmed by having some social position to show for it. Being special means being at the top of the pyramid.
This racial specialness, this being White as the Chosen People grew out of Europe, but when African slave imported from a tribal oral culture into a national print culture became an economic necessity for a planting society like the South who had to keep up with the industrial Europe and North: they had to supple the cotton for the textile factories, a mythology needed to be created that kept the slaves as docile workers without having armed guards standing over them. The slave/master relationship had to be internalized.
New slave imports were immediately integrated into the very successful wealth generating system. To the White they obviously has a special covenant with their White God.
The shame and guilt was shared equally between the master/slave relationship. The African felt guilty and shamed for letting the master define them, and the White felt guilt and shame for in defining their slave as slave, they defined themselves also. Whenever we put conditions on the unconditioned, there is guilt for the wounding of life, our own as well as others.
So, as we see, rituals had to be created where the tension could be released in a non-violent way, like the reception at the wedding releases the tension of the wedding where the Two have become One.
So the Minstrel Show was a celebration of the Two becoming ONE. But during the rest of the day, the One is forced into a irreconcilable Two. The natures evolution and movement of Life is to be One, to unity. This social system was an affront to Life itself, and it creates to this day tremendous internal unconscious tensions that have yet to be exorcised and made conscious.
The purpose of every new age is to make the unconscious tension of the previous age conscious…go heal the pain.
Continuing our exploration into the guilt of Black Face, which we can now see right here in Blackstone where some feel guilty for the past, for here the past is always family, the sins of the fathers, so to speak, being passed on to the sons.
So how do we handle this guilt? Of course, we don’t wear black face now, never would, would never think of doing it, but does that escape the guilt? What I’m looking at here is that American History has the shoe polish of black face underneath its white face. Rub a white face and you will find some shoe polish.
But this “shoe polish” is now a metaphor as I am using it. Just one thought of prejudice, which is fear, when a black person comes into your space is…the Black Face of the past that we have, like children in the parents home, eaten whole without the ability to separate the cultural mind from our own mind.
Just one thought of forced distance between you and the black face, or if you are black, the fear of the white face, is a thumb print of this American shoe polish. We cannot escape it.
So what can we do. Well, here is where the practice of mindfulness is the great erasure. Mindfulness is the practice of not identifying with your thoughts, which is your culture..
One is supposed to be clean of the shoe polish, but when a thought rises in the mind, for the white person, when he sees a black person in his/her territory—this should not be, we feel—that is the cultural shoe polish, not you. When we practice not identifying with our thoughts, not suppressing them, mind you, but just noticing them like flies passing through, one gradually ceases to identify with the flies. You don’t even have to swat them, or spray them with claims of innocence, you just have to let the fly on through. In this way they don’t land on your self and fear the judgment that you have flies on your prejudice mind. Your mind isn’t prejudice. It’s the culture we have been born into to and you are not that. But we believe we are, so we never get rid of the shoe polish because we keep putting white shoe polish over it.