Queens College Professor Brings Blackface’s Centuries-Old History to Clark

Oscar Kim Bauman, Scarlet Staff

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In a March 14th lecture hosted in the Higgins Lounge at Dana Commons, Miles Grier, a professor of English from CUNY Queens College discussed “The Unfinished Work of Early Modern Blackface,” and the modern legacies of this historic form of racism.

The event was co-sponsored by Early Modernists Unite (EMU), the Higgins School of Humanities, the Center for Gender, Race, and Area Studies, the Department of English, the Department of History, and the Theater Arts program. It was part of the “Roots of Everything” lecture series sponsored by EMU, as well as the “Pop Cultures”series of lectures sponsored by Higgins School of Humanities.

Grier began his lecture by noting that blackface, while an old topic, has recently become a hot topic in the popular discourse again. This is due to Megyn Kelly’s losing her show at NBC last fall over her defense of blackface, as well as prominent political figures such as Virginia Governor Ralph Northam facing backlash for their past wearing of blackface.

Grier posited that just as pushes to acknowledge holidays of various faiths were branded by conservatives as “the war on Christmas,” so will this recent anti-blackface push become framed as a “war on Halloween.”

He also broke down his view of the current debate on blackface. Grier argues that both opponents and defenders of blackface focus on intent and offense, whether an instance of blackface was “meant to” demean a black person, and whether individual black people take offense.

Grier finds this angle of discussion to be unproductive, and instead implores us to look into the historic function of blackface. He points to the use of blackface in 16th century British theater, and argues that blackface served to “establish an authoritative white interpretive community” and make black figures “into reading material,” more ideas than people.

Othello, the well-known Shakespeare character from the tragedy of the same name, may be seen as an example of this phenomenon. While modern productions have moved to cast black actors in the role, Othello was, for centuries, portrayed by white actors in blackface.

Othello’s blackness was more than a fact of his character, it was a moral quality. Through her association with Othello, his wife, Desdemona becomes physically “blackened” as the makeup of the actor playing Othello rubs off on her. Grier notes that this is backed up by the script, which refers to Desdemona as paper and Othello as ink.

From this, Grier argues that rather than coming from stereotypes of black African people, blackface created a new, elastic category of “black,” which could even extend to those who associated with black people, such as Desdemona.

While Othello is referred to as a “Moor,” which today would be used to refer to someone of North African or Arab background, Grier points out that at the time, “Moor” was a far more vague term, used to encompass many different darker-skinned peoples, from all across Africa, as well as the Americas and the Indian subcontinent.

Grier ties this construction of blackness to the at-the-time new use of ink as a foundation of society, through printed and written documents. While paper was less trusted as a medium, the construction of an “inferior” group who could not use it granted it legitimacy to the white public.

At the same time, the creation of the stage Moor, whose complexion is a literal layer of ink, created a new metaphorical device for the theater. This allowed the white interpretive community to dictate the reality of black people’s characters.

Grier argues that a modern example of an authoritative white interpretation of black character may be seen in Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony, in which the Ferguson police officer defended his killing of Michael Brown in 2014.

In his testimony, Wilson spoke largely in metaphor and simile, describing Brown as “like a demon” and saying he felt like “a five-year-old fighting Hulk Hogan.” Wilson also described Brown as appearing almost superhuman, as if he was impervious to bullets.

Grier notes that while journalists took note of the racial stereotyping Wilson employed, they overlooked the fact that these events, described in simile and figurative language, were taken as legal fact.

This, he argued, is the true impact of the white interpretive community. Black figures, from Othello to Michael Brown, are reduced to figures and ideas rather than people, a malleable medium to serve a larger narrative. Debates over stereotyping and offense. ignore the greater issue of who is given the authority to create authoritative narratives about black lives.