Wednesday, January 30, 2019


Rashaad Thomas, an opinion contributor to The Arizona Republic who's also a poet, is being accused of hypersensitivity for writing this:
Phoenix restaurant says this is a photo of coal miners. But I see offensive blackface

A few weeks ago, I attended a holiday party at a downtown Phoenix restaurant. I walked around to view the photographs on the wall.

Then a photograph caught my attention.

Friends said, “It’s coal miners at a pub after work.” It was a photograph of coal miners with blackened faces. I asked a Latinx and white woman for their opinion. They said it looked like coal miners at a pub after work. Then they stepped back, frowned and said it’s men in blackface.

I asked the waitress to speak with a manager. Instead, I spoke with a white restaurant owner. I explained to him why the photograph was offensive....

A business’ photograph of men with blackened faces culturally says to me, “Whites Only.” It says people like me are not welcome.
Here's the photo:

Erick Erickson's reaction to this is predictable: "Progressive Poet Gets Triggered by Old Photo of Coal Miners." Glenn Reynolds, eloquent as usual, responds to Thomas's headline with "THAT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE A PATHETIC, ATTENTION-SEEKING IDIOT WHO DOESN’T CARE ABOUT FACTS."

Reynolds, of course, doesn't explain what the "facts" are in this case. So let me offer a few facts that might be of interest.

In 2014, there was a momentary controversy when David Cameron, then Britain's prime minister, posed for a photo with Morris dancers in blackface, part of a group of dancers known as Foxs Morris:

As a story in The Independent noted,
Foxs is part of the Border Morris tradition also followed in Herefordshire and Shropshire, and in neighbouring Wales....

Border Morris, as well as the East Anglian Molly dancers, and the Britannia Coconut clog dancers of Lancashire, use blackface. “From time to time, we do get people asking why, and they’re always very happy with the explanation and we smile and move on,” Finn says. “Sometimes we direct them to the available text, like the Border Morris page on Wikipedia.”

But that page reveals an unclear history and various explanations. “The most popular one is that it is a disguise that allowed impoverished 16th-century farm workers who were unable to earn money during harsh winters to go out and do a bit of begging and not be recognised for who they were,” Finn says.

But the other theories are more problematic. One traces the word “morris” to Moorish, and suggests the earliest performers were mimicking North African dancers. Studies of varying academic weight separately link the rise of Border Morris to that of American minstrel shows that launched the blacking-up-for-laughs craze of the 19th century.

According to these accounts, the minstrel shows that became ubiquitous in village halls across Britain began to influence other traditions. Morris dancers adopted “Not for Joe,” a song that mentioned “niggers” and the Wild West, while morris dancing is recorded to have been referred to colloquially as “going niggering”.
This page says that Border Morris "was the favored form danced by the coal miners of the Welsh/English border."

The photo that offended Rashaad Thomas is now located in Arizona, but it's probably a British photo. There's an ad on the wall for Burton Ale, a British IPA made by Bass & Co.

Here's another image of modern Border Morris dancers in blackface, from the Border Morris Wikipedia page. It's captioned "Silurian Border Morris Men, Church Lane, Ledbury, Boxing Day 1996."

Those don't look like men who just happened to emerge from a long day in the mines.

And a recent New York Times story reminds us that the Mary Poppins books and movies include some unfortunate references to blackface:
One of the more indelible images from the 1964 film is of Mary Poppins blacking up. When the magical nanny (played by Julie Andrews) accompanies her young charges, Michael and Jane Banks, up their chimney, her face gets covered in soot, but instead of wiping it off, she gamely powders her nose and cheeks even blacker. Then she leads the children on a dancing exploration of London rooftops with Dick Van Dyke’s sooty chimney sweep, Bert.

This might seem like an innocuous comic scene if Travers’s novels didn’t associate chimney sweeps’ blackened faces with racial caricature. “Don’t touch me, you black heathen,” a housemaid screams in “Mary Poppins Opens the Door” (1943), as a sweep reaches out his darkened hand. When he tries to approach the cook, she threatens to quit: “If that Hottentot goes into the chimney, I shall go out the door,” she says, using an archaic slur for black South Africans that recurs on page and screen.

The 1964 film replays this racial panic in a farcical key. When the dark figures of the chimney sweeps step in time on a roof, a naval buffoon, Admiral Boom, shouts, “We’re being attacked by Hottentots!”
(There are other racially charged moments in the original Poppins books, including a couple of references to "pickaninnies.")

So I think it's quite possible that the photo of soot-covered men in the Phoenix bar was meant to be, among other things, a racial joke. You may still think it's hypersensitivity, but there are some facts on Rashaad Thomas's side.

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