On Blackface and YouTube – from the Introduction

 

From the Introduction:  If they are still available on YouTube when you read this introduction, I would direct you to two particular examples of the change that did—and did not—take place in the mass media during the 1960s and 1970s. In the first instance, from the early 1970s, the deadpan comedian Pat Paulsen appears on Merv Griffin’s TV talk show, walking on in blackface and traditional minstrel costume.6 The audience and the hosts are all in an uproar, embarrassed and (I would suggest) physically titillated. Paulsen proceeds to complain to the audi- ence about how terrible racism is on the stage, and demonstrates it by telling several racist jokes (Polish and Chinese, not African American). The audience laughs—at the jokes, and also because of its discomfort at laughing at the jokes. The co-hosts, visible in the background, slink off, embarrassed. Paulsen dances, poorly, then leaves. The episode was censored by the television network and never aired. (It is unclear to me how it managed to find its way onto YouTube.) This is a good example of the transition taking place in American media at the time; Paulsen still thought he could get away with blackface in the context of satire, but he couldn’t. The audience immediately recognized the style of per- formance and reacted with familiarity to the humor, at the same time acknowl- edging by their reaction that this was “wrong” (now) and that they should no longer be willing to witness such things.

By way of contrast, also on YouTube are a number of clips from the British Black and White Minstrels, including at least one from 1978.7 This long-running television series watched by so many in the United Kingdom featured choruses of singing and dancing men in full minstrel blackface and white lips, wearing in general oversized floral-patterned shirts, woolly wigs, and the other accoutre- ments of minstrelsy. Audiences for this show seem not to have experienced the same ethical dilemma as the audience for Paulsen, though it is true that Paulsen was purposely challenging his audience to be (or not to be) racist, despite the makeup. The audiences for the Black and White Minstrels somehow justified what was by this point no longer possible in the mass media in North America, perhaps through nostalgia and an attribution of archaism—the argument that this is “old-fashioned” entertainment that has lost its relevance, and thus its capacity to offend.

I am convinced that the conflicting and conflicted audience reactions to these two performances are not unusual. As the contributors to this volume will attest—every one of them—the intentions of blackface performance have always been flexible and its reception widely divergent.