Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Umm Joann, THIS Is A Blackface Drag Show

One of the things I've pointed out in my decade fighting for transgender rights and in writing posts for this blog are the parallels between the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the 50's-60's and the Transgender Rights Movement.

While there are times when it is appropriate, desirable and prudent to make those comparisons and even borrow the imagery and words of some of our leaders like Dr. King and others to highlight those similarities, there are times when it is not contextually appropriate or historically incorrect to do so.

In a recent press release by NYTRO (New York Transgender Rights Organization) protesting a June 12 drag show done by Westchester County, NY legislators at a White Plains, NY seniors home, NYTRO State Director Joann Prinzivalli stated,

"The Westchester County legislature has failed for nearly eight years to amend the county human rights law to explicitly protect transgender people ... It is shocking to see county legislators who have dragged their feet on this vital issue doing the equivalent of a KKK blackface show to mock my people."

Joann, while I have much respect for you and the work you've done in the New York area over the years, that 'equivalent of a KKK blackface show' comment was not only an incorrect application of the history of blackface, but went a tad overboard.

If you really want to see an example of a blackface drag show, check out any Shirley Q. Liquor performance by Chuck Knipp near you.

Oops, you'll probably have to check it out on the Net, since he's had a penchant for getting them protested or shut down on a regular basis. As a matter of fact, there was one that was shut down on Martin Luther King Day in New York back in 2002.

Jasmyne Cannick, myself, and a long list of African-American GLBT peeps, our straight African-American and other allies have since 2002 complained, written columns and numerous blog posts about this nouveau minstrel show that many white GLBT peeps for some strange reason find funny. There's even a banshireyqliquor.com website.

It's a mild irritant to me as the child and godchild of historians and a back-to-back champion History Prep Bowler when my people's history is quoted incorrectly or used out of context.

Blackface minstrel shows of the 1830's, popularized by Thomas D. Rice and his minstrel character Jim Crow were originated by white men who used burnt cork, greasepaint or shoe polish to darken their skin. Their acts, like Chucky's, centered around the caricature of African-American people as lazy, overly-cheerful, uneducated and musical.

Those portrayals not only led to negative perceptions of African-Americans that persist today, but also led to a wide array of 'Darkie' products that perpetuated the negative image deep into the 20th century.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. went to Japan in the late 80's to protest a leading department store there that had mannequins with bulging eyes and large protruding lips. There was a brand of toothpaste sold in the Asian market called Darkie that changed its packaging and name to Darlie in 1985 after its parent company was bought by Colgate and civil rights groups here in the US protested the name and logo.

While I feel you and deplore what the Westchester County legislators did in terms of dragging their feet (pardon the pun) on passing transgender rights and feeling the need to mock transgender people at the same time, that's not a blackface drag show.

The Westchester County legislators, unlike Chucky, aren't doing repeat performances of it, nor are they selling demeaning products on a website designed to profit from the image they created. It's simply a drag performance that was in very poor taste and it's not correct to call it the 'equivalent of a KKK blackface show'.


Mz Nelda Palmer said...

Thank you for your unique and informative perspective.

Monica Roberts said...

It's NOT a unique perspective that SQL is insulting to African-Americans. It's one that shared not only by many African-Americans gay and straight, but our allies of all ethnic backgrounds as well.