Antic Hey Hey: On blackface, racism and disguise

Channel Nine’s Hey Hey Its Saturday was juvenile unfunny entertainment in the 1980s and 90s and hasn’t improved with age. But the Michael Jackson skit last night had less to do with racism than it was about disguise. It was offensive to Harry Connick Jnr, the program guest from New Orleans there to judge the act. Connick acknowledged the damage wasn’t intentional. He was worried less about the racism than how the skit would affect his reputation back home. He said he would not have gone on the show if he had known about the act. Connick told the audience cheering the act “We try to hard not to treat black people as buffoons”. Though as some believe about Connick’s own president, Americans don’t try hard enough. (photo by Dequella manera)

The buffoons were six doctors known as “the Jackson Jive”. Channel Nine introduced them as a “tribute” to Michael Jackson. Five men in blackface presented themselves (see video at Crikey) as the black Jackson brothers and one front man was the “whitened” Michael Jackson of later years. Twenty years ago the same sextet performed on Hey Hey with a “black” Michael Jackson. Two decades ago, the six were medical students. Today they are all now pillars of the medical community. One is a radiologist, another a neurologist, a third is an anaesthetist, and there is a psychiatrist and a cardiologist.

Fittingly, Anand Deva, the man who played “Michael Jackson”, is now a plastic surgeon. Also providing irony is Deva’s own ambiguous colour. Deva is Indian and he said the group of doctors were from multicultural backgrounds. He apologised and said the skit was not meant to cause offence. As Andrew Bolt says, it’s no defence against charges of racism to claim you’re Indian. But Bolt also says Deva had the right to lampoon the Jacksons as a fair target but had no right to mock blacks generally.

A blackface skit was never going to be the best way to do that in front of a southern American guest. Channel Nine’s insensitivity was appalling but at least they scrambled a quick on-air apology. After an ad break, host Daryl Somers admitted blackface was an insult to Connick’s “countrymen”. Graciously accepting the apology, Connick worried how the Jive would be treated if they turned up looking like that in America. He didn’t have to wait long to find out. Through Twitter and Youtube (which did not exist in Hey Hey’s heyday), the skit quickly moved beyond what Crikey called “slack-jawed suburbanites and pensioners” to travel around the English-speaking world.

The world was not impressed. Gawker said blackface in America is “one of those things that you can only show if you’re talking about how awful it is because, well, it is pretty awful.” The Guardian wrote that the corollary of Somers’ apology to Connick’s countrymen was blackface in Australia was “perfectly acceptable”.

Gawker and The Guardian were over-reacting in their scramble to the high moral ground. The truth about blackface is more complex than either publication would admit. Blackface is not perfectly acceptable in Australia and is very rarely shown on television. But it is also not a long time since the genre was popular in Australia as it was in the US and Britain. Historian Lyn Murfin says blackface is a difficult topic to write about in a politically correct age.It dates to the 19th century when racism was a social phenomenon that did not know itself and had not been publicly named.

Blackface emerged in antebellum America as a “dirty” rebellion against the anal retentiveness of capitalist Protestant culture. “Minstrelsy”, to give it its proper name, took off after the Civil War and its rise was linked with baseball. The two occupations shared a language, a colourful culture and both announced the arrival of black men as powerful entertainers in the 1870s. Minstrelsy served a dual function. Firstly, it was a mask of blackness that represented the first cultural aesthetic that was uniquely American. Secondly, it framed American race relations by lampooning abolitionists and black citizenship. It took the black rights movements of the 1960s to finally push blackface underground.

Blackface was an early arrival to Britain with the 1836 arrival of T. Daddy Rice and his Jump Jim Crow act. Despite continual cross-Atlantic traffic, minstrelsy in Britain developed along distinctive lines. The Kentucky Minstrels transcended the genre’s visual imagery with their British radio show. The Black and White Minstrel Show was hugely popular on BBC television from 1958 to 1978 and the stage show ran for another ten years beyond that.

Blackface also has a long history in Australia. On the tense night Ned Kelly was hanged, hundreds of people crammed into Melbourne’s Apollo Hall where they paid a shilling each to listen to Ned’s sister Kate and brother James. The hall was full despite the press downplaying the speakers as “relatives to that reckless scoundrel”. Apollo Hall was in a lively area of Bourke Street next to the Eastern Market and was primarily a blackface venue. The Georgia Minstrels sub-leased the hall to the Kelly siblings. According to Melissa Bellanta in “Australian larrikins and the blackface minstrel dandy”, there is no suggestion the minstrels performed the night Kelly died. But Bellanta said the choice of venue was appropriate as the family was often described in terms of blackness.

Occasionally an African-American would perform at Apollo Hall but usually the troupe were white people who “blacked up” using burnt cork. Their minstrelsy’s combination of character songs, ballads and burlesques attracted huge crowds and appealed to a more diverse audience than in the US or Britain. A standard feature of each show had leading characters delivering a stump speech in “nigger” dialect.

This was stylised African American speech as imagined by white Australians. But there weren’t many black Americans in colonial Australia. Their role at the bottom of the ladder was taken by the Irish and the Indigenous. Kelly’s family were poor white trash who missed out on the Australian gold boom of the 1850s and 60s. Ned and his brother Dan were “blackguards” and loved the attention of their two years as outlaws. While they were on the run, a play called “Catching the Kellys” used white actors with black faces to portray the black trackers who failed in their attempts to hunt down the gang. At the end of the play, a plot twist revealed the blacks to be Irish.

The play showed blackface in Australia moved with ease between caricaturing Aboriginals, Southern American slaves and the Irish. As far back as the medieval period, blackness signified a range of despised qualities so blackface had a history that pre-dated the first American minstrel shows. Minstrelsy was initially the preserve of the lowest classes. In New York and London, as in Australia, minstrel-acts were found in the cheapest saloons. In England, they migrated to music halls by including popular songs in their repertoire. Writing about madness in nineteenth-century America, Benjamin Reiss said popular black minstrelsy was a proletarian provocation often sanitised by white supremacists to fit their notion that blacks were backward. It is no wonder blackface became frowned upon in the more race-conscious 1980s and 1990s.

Historian David Roediger says the purpose of the minstrel mask is to maintain control over a subversive act as much as to ridicule. Is the Hey Hey offence a class related issue? Are those who don’t like it also upset by Orson Welles blacked up to play Othello? Why does it matter a white American took offence at an Indian dressing up as an Afro-American on a vacuous Caucasian-produced television program? Meanwhile few people pay attention to the need to solve genuine racial issues like life expectancy in Australia’s most deprived community.

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