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ASU professor puts 'cultural amnesia' surrounding blackface on the chopping block

In her new book, Ayanna Thompson explores the history, contemporary effects of the long-standing practice

portrait of ASU Regents Professor of English Ayanna Thompson

April 27, 2021

In the intro to her new book, “Blackface,” ASU Regents Professor of English Ayanna Thompson recalls the “horror and dismay” she had to attempt to conceal at the sight of a child dressed up as Martin Luther King Jr. – complete with the aforementioned offensive theatrical makeup – for a project at her son’s school.

Almost worse than the situation itself was the response she received from the principal when she shared her concerns about it: “He seemed confused and indicated that he thought I was making a tempest in a teapot.”

Later, when her anger subsided, Thompson wrote, “I recognized that the principal’s ignorance was symptomatic of the American amnesia with regard to racism and racial violence.”

In “Blackface,” Thompson explained during a virtual discussion hosted last week by Changing Hands Bookstore, she uses that anecdote as a way to frame the narrative of the book, which explores why no one – not the principal, not the teachers, not the parents, not the children themselves – thought there was anything wrong with a young child in blackface.

As the director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and a renowned Shakespeare scholar, Thompson’s idea for the book had been percolating for quite some time.

“I had been thinking about performance and race and why it’s so difficult for actors of color to get to the heights of fame and acclaim that their white counterparts do,” she said. “So I was trying to untangle that. I don’t think I’ve fully untangled that yet; that’s the next book. But I had to go through ‘Blackface’ and the history of it to get to that.”

Thompson thinks of herself as a “scholar-activist” – someone whose academic research is rooted in the larger quest for a more just and equitable society. But not all scholarly work is accessible to a lay audience. So after a discussion with friend and colleague Steven Beschloss, a professor of practice at ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism and director of the university’s Narrative Storytelling Initiative, Thompson made the decision to write “Blackface” as a public-facing work.

“My mother said this was the first book (I have written) that she could really understand,” Thompson said during the Changing Hands event, for which Beschloss served as moderator. “My mother is brilliant, but she’s not an academic. So I do take that as high praise from her, (that it was written) in a way that’s as accessible to as many people as possible.”

While Thompson was writing the book, in May 2020, a Black man, George Floyd, was killed by a white police officer after a store clerk alleged Floyd had passed a counterfeit $20 bill. Although Thompson says that as a scholar of race and performance, she has had to become skilled at compartmentalizing, it was a historical moment she felt compelled to acknowledge in “Blackface.”

... there is a dirty thread that ties from early performances of blackface to the nooses of the Jim Crow era to the knee on the neck of George Floyd.

“In the book, I say there is a dirty thread that ties from early performances of blackface to the nooses of the Jim Crow era to the knee on the neck of George Floyd,” Thompson said. “We’ve been good at saying there’s no thread, these are discrete, separate moments. … What I’m trying to argue is that, yeah, they may not be the exact same thing, but they are related.”

“Blackface” looks at contemporary issues surrounding the practice as well as its history, something that even in today’s “woke” world, many white people still claim ignorance of, often as a defense for having participated in it – examples of that range from “The Real Housewives of New York” star Luann de Lesseps wearing an afro to dress up as Diana Ross for Halloween, to Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau darkening his skin to sing the Jamaican folk song “Day O!” as Henry Belafonte in a high school talent show.

“One of their defenses is that they don’t know the history,” Thompson said. “As if it’s not American history, not all of our history. That’s part of the problem. The bigger problem is the white supremist logic that you are entitled to perform another race or culture.”

Perhaps more disturbing than the faux pas of uneducated celebrities are the myriad performances that were more or less sanctioned by society, ranging from Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-nominated performance in the 1965 film adaptation of “Othello” to Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of method actor “Kirk Lazarus” in the 2008 satirical comedy “Tropic Thunder,” according to Thompson.

The idea of an actor performing a different race as a means of showcasing their virtuosity is one Thompson intends to explore more thoroughly in her next book, but she touched on it during last week’s discussion, saying, “That’s just not something that Black and brown people are taught (they can do). … It’s a mode of performance that is not available to actors of color.”

Thompson expressed some hope that with the recent ascendancy of the Black Lives Matter movement, a reckoning has begun to take place in Hollywood and theaters across the U.S. She takes heart that shows like “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” have discontinued their use of white actors to voice characters of color, but she’s less enthusiastic about shows like NBC’s “30 Rock” retroactively removing racially insensitive episodes from its back catalog, arguing that that’s how we got to this point of cultural amnesia around blackface to begin with.

“I wanted this book to be a kind of end to that,” Thompson said. “To say, no, you cannot pretend that this is something from the way-back machine. This is something we’re dealing with right now, and unless we can address the full, long arc of history, we can’t change the way we go into the future.”

Top photo: ASU Regents Professor of English Ayanna Thompson. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

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