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Does Intent Ever Matter When It Comes To Blackface?


Megyn Kelly's comments on blackface are not the only reason she may be on the way out at NBC, but they're definitely a big contributing factor. They're also not the only reason we're talking about blackface right now. The subject seems to come up year after year, Halloween after Halloween.

Well, I'm joined now by NPR's Gene Demby from our Code Switch team. Hey, Gene.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Why do we have this conversation year after year...

DEMBY: Every year, right?

KELLY: ...Around Halloween?

DEMBY: We do this every year. On Code Switch, in fact, we joke that October is blackface Advent and then Halloween...

KELLY: Blackface Advent.

DEMBY: ...Halloween is blackface Christmas. It all culminates on this one day of the year when all the racist costuming comes out. And maybe these annual conversations should be less about whether blackface is bad but why so many of us have so much historical illiteracy about its badness.

KELLY: Well, walk us through some of the history of this. When did we first start seeing blackface in America?

DEMBY: We first started seeing blackface in the early 1800s. It becomes central to minstrel shows in which white people would dress up like black people by darkening their skin with polish and with cork. And of course these minstrel shows depicted black people as lazy, as animalistic...

KELLY: Played to caricatures.

DEMBY: Played to caricatures of course. And that sits next to obviously this broad dehumanization that allowed slavery to happen at the time. And so these caricatures linger in the American consciousness for a long time. In fact, by the 20th century, Al Jolson is the most popular entertainer in America, and he's performing exclusively in blackface.


AL JOLSON: (Singing) Mammy, mammy, my heartstrings are tangled around Alabammy (ph).

DEMBY: And so there's a whole history of, you know, redface portrayals of Native Americans and yellowface portrayals of Asian-American people.

KELLY: Right.

DEMBY: Think of Mickey Rooney's character in "Breakfast At Tiffany's." But it's those mocking depictions of people of color that these Halloween controversies sit against every year.

KELLY: And to be clear, was blackface always seen as offensive by the people who were being caricatured?

DEMBY: Well, the people who were being caricatured were often not in a position to push back.

KELLY: Sure.

DEMBY: I mean, some historians point to the fact that there were black performers who performed in blackface, but that was in part because white audiences did not want to see black people in minstrel shows who were not wearing blackface because that was so much of the visual language of the minstrel show.

KELLY: To track us back to this week, in her apology, Megyn Kelly said she didn't know about this history. What do you make of that?

DEMBY: I mean, she can claim ignorance. But as lawyers often say, ignorance is not a defense. None of this history is particularly deeply hidden. And Kelly, when she was talking about this in this panel - this all-white panel, which is important - she seemed to be primarily concerned with defending the innocence of people who may dress up in blackface. And that happens all the time in these conversations about race and history and power. They always become conversations about intent and not about sort of this broader context. They always start in a historical vacuum.

KELLY: Does intent matter, since you raise it, or is this something we should just agree - it's like the N-word. It's offensive, and we're just not going argue about it.

DEMBY: Well, I'm glad you bring up the N-word because the N-word is a good example of the ways in which the contexts of things change depending on who is delivering something and who's receiving it. So when these controversies tend to happen, it's usually when a person, you know, shows up at a party, at a Halloween party dressed in blackface. Usually there's not a black person in attendance. And no one at that party may bat an eyelash. But then a video from that party or a picture from that party slips out into the broader world.

KELLY: Somebody posted it on Facebook.

DEMBY: Exactly. And then that video has to contend with a different context, with an audience of people who have a different relationship to that imagery, a different relationship to the consequences of that imagery. And so maybe these annual conversations would be better served if we spent less time parsing out what's going on in people's souls and whether they're good people or not when they put on blackface and more time thinking about why so many social circles continue to insulate people, including apparently prominent talk show hosts, from understanding this history and its consequences.

KELLY: NPR's Gene Demby of our Code Switch team - thank you, Gene.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, Mary Louise. See you next October.

KELLY: (Laughter) I hope not.

(SOUNDBITE OF PANIK'S "BEG 2 DIFFER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.