Blackface Renaissance

By Stephens, Angela | Black Issues in Higher Education, January 21, 1999 | Go to article overview

Blackface Renaissance


Stephens, Angela, Black Issues in Higher Education


Scholars discuss the resurging interest in icons of racial stereotypes at the 114th meeting of the Modern Language Association

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- Several sessions devoted to the language, literature, writing, and teaching trends by and about Africans and African Americans were offered at the 114th annual Modern Language Association convention held here and attended by 11,000 scholars last month. One panel, "Redrawing the Boundaries of Black Literature and Culture," featured three scholars presenting papers on the resurgence of icons of racial stereotypes.

While some icons are garnering new, and sometimes surprising interpretations, these scholars argue, others are either misinterpreted or virtually ignored.

"Young Black artists, actors, and rappers embrace the [blackface] stereotype as a source of artistic creation and self-expression," says Dr. Manthia Diawara, professor of comparative literature and film at New York University who is studying the growing interest in blackface memorabilia among Black and White Americans. Once a source of pain and shame for African Americans, Diawara says these symbols are being viewed in a new light.

Some prominent African Americans, such as author Kenneth Goings, Diawara says, collect blackface memorabilia to preserve the evidence that such blatantly racist images actually, existed. Other collectors, like David Levinthal, a White photographer, collect blackface images and use them to recreate scenes of racism, he says.

"By photographing the blackface figurines against a black background, Levinthal makes us realize our own role in giving shape and content to the stereotype," Diawara explains.

The professor also notes that renowned multimedia artist Bettye Saar's work subverts stereotypes associated with blackface. As an example, he points to her "Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Busy Bee," installation, in which a Mammy holds a broom in one hand and a bullet in the other.

"[Saar] calls for the liberation of Mammy by rendering her image more threatening and by arming her with weapons other than the broom," Diawara says.

In her presentation, Dr. Ann duCille, professor of African American literature at the University of California-San Diego, lamented the lack of familiarity among scholars with the breadth of African American literature. Especially works that depict discomforting truths about the historically tense relationship between Black and White Americans. As a consequence, she argues many students are familiar with the writings of leading contemporary Black scholars, but they have not read works by the historic voices in Black literature such as William Wells Brown. …

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