Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Minstrel Man is coming....



For those that know me, they know that I would never intentionally try to hurt anyone. The only thing I've always wanted to do is help people, and to entertain. I might push boundaries at the same time... but I've always been the class clown. I discovered the power of seeing people laugh and smile, at a young age, and I was hooked. With learning what was funny, and what wasn't over the years... I've come to understand that before you can make fun of other people, you have to be able to laugh at yourself. Which is why I don't tend to take myself too seriously.... I just can't. It's not in my DNA. When I came up with last year's Halloween costume, it was exactly in that vein. Try to make people laugh, and don't take yourself so seriously, that you can't do drag. Everybody last year, got the joke. I had some hesitation, thinking that fellow African-American's might not get the statement I was making, in how far we've come. However, even black people I saw on the street, loved it; and tried to grab my pancakes.

Coming up with this year's idea, I knew I might need to push a boundary, but with a response so great to "Aunt Jemima", what could I do? And like a bolt of lightning... it came to me. The Minstrel. Certainly the concept of a black person, doing black face, might give people pause... but when you think about it.... it's still kinda funny. As I started applying the make-up, my mind traveled back to the African-American studies I had as a kid. I was well aware of the concepts of 'Jim-Crow', even at the age of 8. The pictures and early films I saw of the white concept of black culture were disturbing, because of their ignorance. As I greatly exaggerated my lip-line in the mirror... slowly that feeling started to evaporate. The image looking back at me was ridiculous, and the more make-up I applied... the less the images of history started to sting. Because as I went through the motions... more than anything, I wasn't mocking black people, but more the stupidity and ignorance of what the white-concept of being black was. Ironic, yes..... but definitely a joke that I though black people will get. I mean if we can laugh at Dave Chapelle, pretending to be a blind black person in a KKK suit.... could my costume be that insulting in this day and age? Apparently so. Shortly after arriving at Queens Are Wild, I had to be talked to by the director of 'Stop AIDS Project', and the manager of the venue, because one of the other black staff people had become upset with my costume. To try to explain to that person that was upset, would be futile. He just didn't get it. And rather than take myself too seriously, I agreed with the club manager's request to remove my make-up.

So, what have we learned? America is a complex place, where sometimes it's okay to make fun of your own cultural history... and sometimes it isn't. That no matter how far black people have come in terms of captains of industry, invention, society, and position, they can still cry foul in the future, when confronted by someone from their own culture, with a different point of view. Yeah, seems weird to me. I wasn't upset when I had to take it off.... if anything... it made me laugh. I shared the laugh with my friends, who know me, during the rest of the event... and as we went for a bite to eat afterward. A thought that struck me was this. Have we become so heady in our thoughts of black culture, that we have to erase everything from a darker history in time? There's a lesson that we had in my class, that stuck to me. It's not the name calling or the images of minstrels that hurt us in earlier centuries.... it was the intention behind it. The intention to keep us as buffoonish jokes, or to strike fear into our hearts and into our community was there.... but it didn't work. We're still here, moving forward, carving our place in the human existence... and history has dictated that we are more than black-face players, singing happy mammy songs, with slapstick antics. So, as a reminder.... of the stupidity and ignorance of by-gone era.... I'll be bringing the Minstrel Man back for Halloween night. Sorry, if some people don't understand who I'm mocking.... but if you have to explain a joke, it kinda takes away from the laughter.

11 comments:

  1. I get it...but just because I do and you obviously do, doesn't mean everyone will understand your attempt and social commentary and humor.

    We are all at various stages of development and maturity...I am very happy that you were sensitive enough to the feelings of others to take that into account and modify your appearance.

    I think you should keep trying to express your views...if no one did, where would we all be?

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  2. Race, as a long-time journalist and opinion broadcaster (I had a show called "The Rich Liberal Hour" before Rush was born.) I am well aware of your intentions, but I am also aware that Ben Vereen tried a similar ploy at the Reagan inaugural ball and nearly destroyed his career. Choosing the right time and place ... that's the whole ballgame. You are extremely bright. Is Halloweeen the best time to make this point? Context is all. The problem is that some folks dress as people or things they admire to go parading. Most of the social commentary on this night is anything but subtle. To make your point, you shouldn't have to explain it to anyone, no matter how dense they may seem to be. The risks you are taking (including possible physical harm) may not be worth the effort. I say this to you as a friendly admirer... hell, no, I'm a BIG fan. Just "be careful out there."

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  3. hey coop,
    for starters i want to say thanks for showing up at all last night, and also for being a good sport about the club manager's objections to your costume. that could have gone very differently, and i'm grateful that you were as gracious about the situation as you were.

    as a black gay academic who has spent the better part of two decades studying, teaching, and writing about african americans' experiences in this country, i got your joke at first glance. what you were serving up was a complex, heady critique of where we as a people have come, and alas, some folks aren't ready to address the complexities. i mean, here we are in 2009, with a black president (!) and racist hate groups counting more new members than they've seen in 60 years, and we still can't have a rational conversation about the politics of race in america. one would think that these things would be in the foreground given the political environment, but instead we have allowed ourselves to slip into the rhetorics of outrage (i.e. this is a post-racial america now, or i'm offended by such and so, i'm feeling oppressed by thus and so, etc) rather than having a frank dialogue about the realities of our national history of racism and its effects on our present and future.

    i think you sparked an interesting dialogue last night and i look forward to talking to you more about your insights into african american history, and how those insights are problematized by adding in questions of sexual orientation. let's have lunch next week. i'll give you a call.
    be well
    kyriell
    ED, STOP AIDS Project

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  4. Very interesting commentary that I was not expecting to see coming to your blog today. It just goes to show how unpredictable people's sensitivities can be. I am glad that you chose to respect this one and remove the make up. I guess Obama was right on the money when he said that we have far to go to heal the racism in our country. I think that you are helping to keep the discussion alive by being provocative in your life. I look forward to seeing Minstrel Man again!

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  5. First off -- amazing to see this discussion on a 'porn star blog'! Brains and beauty....Mr Cooper you're perfect!

    Yeah, I can understand how people may not have 'gotten it' when you showed up in blackface, and to be honest I'm not sure how I would have reacted if I'd been there and seen you like that. This was a VERY complex thing you tried to do, and I commend you for it, but on the other hand blackface can be radioactive for many, and would have to be explained.

    I also wonder a bit if the twists and turns of race in the 'lower 48' look different to you because you are Canadian. Not that Canada doesn't have it's own issues, but certainly as a black man from the States I *feel* differently (less put upon and more accepted) when I've been in Toronto or Montreal.

    BTW my vague memory of Ben Vereen was that he was portraying Bert Williams, the black vaudeville star who (at least at the start of his career) had to wear blackface like other (ie white) performers - a black man, blackening up to portray a distorted image of black men....

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  6. I'm only a brown person (Latino) and I got the joke immediately. Sometimes we have to laugh at ourselves to disarm previously negative images. Comedian George Lopez is great at joking about my people and I'm not offended at all.

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  8. A little more about Been Vereen's Bert Williams impersonation: He did exactly the same routine about Williams on a Boston Pops telecast, long before he appeared at the inauguration gala. It went over very, very well, which is probably why he was hired to do it for the new president. Alas, what was a success with the Boston Pops PBS audience was a disaster when it was shown to a broad national audience. Thus, my point about context. Forgive me, if I seem over-protective of your ass; I admire what you are trying to do with your career . . . as you well know.

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  9. You as the Minstrel Man for Halloween is cause for celebration. This whole concept is one of the reasons why I love you, snigga. love. you.

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  10. Race tough one, have read this blog a couple of times and wantd to respond. I suspect the response to your costume may have brought the reaction it did as it may have brought up for some Blk people, in particular blacks from the south the memories of degradation. To us who may not have been born here in the US, its hard sometimes but it helps to listen to others who may have may have experienced the degradation or whose families may have. some times people react to things that we dont understand however it may help to listen. Being born and raised in Jamaica I was sometimes told that I cant relate to the Black man In Americas experience, I may say Nonsense, however when one steps back I can say I can empathise BUT I will never know the real pain of lynching, and the negative symbols etc. that were used to demean Black people as no one in my famiky has ever experienced that.. If you are from the South it may be a lot closer to home as many of these peolple have brothers/ sisters/ fathers etc. that experienced these situations so them seeing you dressed like this may have brought back these memories that are so close to home . remember many of these images still exist and is very real to people in the south.
    I remember reading about this on another blog. and I felt they were Very unfair to you. It seemed to have escalted when a person identified as a friend of yours posted that you are not ghetto and in the next breath stated what do you guys care if Race makes his cash and choose to finds love and comfort with white men....not that it matters as its your choice..BUT all hell broke loose. LOL.
    Sometimes it helps to listen, it will go a long way if the other person feels that you are listening.
    LOve you man hope this just adds to the dailogue, although late.

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