In Blackface …
Ignorance does not justify ‘harmless fun’
BY MARK HARRIS
I’m more amused than angry at what are not so much insults to my dignity as to my intelligence. I’ve been asked to believe that the three white boys who hung nooses in the tree at Jena, La., High School had no racial motive when they hung nooses on the courtyard “peace” tree at their school. They were simply copying what they saw in a movie. I’m wondering: What movie would have made them so blithely unaware of the role of the noose in historical Louisiana race relations? Maybe that history isn’t being taught in contemporary Louisiana schools. I’m aware of how rarely it’s taught in Oregon.
I attended the recent OSU-Stanford game, and I observed a white boy in blackface, black hands, wearing black clothes, sporting a black Afro wig, in support of a “school spirit” event called “Black Out Reser.” In all fairness this was balanced out by the halftime sight of a black student, in his own face, wearing an orange Afro wig — so my overall reaction was a ironic smirk, eyeroll and headshake. Having attended OSU, I know that the students are neither aware of the racist history of blackface nor how their 1920s counterparts enthusiastically embraced the Ku Klux Klan in “Korvallis,” forming a student klavern and sponsoring dances and “naturalization” into the Invisible Empire.
Suppressed in the OSU collective memory is the spitting and urination in the direction of a black student named Harris (no relation), accompanied by racial epithets while entering a frat house party a decade ago. It’s forgotten by all except the black staff and older grad students at OSU.
While the 1920s students of the UO generally rejected the Klan, many faculty members and upright Eugene citizens did not — and still do not. Some, like the football coach Shy Huntington in his role as Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the Very Little Theatre, may even have donned blackface in entertaining satire. Donning blackface is not considered honoring those of African descent among those of African descent. Nor does ignorance of history or ignoring history make an act harmless fun.
As an Indian, I’m aware of how respect and honor are traditionally given and displayed. Naming a group after another group means that you emulate and seek to embody the qualities of that group. Among Natives or Africans, it is no honor to beat a weakened opponent. You want a strong and respected opponent, and you display that respect even when they are not honorable. In Roseburg last year when South Eugene was playing the Roseburg Indians to epithets of “nigger this” and “nigger that” directed at South’s running backs and other players, South’s players did not respond in kind. To my eye it was Klan-sympathetic local officiating that won the game for Roseburg that day, not athletic skill. The Roseburg Indians were not honoring Native competitive tradition but more that of the Knights of the Golden Circle or the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, whose traditions they were more clearly embodying.
So in Oregon towns where non-white people were forcibly removed, subject to arrest after dark or shot on sight, Oregon teams named after Indians should rename their teams the Golden Knights or the Fiery Knights since they seem to be honoring those traditions. It is not honoring to name a sports team after those who are not absent by choice.
I know, I know, it was a long time ago. But those who forget the stupidity of the racist past, proud as you may be of those values many Oregonians hold dear, are doomed to repeat those stupidities in the present, to your economic downfall.
As we approach the Olympic Trials at Hayward Field, (where at least one Eugene black Olympian, Margaret Bailes-Johnson, was not allowed to train for her successful gold medal performance 40 years before), let’s try to be on our best welcoming behavior as a community. There were men of color training at Hayward, just not women. Especially a woman (Bailes-Johnson), who beat every male on Bowerman’s track team except Harry Jerome. The men were even given a head start, and she still beat them but had to train elsewhere.
Times have changed. People of all colors and gender expressions can come to compete at Hayward now. We do allow people of color to live within the city limits these days, so unlike our past behavior as a community, let’s at least try and act as if a few more people of color, for a few more days, are no big deal.
Mark Harris is an instructor in ethnic studies and substance abuse prevention at LCC.