I’m not one of those people who hates clowns. I can stand next to a clown, and I can hug a clown. I have no problem with people who are clowns. But, I’m putting my fist down and saying that our country needs to eradicate the idea of clowns in circuses and finally own up to the fact that a deeply racist art form (if you can call it that) is still permeating our entertainment.
In the beginning of the semester during my Theatre Histories II class, the first play we read was Old Zip Coon. This play attempted to make a mockery of free black people and was nostalgic for the “Old South,” a time when black people were still slaves and racist whites still had a complete hold over society. The character Zip Coon is a freed slave who makes fun of black people and perpetuates the idea that freed slaves are a ridiculous concept. The character of Zip Coon was first played by a white man in blackface.
Blackface, for those who don’t know, is where a white actor puts on theatrical makeup in order to “represent” a black person. I use the word “represent” lightly because what were they really representing but old and hurtful stereotypes and racist ideologies? It was a technique that gained popularity during the 19th century and helped perpetuate stereotypes of black people. The idea was that white actors were putting on this makeup to depict the features of black people. They exaggerated their lipsize and lip color, and also exaggerated the wideness of the eyes. As the name suggest, they darkened their skin and gave themselves black faces. A lot of times, they added afro wigs to represent the natural hair texture of black Americans.
Blackface was a large part of minstrelsy in this country. As put by Wikipedia, minstrelsy was “an American form of entertainment developed in the 19th century.” While it does go on to talk about the exact details of minstrelsy, I find it interesting that they don’t include in this first sentence that minstrelsy is deeply racist and came about as a way to mock black people. Minstrel shows consisted of variety acts, dancing, music, and comedy skits where white people were in blackface for the purpose of playing the role of black people, and it became the American national art of the time and was supremely popular. Minstrel shows depicted black people as baffoons, lazy, dim-witted, stupid, happy-go-lucky, and craving to be enslaved again. I’ll mentioin that most of these stereotypes can still be found in TV shows where you have token black characters or even multiple black characters.
I didn’t make this connection immediately. It took my Theatre Histories II teacher talking about how a lot of things in our current culture originated from racist tendencies from the post-slavery period. Aunt Jemima (the syrup brand) and Uncle Ben (the rice) are two prime examples of this. These two brands came from the mammy stereotype and the happy-g0-lucky stereotype shown in racist cartoons and portrayed in minstrel shows.
I think the racist leftovers from that time that was best hidden were American clowns, though. I mean, is it really a coincidence that our modern day clowns have afros, paint their face a different color (basically the inversion of blackface), exaggerate their lips, widen their eyes, have a huge and round nose, and act like baffoons on purpose? I didn’t look up whether or not our society made a conscious decision to transition blackface into clowning because, frankly, I’m not stupid and I don’t need the internet to prove me right on this matter or try to convince me that this is some bogus happenstance. Can we really be so blind as to try and believe that these two “art forms” aren’t related, and that one wasn’t birthed from the other? It’s typical America, really, to make something so blatantly racist, disguise it, and then hide it in plainsight for the masses to enjoy. What really hurt was the fact that UniverSoul Circus has clowns. UniverSoul Circus is known for being diverse, but just a few years ago, it was predominantly black. Even now, the ring leader and his sidekick (I guess you can call Zeke that) are black. But also…the clowns are black. Which is kind of a mind inception when you think about that: black people being clowns and having on white face makeup with exaggerated features and participating in a style of entertainment rooted in minstrelsy, which was used to degrade and mock black people by having white people do blackface. When I went to UniverSoul Circus a few weeks ago and saw this, I cringed.
I’d like to think that we can do better than this. It’s not a hard connection to make. I don’t buy that stereotypes are long gone or not harmful anymore. I also don’t buy the mindset that we shouldn’t try to eradicate things based in racism simply because the times have changed or the meaning isn’t the same. Newsflash: the times may have changed, but the attitudes really haven’t.
Let me know what you think below. Comment and share! And check back next week for a new article! 🙂