By Kelisha Graves
6 April 2017
We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties. - Paul Laurence Dunbar
Episode 5 was jammed packed with black folks in various iterations of whiteface. In this episode, the performance of whiteface is equal parts blunt and covert, it’s derogatory and delectable. It is every bit of imitation as revenge.
Episode 5 abruptly opens with Cato mocking the sensibilities of his all-white audience by giving them a minstrel troupe called Powell’s Players, a group of black actors who perform in chalky white paint. The humor here is both delectable and derogatory precisely because it introduces us to a lesser known theatrical tradition: whiteface minstrelsy. It goes without saying that American viewers might have been thrown off by black actors masquerading in “whiteface” because our collective historical gaze has been disciplined to cope with a more routine form of minstrelsy: blackface.
Blackface minstrelsy developed in pre-Civil War America with a genesis arguably as early as the 1830s or 1840s. In the minstrel show, white actors painted their faces charcoal and imitated what was considered to be the vulgar peculiarities of black culture. Having been marked by society as the icky exiles of humanity, minstrel shows lampooned African Americans as lazy buffoons capable of little more than sloppy speech and jig-a-boo outbursts. Blackface minstrel shows would persist unchallenged as a popular theatrical pastime well into the 20th century. For an example of blackface minstrelsy see this video here.
A lesser known aspect of the minstrel show was a character dressed in formal attire known as the Interlocutor or Mr. Interlocutor. The Interlocutor (always performed in whiteface usually by a black actor) operated as the master of ceremony. I am reminded here Bob Cole a black actor in the 1890s who turned blackface minstrelsy on its head when he created a white character called Willie Wayside. Viewers might be more familiar with contemporary renditions of whiteface comedy enacted by the Wayans Brothers in the movie White Chicks; however, whiteface has its genesis in an antebellum America that (like today) receives its greatest propaganda from the stage (and now the screen).
The counterpart to whiteface performance on the stage was the actual performance of “whiteness” in the streets by black folks light enough to “pass” as white. Jasika Nicole’s character, Georgia, is an example of this. Georgia exists as a racial exile because she has forsaken her heritage in deference to life on a cozier shore far away from the turbulence of black life. It is revealed that Georgia is a free woman of color (she has papers to prove it). However, what is shocking is the fact that she is a free woman of color passing as white. (Disclaimer: Let it be known that Georgia never fooled me, I knew what she was from the moment she curtsied into episode 1 with a pair of blue-ish contacts: she is a black woman masquerading under a beige guise that is not quite white, but obviously it was convincing enough to fool the white folks in her vicinity, including Elizabeth who spends most of her time around melanin-ated folks). Georgia’s “certificate” is given by the state of Virginia. It is important to note here that at one point in Virginia history, according to Harvard Professor Annette Gordon Reed octoroons (persons with ⅛ black blood) were legally permitted to pass as white. Several of Thomas Jefferson’s children with Sally Hemings “passed into whiteness” under Virginia law. Nevertheless, even if Georgia forsook her own truth in order to live a lie, the undercover-colored-woman attempts to atone for her fraud by risking her neck for the skin kin she left behind and for the black mother she can barely remember. To learn more about the history of racial passing in American life, see Allyson Hobbs’s recent book, . A Chosen Exile
What is most important about Rosalee and Noah’s reunion is not the fact that they both decide to return to Macon in order to rescue Ernestine and James (this much we already knew). Instead, what is most important about their decision to “go back down south” resides precisely in they intend to return. Rosalee’s plan is to masquerade as a white slave owner while Noah will perform the part of her slave. Truth is stranger than fiction and this strange truth is snatched straight from the history books. I am referring here to the the story of Ellen and William Craft. Ellen and William Craft were an enslaved husband and wife from Macon, Georgia who escaped to the North in 1848 traveling openly by train and steamboat. Ellen Craft passed as a white male planter while her husband performed the role of her personal servant. Rosalee and Noah intend to duplicate this model. Read more about Ellen and William Craft’s escape how here.
Clara: “I want you to teach me how fa get Massa fa do what I want.” Ernestine: “Why?”
Clara: “What Hicks done to me. I ain’t got no power to stop it. And I want some.”
Cato employs whiteness as a derogatory vehicle through which to aggravate white folks. Georgia and Rosalee employee whiteness as a delectable conduit through which to hijack family from bondage. Whereas Cato, Rosalee, and Georgia intend to perpetrate whiteness in some form (as a performance), Ernestine plays a more psychological game. Rather than yield to whiteface as a performance, she uses her blood knowledge of white folks (because she’s kin to ‘em) as a tool to dupe them. This makes her a dangerous kind of black woman; Ernestine knows how to bend, stretch, and manipulate white men and she passes this potion onto Clara.
Navigating white spaces (and white men in particular) are as close to Ernestine as instinct. It has always been the case that Ernestine exists between two worlds: a white world and a black world… both societies percolate in her DNA. As I mentioned in my review for episode 3, both Ernestine’s pride and her purgatory are directly connected to the fact that she knows this about herself. However, even as Ernestine tutors Clara in how to seduce “Massa Matthew,” I remain convinced that the mentor is doing the mentee a terrible disservice. Clara wants “power” and she solicits Ernestine’s expertise in how to gain it; however, what Ernestine fails to tell Clara is that power isn’t real. For the enslaved woman, power will always be a bogus bargain predicated on little more than a lusty arrangement that guarantees only vacant promises. Offering one’s womanliness as a sexual ransom is not power; it’s an odd mix of pain, pleasure, and butterscotch-colored offspring whose futures can never be secure.
What’s clear is this: Ernestine never gives any part of herself without a plan or a receipt. She’s crafty. Ernestine informs Clara: “You gonna use him [Massa Matthew] to get me off this island.” We can rest assured that this black mother’s escape plan is going to be both tasty and tangy!
Echoing Paul Laurence Dunbar, for black folks in America, performance is the debt we have always paid to human guile. For our ancestors, performance oftentimes coincided with survival. We can thank Underground for giving us all of the derogatory and delectable details of American history…despite however profane those facts may be.
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