ABSTRACT

Blackface has been making a comeback, not just in the United States but also in Britain and Australia, and possibly other countries too. However, it is in the United States that blackface, with its link to the African-American population and its fraught association with minstrelsy, remains most contentious. John Strausbaugh (2006: 14) notes that “blackface, unconditionally banned for decades … , has crept back into the public arena.” In 1993 Ted Danson caused a storm of outrage when he blacked up to roast his then partner, Whoopi Goldberg, at a Friars Club event in New York. Yet, as Strausbaugh points out, Chuck Knipp, a white American drag artist, has become a cult figure blacking up to play welfare queen Shirley Q. Liquor. One way in which blackface has returned to acceptability is through its being positioned as self-conscious commentary. Thus, for example, Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled, released in 2000, can be read as a fictionalized discussion of the history of American minstrel blackface. Differently, the use of blackface in Ben Stiller’s film, Tropic Thunder (2008), can be understood ironically to indicate the extreme to which the self-important method actor, Kirk Lazarus (played by Robert Downey Jr.), would go for his art. In these instances postmodern blackface has become acceptable as the reflexive, knowing, performance of nineteenth-and early twentieth-century blackface. Historically, Jewish blackface, its use or, indeed, its absence, has been one way that Jews have

come to terms with their positioning in various racialized hierarchies. Discussions of Jewish blackface draw on issues of identity, performativity, race, as well of course as debates about Jewishness. In this chapter I will discuss two recent Jewish exponents of blackface, one English, Sacha Baron Cohen, and one Australian, John Safran. Both are comedians and both have specialized in subverting the conventions of everyday life. Cohen has an international reputation as the performer behind the character of Ali G whose straightface interviews in the late 1990s and early 2000s with high-profile figures ranging from politics to the world of entertainment very often showed these people up to be pompous, self-absorbed, and out-of-touch. As Ali G, Baron Cohen does not put on blackface but he does wear clothes and speak in a style drawn from African-American and Black British popular culture. As Richard Howells notes, “the underlying (and unanswered) question [is] about exactly who Ali G is supposed to be.” (Howells 2006: 165). Safran has made three comedy-documentary series for Australian television on popular music,

religion, and race relations (see Sunderland 2009: 201-20).1 Here, I am particularly interested in one segment of Safran’s 2009 Race Relations series. In this, Safran traveled to Los Angeles where

he interviewed Jane Elliot, who developed the exercise for diversity awareness where people are divided into two groups based on eye color, with one group being preferred over the other. Elliot suggested to Safran that he read John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me. Griffin’s book is a record of a white man who, in the late 1950s, darkened his skin and, passing as an African American, traveled through the American South. Safran subsequently donned blackface and passed as an African American in Chicago. This episode of Safran’s series was shown in late October 2009. Three weeks earlier there had been an outcry when, on an Australian variety show with deep roots in vaudeville, Hey Hey, It’s Saturday (actually, in this case broadcast on a Wednesday), six men blacked up as Michael Jackson and his brothers and performed to the Jackson Five’s “Can You Feel It” (see Stratton 2011). In contrast there was little response to Safran’s escapade. Perhaps one reason for this difference in reaction is that it appeared to many that the Jackson Jive men were making fun of Jackson and his brothers-the performers denied this-while Safran always ends up making himself the butt of his humor. This chapter discusses the difference between the ways that Baron Cohen and Safran utilize

blackface as compared to earlier Jewish uses of blackface. Earlier uses of blackface functioned in a context where race was thought of as a fixed and determining identification. Today, when “race” is widely considered to be, in some sense, a cultural construct, the recent return of blackface is associated with performativity. This is reinforced by the increasing awareness that race itself is a performance-in the sense that we all learn to perform the race with which we are identified. At bottom, this is what Baron Cohen and Safran have in common. With some irony, what makes their use of blackface so successful in highlighting the performativity of race is that during the modern era race was thought of in essentialist terms, while Jewishness, because of its racial indeterminacy, came increasingly to be understood in terms of performance. Thus, while Baron Cohen and Safran play with the more generalized indeterminacy of race today, they are able to be so successful because of the specifically chameleonic understanding of Jewishness. Before going further, we need to think a little about the forms and functions of blackface.

Susan Gubar suggests that