The current blackface issue in Virginia politics has veered into Italian territory with the news that Gucci and Prada have dabbled in the black arts. Gucci sells a black turtleneck sweater that can cover half your face leaving an opening in the form of big red lips. The look of such a bizarre garment renders it ripe for accusations of racism. Gucci won’t even defend it now.
According to the trade journal Business Insider, “Exaggerated red lips are a common trait of racist cartoons depicting black people throughout American history — as are googly eyes, inky skin, and very white teeth — featured in everything from ads and entertainment to children’s books.”
Prada’s entry into this racist vortex centers on a monkey figure on tote bags. After some protests Prada pulled it from the market, and Google is nixing all the internet images of it.
Like blackface, monkeys have become racist representations. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the n-word may have found more than its match among African Americans with the monkey.
It would be easy to brush aside the objections of African American leaders to monkeys and sweaters as merely a cunning quest for reparations. For example, filmmaker Spike Lee whose road to success was blatantly anti-Italic, not only condemns Gucci but is demanding that Gucci hire African Americans to approve future company designs. A demand too far!
Sunday’s New York Times did an article on the history of blackface in America. It contained a list of celebrities who darkened their faces for entertainment’s sake. Jewish singer Al Jolson made a career out of “mammy,” of course, but our own Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren also indulged for movie roles. Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel (mother’s surname: Iacono) noted that he wore blackface for a role. Even The View’s Joy Behar (née Occhiuto) admitted applying the burnt cork for a costume party at age 29. Meanwhile, she and her liberal cohorts tarred and feathered TV journalist Megyn Kelly (mother, DeMaio) for defending occasional blackface. Despite the hypocrisy all around, black greasepaint is now a controlled substance in this country.
But what is it about monkeys?
Unlike the outright bad taste of blackface, the monkey reference is perceived as a racist putdown. You might think that a monkey can be just a monkey, but it can deliver a deeper hurt. Blackface is synonymous with minstrel shows and slavery. But, comparing African Americans to monkeys goes further back into “darkest Africa” – hints of a “missing link” in evolution and a lack of civilization. Italian soccer fans sometimes throw bananas on the field to insult Black players. The old smear “jungle bunny” struck home: an Africa where the Black race mainly lived a Stone Age existence. It was one of the reasons slavers (Arabs as well as Europeans) saw Blacks as easy pickings.
Our generation saw sub-Saharan Africa as primitive and wild, from the old National Geographic magazines to safari movies. What impression did this Africa make on young Black minds? The 2018 movie Black Panther, in which an African nation is the most technologically advanced in the world, offered a new image, albeit fanciful, of Africa to younger generations.
The 1977 series Roots is being televised for Black History Month. I noted that Kunta Kinte’s homeland is portrayed as orderly but unquestionably primitive. Yet, even this enhanced view of Africa shows Africans aiding White slavers by capturing and chaining fellow Blacks. It cannot be comforting to think that your ancestors were sent into slavery in exchange for pots, pans, knives, and rum. Any reminder of Black complicity strikes deep.
I don’t recall any African American leader or academic ever blaming Black poverty on their African culture. Rather, it is always traced to the Middle Passage – being kidnapped and shipped to the New World – or slavery, an institution that destroyed their families and obliterated their African culture. Perhaps in their heart of hearts – beyond the White blame – Africa looms large as an embarrassment to Blacks.
African Americans may be overreacting to monkeys but, at times, scenes of Italian donkeys remind me of our impoverished roots. -JLM