A Musing on Blackface and Political Correctness

Might some black people be offended by the traditional vaudeville-style of performance now called “blackface”? Yes, obviously many are.

Does it follow from this that anyone who refers to blackface, or even uses the word incorrectly to refer to something very different from a vaudeville-style parody of a black performer, as Megyn Kelly did last week, deserves public shaming, banishment from good society, and an immediate career detonation? Why?

Yes, times change, attitudes are redefined, and norms of “appropriate” language and behavior are gradually adjusted. By no means, however, does the fact of such change prove that these changes are always for the better, all things considered. Neither does the fact of change, even if for the better, establish that anyone who ever thought differently or behaved otherwise was an evil person — one worthy of the ash heap of history. In this case, for example, for all the spared sensitivities and enhanced social inclusiveness achieved through the abandonment of the concept and practice of blackface (as a performance style), are we sure that these improvements have been made without an equally sizable loss on the side of artistic license and even non-malicious interracial playfulness, due to these new rules of racial engagement?

Years ago, I read a good biography of Duke Ellington by Ellington’s son and latter-day band member, Mercer. I distinctly remember one anecdote relevant to the topic at hand.

In his later years, Ellington became quite ill and, being a bit of a worrywart about his health, began shopping for the best doctor. He turned, specifically, to a longtime friend, Bing Crosby, knowing Crosby would be able to recommend a good man, which he did.

Bing Crosby, in his heyday, starred in many famous movies, including Holiday Inn with Fred Astaire, the film which features the most famous of all Christmas pop songs, “White Christmas.” One other scene in Holiday Inn has not enjoyed such a charmed fate: an elaborate blackface routine featuring Crosby himself.

Crosby was one of the great white singers of the Jazz Age. He made some recordings with the Ellington orchestra in the early 1930s, back when both men were just building their historic reputations — and when a white star performing with black musicians was still somewhat risky, and not only career-wise.

In other words, these two huge figures in their slightly different fields actually helped one another along in the early days. And they became lifelong friends in the bargain. When both men were getting on in years, and Duke was suffering from a worrisome health problem, he turned to Bing for advice, and Bing helped his friend.

No black man in the twentieth century, and I include Martin Luther King, did more to further the cause of real equality and respect for black Americans than Duke Ellington. No black American has accomplished more of real and lasting human value than Ellington. He was a towering figure in popular culture, and in fact transcended the merely popular in many ways. And far from being oblivious to concerns of racial injustice, the theme insinuated itself into his music on many occasions. Consider one of his earliest attempts at the kind of jazz orchestral suite that he perfected later in life, the wonderful “Black, Brown, and Beige.” Or listen to one of his more peculiarly experimental suites, from the pinnacle of his creativity, “La Plus Belle Africaine,” composed in 1961 for the first “International Negro Art Festival” in Senegal.

But at the very moment when he was composing “La Plus Belle Africaine,” Ellington, a black musician whose mere suit jackets blow all of today’s “black entertainment” icons off the map of popular culture, considered the very white Bing Crosby, who performed one of the most famous blackface routines in cinema history, a good and trusted friend.

Was Ellington wrong? Was he suffering from what the Marxists call false consciousness? Was he just a regressive part of the oppressive age of white capitalism?

Or are today’s social justice warriors a bunch of pseudo-sensitive, pseudo-earnest moral infants without a leg to stand on, egged on by fake guilt-ridden white pseudo-intellectuals?

Listen to “La Plus Belle Africaine,” and judge for yourself. This is one of the earliest recordings of the piece, and while the recording quality is mediocre, the performance (featuring brilliant solos by several Ellington regulars, particularly clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton) is my favorite of this work, and finally available on YouTube:

And while we’re enjoying this musical interlude, here’s Duke in the early days, with his old friend Der Bingle, performing the W. C. Handy classic “St. Louis Blues”:

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