According to Wikipedia, black face is “a form of theatrical makeup used by white performers to represent a black person.” In normal parlor parlance, we can say that blackface, with few exceptions, is always offensive, is always in bad taste, and will always be interpreted as racist.
Without digging too deep, we can say that those few exceptions only include certain tribes that have a history of black face painting as part of ritual, and very carefully executed satire that mocks racists.
Recently in certain New York based sideshow circles, outrage has erupted over performer Aaron Rush Hicks recent taking of the stage in blackface. The events leading to the incident began in the early evening of Friday, February 28. Just before 9pm Hicks received a phone call from the manager of The Slipper Room, a NYC performance hub. There had been a cancelation and they called on Hicks last minute to fill. Hicks was out, so without his usual props, rushed to the subway to make the performance.
What happened when he took the stage of The Slipper Room sparked the controversy. Hicks found himself with only his black makeup, and in a last minute decision decided to took the stage in blackface. Controversy ensued. The dispute began on Hick’s Facebook profile, where he claimed he could not be a racist due to his having slept with two unnamed black women. His also cited work volunteering with underprivileged students as proof of his non-racism.
Cue a clowntroversy. Hicks was speedily fired from preforming at The Slipper Room and his staple gig at The Coney Island Sideshow. Other venues vowed to stop working with him. The controversy went indie mainstream following an article published by Jezebel. The headline read, “Man Says It’s Okay To Do Blackface If you Sleep With Black Chicks.” Cue a 700+ Facebook comment discussion—here was full blown controversy.
The comments ranged from dismissive, like Noah Mickens, who wrote, “I don’t see anything wrong with doing a little blackface. F*ck it, man. Rock out. I still want you to reconsider impaling yourself, however.”
Others, friends, pointed out to Hicks the gravity of what he had done, and how the public at large perceives the incident. Hicks responded by posting a Youtube video with the non sequitur that he was sorry if he hurt anyone, but not sorry about what he did.
Hick lost work and faced a vocal body of sideshow performers who offered him advice on exactly what he should do with himself. Plenty felt that he was scum and should do everyone a favor a “die.” According to him, he has received death threats in his Gmail inbox. In online comments there were equal parts, “You did something you should recognize as wrong” and, “You are scum of the earth and I hope you face a miserable demise.”
Here in lies my full disclosure, and my confusion.
Since I met Hicks last spring, I have counted him among my friends. He is certainly one of my stranger friends—a sword swallowing, often naked, clown friend. I chose him as a friend as I choose many of my friend: because when you put aside the details of his life, all the clownery, there is a good fellow who genuinely cares about helping those around him. Some of my other friends might not agree—a few even shudder at the mention of him—but in my opinion the man behind the clown is a genuinely good person. Whether he knows you or not, if you asked him to help you, odds are he’d be at your service.
If Rush is guilty of anything, and with so many people angry with him he is certainly guilty of something, I believe Rush is guilty of the following: following a whimsicalness that generally guides his performance, but this time around led him to a horrible judgment call that he has been slow to recognize the nastiness of.
While traveling in Mississippi, I encountered a kind of racism that left me shivering. It was the sort of racism in which white people, because I was white, thought they could say unreservedly racist things in my presence. This was a dislodging and aggressive racism that cut deep into the current of culture. I do not believe Hick is this sort of unapologetic racist. I think he is the sort of so many of us can sometimes be, an unknowing, unrecognizing, oblivious one.
People have a right to express their disapproval of the act, but only half of those doing so are doing it productively. Are we trying to correct socially reinforced racism, or witch-hunt the racists? In our social media powered fast culture, there will always be sites like Jezebel who, for the sake of the story, don’t mind mis-arranging quotations in a way that will irk the most rage out of their readers. There is a place for such journalism in today’s market. Just ask Fox News. But this style of reporting focuses on the act committed by the individual at the expense of forgetting the individual as more than his lower moments.
As Hick’s friend, it is not difficult for me to divorce the action from the individual. This is a single act, not what defines him. He has things to think about and choices to make. I hope he listened to those Facebook friends who used social media to help steer him towards a fresh perspective on the matter and not the voices reminiscent of the “Kill the beast!” scene from Beauty and the Beast.
That businesses cut ties Hicks seems just and fair punishment. He’s been fired. Those crying for justice have it. But for individuals calling him every foul name they know, and then claiming the moral high ground, really? Accuse me of being his friend, but does anyone genuinely think enmity is going to be ended with more enmity? Does anyone believe latent, unaware racism in our culture is going to be remedied through anger and outrage?
After the incident people demanded for Hicks immediate apology, and he responded with the contextual excuses, background of his person and asked people to understand. But the general public demands not excuses, but immediate and unqualified remorse. Celebrities are good at delivering phony apologies when it is called for. Real people need time and earnest pondering to change their perspective.
We can call foul on Hicks, but calling him names without reaching out to him is empty vibrato said to be heard, not listened to. Anyone who shows their disagreement and disapproval of a vile things by acting nasty is not sitting at the adult table of life. People—even strange clown people who do something deemed unacceptable—deserve more than dismissive anger. We are all works in progress. We are all capable of disapproving of an action and still acknowledge the existence of a person. To Hicks’ detractors, I ask that you only be capable of something more compelling than unqualified condemnation. Anger is cheap and easy.