Racism or Art?

American Apparel trumpets blackface fashion spread in i-D magazine

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

American Apparel is really proud of this editorial credit in the latest issue of i-D magazine. So proud that they’ve featured it on their web site. Blackface is so chic nowadays!

More on the term “blackface” below:

Blackface is a style of theatrical makeup that originated in the United States, used to affect the countenance of an iconic, racist American archetype—that of the darky or coon. Blackface also refers to a genre of musical and comedic theatrical presentation in which blackface makeup is worn. White blackface performers in the past used burnt cork and later greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation. Later, black artists also performed in blackface.

Blackface was an important performance tradition in the American theater for over 100 years and was also popular overseas. Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrelsy played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide. In some quarters, the caricatures that were the legacy of blackface persist to the present day and are a cause of ongoing controversy.

By the mid-20th century, changing attitudes about race and racism effectively ended the prominence of blackface performance in the U.S. and elsewhere. However, it remains in relatively limited use as a theatrical device, mostly outside the U.S.[1], and is more commonly used today as edgy social commentary or satire. Perhaps the most enduring effect of blackface is the precedent it established in the introduction of African American culture to an international audience, albeit through a distorted lens. Blackface minstrelsy’s groundbreaking appropriation, exploitation, and assimilation of African-American culture—as well as the inter-ethnic artistic collaborations that stemmed from it—were but a prologue to the lucrative packaging, marketing, and dissemination of African-American cultural expression and its myriad derivative forms in today’s world popular culture.

What are your thoughts on this?

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9 Comments

Filed under Africa, Art, Colorism, Culture, Current Events, Design, Fashion, Magazines, Makeup, Media, News, Thoughts, World

9 responses to “Racism or Art?

  1. From the postings at AA, the model is, in fact, black. There was no make-up put on her. Also, the spread is from i-D magazine and I figure the stylists from the magazine styled the shoot (complete with AA clothing (the leggings), which means that AA doesn’t have much to do with the ad (in terms of styling it).

    With that said, I’m not understanding the heightened color of the lips. Are the make-up artists at i-D aware of the connotation? Ebony-colored skin and bright pink lips bring up historical references that aren’t pretty, to say the least. It’s a caricature, actually. I can’t buy that they didn’t know exactly what they were doing when they styled this. It’s ridiculous. And the tag lines don’t seem to have anything to do with the photo or the sidebar.

  2. Aya

    It’s disgusting but unfortunately en vogue nowadays. American Apparel needs the controversy because bad publicity (despite the poor response) is still publicity.

    I remember a play done by Ted Danson a few years ago where he donned a Blackface to make a statement and remove the taboo. He was dating Whoopi Goldberg at the time and apparently being with a black woman was license for this racist display. I remember sending a very angry letter back then :D .

    I’m not surprised that these symbols would surface every once in a while through the ministering of an MBA marketing guy/gal. America is built on the blood of millions of Blacks and no apologies for their genocide are in the future. What’s the harm in a little symbol of dehumanization for the sake of fashion journalism? It’s creative license.

  3. Hello Carmen,

    I am shocked to see a present-day U.S. clothing maker using this appalling throwback to blackface and minstrelsy. I came across this belatedly while following up on my posts on minstrelsy at http://africlassical.blogspot.com/, which arose from minstrel references on a 2007 classical CD of music of an Afro-French composer, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Calliope 9373. Best wishes, Bill Zick

  4. Had it not been for her bright lips, we probably wouldn’t give this picture another thought. Her skin is beautiful, glowing. She’s thin. She’s young. She looks distant. These are the traits of a model. Her clothes are colorful and tight as most AA ads usually are. Her head being wrapped in various colors of cloth adds to the color scheme.

    It’s just her bright pink lips! The brilliant culturally and historically ignorant language of the ad, the small print, claims that their clothes reach the furthest corners of the world. They want American Apparel to be seen like Benetton as global and all-inclusive. Problem is, if an African woman was wearing these new Western rags, she wouldn’t have that glossy lipstick frosted on her face!

    And so I wonder if it’s blatant racism, which I believe it’s not, or the insensitive idea of a really young and ignorant artist and a company who probably has very few or no black employees at decision-making levels. I often feel that since many people are taught that racism is nonexistent (usually those who grow up knowing none or maybe one person of color), they often overlook the fact that those who experience discrimination know its history and feel its present effects. Stating this provides the ubiquitous “chip on the shoulder” and “too sensitive” comments that I’m sure American Apparel will/would say or has said to those declaring racism.

    To them, I would imagine, they have simply splashed colors on a black canvas. I can see the claim for everything being about bold contrasting colors. It would be stunning and striking were I looking at it without my minstrelsy glasses. However, I too know my black American history… Anyway, it’s simply a matter of ignorance and lack of sensitivity, but not racism.

  5. My inclination is to assess ignorance-lack of historical awareness– and insensitivity to potentially offensive advertising.

    I find insensitivity both areas in older and young Americans. Recently an older white woman made statements about “black” and “gay.” She is beyond help.
    The failure of schools to do more than pull out the “I have a Dream”MLK speech, if they do that, is, I think, the reason for the lack of awareness among many younger people. I am not a devote of “political correctness but diversity in the marketplace is necessary to moderate ignorance and insanity.

  6. mu'on nia edo

    racist…just like the noose

  7. mu'on nia edo

    all they had to add was the necklace(noose)

  8. Yeah, this ad is CRAZY. What is the point?

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