Rapid Blog: GRAAMA founder explores African American history, blackface, and other stereotypes

Executive Director of the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives (GRAAMA) explores the importance of Black History and the deplorable role of blackface.
After opening three years ago as Director of GRAAMA or the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, I wondered if this area would support a museum devoted to African American history and culture. The odds were stacked against our small museum on Monroe Center downtown. After all, most museums fail within five years and Black museums within three years. West Michigan has five other centers of African American culture. While the city is being developed, statistics say limited resources make their way into the African American community.

African American museum visitors make up about 6 percent of the general population and less than 3 percent return for a visit. “We don’t go downtown” is a favorite response to attendance surveys asked in the community, in addition to the never-ending parking dramas. If you couple that with a reduction of African American studies in area high schools and some colleges, the outlets to learn about our culture firsthand are drying up. If you buy into these statistics or believe the stereotypes, why open this museum?  

For us, it's about changing a negative mindset and reversing stereotypes about Black museum visitors. We want everyone who enters our facility to leave with knowledge they didn’t have when they entered. I feel we have been chosen at this particular time in the city’s history to create a lasting tribute to the many souls who made Grand Rapids what it is today. I always believed that we needed a vehicle to convey the stories we’ve received about the local Black people who have made a difference. The rich tapestry of activists, singers, teachers, athletes, artists, and everyday folks cover all measures of the Black experience. It needs to be shared with the world.

Much of our history has been lost, destroyed, distorted, or glossed over. Items that relate directly to our past legacies have been stolen, hoarded, or disregarded by knowing and unknowing perpetrators, robbing us of artifacts that complete the narrative. Those affected greatest are the young. If they enter a museum and see nothing that represents them, they probably won’t return or be a supporter and that is what we want to change. I know there are young people out there that want to learn more about their own culture. They come in weekly offering to volunteer, help, or perform, and leave with knowledge.

As of today, our patrons are very diverse, which is also our goal. New Zealand, Columbia, Rwanda, Australia, and Alaska are but a few of the countries or states that visited GRAAMA last month. I made a visit to the National African American Museum of History and Culture where the diversity of their visitors was obvious. We talked with Lonnie Bunch, the director, about his approach and he said, “If you are able to tell the stories of African Americans through the overall outline of American history, you will be fine. The stereotypic view is that African American museums are just for African Americans, but it has to be welcoming to all by blending multiple histories together …  You also don’t want to cut off any lines of support.”

We have taken this approach and it is paying off for GRAAMA. We enjoy support from many facets of the community and have cross-programmed with many local organizations. This was truly evident when we were awarded Most Outstanding Venue at ArtPrize 10. Our winning was a combination of diverse artists, subjects, mediums, and images, but collectively speaking about women and women issues. Once again people expected “Black art” and were surprised to see white artists, Jewish art, and Spanish translations as part of the 50-foot women exhibit.

Our current exhibit, West Michigan “Minstrel Show: A History of Blackface” is a classic lesson on stereotyping. This exhibit, planned a year ago, was created to shed light on the past history of local groups that practiced minstrelsy. As our researcher combed area archives, we were shocked by the shear number of blackface shows, as well as the longevity of some. If there is a single negative stereotype depicting Black Americans in American culture, it is the minstrel.

The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, was an American form of entertainment developed in the early 19th century. Each show consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music performances that depicted people specifically of African descent. The shows were performed by white people in makeup or blackface for the purpose of playing the role of Black people. There were also some African-American performers and all-black minstrel groups that formed and toured under the direction of white people.

Minstrel shows lampooned Black people as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, dangerous, and happy-go-lucky, which are some of the same negative traits associated with us today. If you were a white midwesterner in the 1800s, having little contact with Blacks and these shows were your only interaction with Blacks (whites acting like Blacks), then it would become ingrained and part of a permanent image of African Americans that was generational. The live performances died out in the 1920s but moved to the movies, cartoons, and radio.

Part of our exhibit tells the story of the Lowell Showboat which performed blackface until the 1960s. Ramona Park, the area around Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids, was a prime location for these shows and garnered many of the top performers. Most disturbing to me was that these acts, no matter how negative, never considered the damage done to those being mocked. They were performed with impunity because Blacks were in no position to complain. Blacks who performed made good money but suffered internal anguish as a result.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass described minstrel shows in his North Star newspaper in 1848 as “The filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow-citizens.”

While we knew that the blackface controversies were still with us, we had no idea that they would explode over the last few months. I curated this exhibit, put all the pieces together, did much of the research, but it wasn’t until I sat down and watched a minstrel show that it became truly sickening.

Much of our research centered on the performers. One interview with an “interlocutor,” the masters of ceremony, or just “master” as part of the plantation-centered skits, explained how he was just playing a part. He added, “I have Colored friends and they aren’t offended.” “We were just play-acting” is the primary excuse used by living blackface performers. We found almost every local civic club, church, business, and social club had some form of minstrel show, many as fundraisers, but we are talking the 1920s to the 1930s. What about now? I have an app on my phone that will alert me when a blackface event appears in the news. I get easily five new posts per day. Since our exhibit was opened, over 200 posts, including the Oklahoma State University student and the Virginia Governor and Attorney General. So why is this heinous practice still with us?

Everyone who has recently been exposed by blackface photos or believes it is OK has plenty of excuses as to why. I believe that there is still a disregard, disrespect, and dishonor for the feelings of Black folk by those people because of the superiority felt by virtue of the color of their skin. Minstrelsy by its own nature is inherently racist as it portrays the white dominant "interlocutor" character over the “endmen” or slaves in most of the skits. This dominance reinforces the myth of white supremacy. In fact, many of the jokes and gags in the hundreds of books on minstrelsy could be performed by Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, or the Three Stooges, but only minstrelsy introduces race. Secrecy also plays into the scenario because the belief is that co-conspirators won’t tell others about this action. They can get away with it or they don’t care if they are found out.

Community members gather for programing at the GRAAMA.

One thing is clear, new technology makes it harder for those who want to “blacken-up” and stay hidden, and this is just a scab over a bigger wound. Not only politicians, but clergy, businessmen, athletes, college presidents, and women have blackface photos and there is a record somewhere. People of all races are fighting back. Those sympathizers with blackface are getting fired, expelled, and sanctioned. Finally…"It’s not OK!"

Blackface in this day and age is simply wrong. I can’t think of an instance where it would be acceptable. There is a video circulating of a young white student who admires Dr. King. So he dresses up, suit, white shirt, black tie, speech in hand, mustache, and then blackens his face. When parents and some students complained, he was confused about why they spoke out and why he was removed from school. "The PTA thought it was inappropriate and it will be disrespectful to Black people but I say it's not," the student said. “I like black people. It's just a costume and I don't want to insult anybody."

So here is an eight-year-old telling the PTA what is or isn’t disrespectful to Black people. The attitude that we, as African Americans, have no say in the matter is why this problem won’t go away and it should not. We need to continue the dialog, to allow true confession, and to live with the consequences, but with the premise:  "It’s not OK" … I feel a tee-shirt or # coming.

More info at www.graama.org.
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