Originally published in the Autumn 2019 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 60, printed October 28. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Autumn 2019 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.
By Mighty Queen Nzinga / aka J.B. Taylor
As a 67-year-“young” African-descendant female, please allow me to share a few thoughts about the “black face conundrum” from my perspective. Most assuredly, there will be some who would arguably disagree, but that is the very basis of the First Amendment. However, I plan to use those words, as inextricably pompous as they were, to hold true for ALL people, even though when written I was subliminally NOT included.
Having come of age during the 1950s and the 1960s, I always like to begin by stating, “I survived Chesterfield KKKounty!” I have seen and personally experienced horrors I will NEVER forget!
During those tumultuous days and times, it was also the “standard order of the day” to denigrate people of color, privately and publicly, so much so that now seeing a photo of someone, anyone, in black face is the LEAST of my worries.
However, I must admit seeing that particular photo, regardless of the current stature of the individual, did resurrect some painful memories. Yes, it was racist and quite inappropriate, then and now, but I would surmise it provided some with a certain sense of justification for such incomprehensible behavior toward those who were considered inferior.
After all, we had already been categorized as “chattel” (property), not worthy of any level of humanity or dignity. As my fourth-grade “his-story” (sic) book so disingenuously proclaimed, “The slaves were a happy lot.” Funny, I can STILL see those words I read 58 years ago. Just imagine the damage which could have been done to me and my fellow classmates if I/we had believed and accepted that. As I look back, that was probably my earliest recollection of the justification “concept.”
Hopefully, for the sake of brevity, although that concept often eludes me, I shall offer only a smidgen of what I can STILL see.
I can STILL see the photo of Emmett Till’s face or, more aptly, what was left of it after being beaten beyond recognition based on a lie a white girl told who has yet to be punished. I can STILL see the photo of my brothers and sisters being pummeled by high-powered water hoses and then being attacked by police dogs as they tried to peacefully protest.
I can STILL see the photo and eventual postcard of a black man being roasted on a barbecue spit on just another “ordinary” evening. I can STILL see the photo of the more than 100 bodies of black men and black women hanging from the trees as “strange fruit” in retaliation for Nat Turner’s Rebellion all because he/we wanted to be FREE.
I can STILL see the photo of the remains of the 16th Street Baptist Church in the aftermath of a bomb which ended the lives of four little black girls—Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, not to mention the maimed and scarred survivors still being denied compensation for their injuries and medical care.
I can STILL see the [mental] photo of the dejected look on my dad’s face as he told my sister and me that we could not use the “spic-and-span clean and pretty restroom,” but had to go around to the back to use the “less-than-tidy restroom with the cracked mirror” at a penny-ante carnival which stopped in Petersburg once a year.
And, 58 years later, the most horrific of all is that I do NOT have to look back to the past to find those same types of images.
I can STILL see in “real time” the faces of my people being denied a simple loan even after meeting the necessary criteria. I can STILL see my people being subjected to substandard housing, insufficient education, inadequate medical care and woefully few employment opportunities.
I can STILL see the relentless effects of my people being impoverished, not having enough money to feed our children or to provide our basic needs. I can STILL see my people being held hostage by the virulence of systemic racism that permeates the very fabric of current-day society.
Finally, I debated with myself about whether or not to include this, but then decided I would be remiss if I did not. I can STILL see “the one and his sycophants” who shall remain nameless, but who consistently spew nonsensical madness. So I ask you – no, I demand of you, to take responsibility for YOUR words and subsequent actions—STOP blaming EVERYTHING negative on a predecessor and/or fake news.
And, I shall be so bold as to tweak a now (in)famous slogan, “Make America Great . . .” what?!? How about “Now?” Please pardon me. I cannot bring myself to even write that last word of that slogan, that elusive adverb which suggests at some point that it once was.
I suppose the word “great” is actually what causes my consternation, especially when considering the nationwide resurgence of such vitriolic displays of hatred. Does that mean that we, as a people, should pine for the “good ol’ days” when we were [physically] enslaved, living and/or dying at the whim of “massa?”
Does that mean that we, as a people, must cow-tow, “shuckn-jive” to the amusement of those who would deny us? Does that mean that we, as a people, must forget the illustrious brilliance of our Ancestors and acquiesce to subservience in the here and now, NEVER to be free?
My response, a resounding NO!
As a matter of fact I was recently “advised” in the waning days of 2018—yes, 2018—that “I could always move back!” Because some have not experienced what I have, as a person of color, does NOT make it any less significantly damaging or real!
Yet, I choose to believe the future does not have to be all gloom and doom. One good thing I have noticed is I can STILL see the spirit of compassion and genuine willingness to help others in the wake of a disaster, with little thought of race, color, gender or economic status.
Is a litany of disasters what it will take? Will the lessons we should have learned from the past continue to haunt us in the future? The renowned author James Baldwin, whom I had the privilege to meet, wrote many years ago, “You cannot fix what you will not face.”
In closing, I Give Thanks and Praises to our Ancestors upon whose shoulders we stand today—a tribute to their indomitable spirit to not only survive, but to persevere and even flourish!
So, I humbly implore my people of color, and anyone else for that matter, to NOT get distracted! We have far greater and more pressing issues than black face that need our FULL attention! In fact black face does NOT even make it onto my “Top 100 List of Things That Bother Me.” In order to facilitate fixing what you will not face, there MUST be open and honest conversations within our communities and beyond which can, hopefully, lead to REAL and ONGOING change!
Lastly, but certainly not “leastly” (sic), a Rasta BIG-UP to my friend and comrade, Sis Lillie A. Estes, and all those who have worked and continue to work tirelessly in service to the people, ALL people! I can STILL see “the dream” which, hopefully, we are destined to bring into fruition!
Peace and Blessings. Ase’
Mighty Queen Nzinga is a longtime member of the Virginia Defenders and 50-plus-year community activist.
Queen Nzinga speaking Oct. 8 at the 17th Annual Gabriel Gathering at Richmond’s African Burial Ground. Photo by Phil Wilayto.