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Incident at Kirkwood High School shows apparent ‘blackface’ still stings today

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Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
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John Wright (pictured right) joined co-authors Patrick McCarthy and Elizabeth Terry for a discussion in 2015 about their book, "Ethnic St. Louis."

In our weekly "Behind the Headlines" segment, St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh discussed the occurrence earlier this month of a white Kirkwood High School student who appeared in school with a black substance on his face.

The incident led to a packed school board meeting earlier this week in which about 40 parents, students, and alumni expressed concern.

Joining us to discuss blackface and what its use signifies today was John Wright, an author, historian and retired public school administrator who has written several books about the contributions of African-Americans.

Blackface refers to the wearing of black makeup on the face that portrays black people as various stereotypes. The representations are offensive and were primarily donned by white entertainers in minstrel shows and in advertisements.

“Blackface has a history in this country,” Wright said. “It was used first in entertainment then it became where it pictured African-Americans in a certain light. It built a stereotype about the African-American.”

“It’s a certain type of black [that society] wanted,” Wright continued. “Aunt Jemima represented a certain type of black woman we wanted. Uncle Ben was an acceptable kind of guy, same with the guy with Cream of Wheat. He was [to whites] an acceptable type of African American.”

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Indeed, even black entertainers decades ago would wear black makeup.

“That was the only way [blacks] were allowed to be on stage,” Wright said. He further explained that in order to be acceptable, many black performers, who entertained white audiences, were forced to mimic the way whites portrayed blacks. Such portrayals helped keep alive offensive stereotypes.

As to whether young people today understand the history of blackface and that it’s offensive, education is key.

“As a youngster growing up, if you were dark complected, there used to be a saying, ‘if you’re white you’re alright,’ ‘if you’re brown stick around,’ ‘if you’re black stay back,” Wright said. People would make fun of dark complected individuals because of their color, he continued, “not being able to get a job because of your color, being stopped because of your color while you’re walking, while you’re shopping. If you’re light complected you could go into a store, no one would bother you. If you’re dark complected you got trailed in the store.”

Many young people, Wright explained, haven’t had those same kind of heavy experiences.

Although a white student offended many people in Kirkwood after appearing with a black substance on his face, it comes to no surprise to some people that the incident occurred there.

“Kirkwood has had several explosions,” Wright explained, as he recalled Meacham Park, a majority black neighborhood that was annexed by the city of Kirkwood in the early 1990s. “Meacham Park was ostracized from the community, then it became a valuable commodity that you could take part of it and build Sam’s, Lowe’s, gradually take half of the community away and then put some decent housing, supposedly, there in the rest of it.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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