This past Friday, a sideshow performer named Rush Aaron Hicks made the decision to perform in blackface at New York’s most well-renowned neo-burlesque palace, the Slipper Room. I did not see the act in question, but witnessed Hicks’ inane defense of his choices and participated in an online discussion that contained James Habacker’s initial private response to the community in a closed forum (read his public response here). A discussion that I cannot post in this article out of respect for the privacy of all who participated. Needless to say, it de-evolved pretty quickly.
It all makes me tired. Really tired.
I’m weary of having these conversations several times over. I’m weary of the assumptions and inferences that performers of color are oversensitive, bitter, histrionic or tilting at windmills of imaginary racism. I’m weary of being told my response to someone’s passive racism is aggressive or graceless. I’m weary of having our bodies or cultures be someone’s punchline or costume. I’m weary of hearing the First Amendment invoked incorrectly and in defense of some complete and utter madness. I’m weary of claims of censorship being used as a shield to avoid being accountable for the creation and promotion of incredibly lazy and offensive art. I’m weary of armchair allies who do just enough to save face, but too little to affect real change. I am weary of a community that claims inclusion and diversity as the party line, but doesn’t back it up with anything of substance.
I am not easily offended. I love truly provocative art and the way it knocks the wind out of you, forces you to look at it and feel something. I don’t believe that we shouldn’t look at our humanity in its entirety. I think it’s part of our job as artists to include it all- the joy, the pain, the truly appalling. We hold a light up to it and lay it bare for others. We tell the truth.
The truth in this instance is that the burlesque community has a problem with racism and how it treats its performers of color. I know it’s hard to hear, because it’s 2014 and we’re supposed to be past it,but it’s true. This most recent incident and the ensuing backlash highlights the issues we have as a community in dealing with racism and demonstrates that diversity is just talk. It’s so disheartening that it takes an extreme case for my white peers to be inspired to move to address or acknowledge what performers of color have been saying for years. And even now that we’re at that point, there’s massive amounts of blame-shifting,denial and lack of true accountability.
While burlesque has claimed diversity, the underlying message that it sends to performers of color is “You are only welcome here if you know your place.” We are expected to show up, smile and put on our best impression of your fantasy colored person. We are told to forgive the grotesque jokes and caricatures of our cultures. We are asked to be representative for all and educate on race when there is years of dialogue,critical thought and analysis readily available at your fingertips. When we speak up or push back, we are admonished for our tone, decorum and lack of proper gratitude.
I started performing burlesque because I was interested in the ways that people of color have historically used entertainment and spectacle as means of resistance, subversion and expression in the face of dehumanization and exploitation. I wanted to continue that legacy and exercise the freedoms that they’d fought so hard to obtain for me and continue paving the way for authentic expression. Blackface and minstrelsy is a part of that legacy and one I haven’t ignored in my work because of its impact in the iconography of people of color. The facepaint may be gone, but black performers still struggle with the tropes and narratives minstrelsy left behind.
Blackface is a part of burlesque history. It is the root of American theatre and representative of the violence of slavery and Jim Crow. When it pops up in popular culture, and, believe me, it still pops up, it is usually used to lampoon and degrade black people. It is a deliberate denial of our humanity, beauty and voices and a symptom of the larger problems we have regarding race. It has popped up before in both burlesque and drag communities and was met with the anti-censorship defense, belittled as a non-issue and swept under the table. Same with really offensive cultural appropriation. Yet producers wonder why they don’t see more performers of color on their stages.
I was scheduled to perform in a show at the Slipper Room at the end of the month and I’ve cancelled my performance. I know other performers of color have also followed suit. I refuse to be complicit in the illusion of diversity. My integrity is worth far more than that. We have to be who we say we are. We have to hold ourselves and each other accountable for our actions and inaction. We have to do better and be better.
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.