Question of the Month
Q: I believe that ghetto parties are racist. I know you focus on the past but how do you see these parties?
-- Jarl Murkinson, Cincinnati, Ohio
A: The Jim Crow Museum focuses primarily but not exclusively on artifacts produced during the Jim Crow era, 1870s through the 1960s. We made the decision about a decade ago to include objects that were produced after the 1960s, in part, to debunk the belief that racism is a "thing of the past." The museum is an excellent resource for facilitating discussions about race relations and racism in the past and in the present. Lately, we have had many discussions with high school and college students about the proliferation of ghetto parties and related parties -- "pimp and ho parties," "thug parties," "wigger parties," and "MLK parties."
The minstrel show was one of the first native forms of American entertainment, beginning with short burlesques and comic skits in the early 1830s but emerging as a dominant form of entertainment in the 1840s. White men, using violins, castanets, banjos, and tambourines, darkened their faces and imitated the singing, dancing, talking, and everyday behavior of Blacks. These "Coon Shows" portrayed Blacks as lazy, stupid, culturally inferior, buffoons. White audiences hooted and hollered as Whites in blackface makeup validated racist stereotypes of Blacks. This was entertainment as racial propaganda. Coon shows dehumanized Blacks and helped establish the desirability of racial segregation. During the years that Blacks were being victimized by lynch mobs, they were also victimized by the racist caricatures propagated through short stories, novels, sheet music, theatrical plays, and minstrel shows.
By the end of the 1800s, the professional minstrel show had been supplanted by vaudeville as the nation's entertainment of choice. However, it did not die, surviving in amateur performances well into the 1950s and in small towns into the 1960s. These small-town shows were performed by civic clubs, churches, colleges, fraternal organizations, and other community groups. As African Americans scored legal and social victories against racism in the 1960s -- and successfully asserted political power, blackface minstrelsy lost most of its popularity.
Ghetto parties (and their derivations) bear similarities to the minstrel shows of the past. In both instances, whites pretend to be black -- mocking the physical appearance, speech, gait, and behavior of African Americans. The makeup and costumes are disguises, granting a kind of anonymity to the actors. The participants can say and do things they and onlookers might otherwise view as morally inappropriate. The participants engage in risque, frolic projecting their behavior to the defamed group, Blacks. The creation of exclusive space -- Whites only -- means the behavior is not critiqued or condemned, unless the "sanctity" of the space is violated by someone who shows evidence of what transpired. Ghetto parties are often secret minstrel shows or private minstrel shows, where the actors double as the audience.
Had you asked the mayors, pastors, police officers, school teachers, and plumbers who blackened their faces in the 1950s to raise money for a local charity, they would have told you that minstrelsy was harmless entertainment. The young White college students partying at a Ghetto party (or Pimp Ho party) will make a similar claim today. It is, they say, people having fun. But that fun is based on shared notions about the character and worth of African Americans. In 2005, some White students at the University of Chicago arrived at a "Straight Thuggin' Party" wearing gold chains, doo-rags, hats turned to the side, listening to loud rap music and flashing gang signs. In 2007, Sigma Chi Fraternity, at Johns Hopkins University, staged a "Halloween in the Hood" party, asking its mostly white invitees to dress as ""macks," or "hustlas," or "hoochies." During the party, the fraternity also hanged the figure of a black man in effigy. The John Hopkins party was reminiscent of parties held at Auburn University in 2001, University of Mississippi in 2001, and Oklahoma State in 2002. At each of these parties Whites dressed in blackface makeup and mocked the behavior of Blacks -- and took pictures of the pretend Blacks being beaten, shot, or hanged. Again, this is entertainment as racism.
Since 2000 there have been dozens of reports -- usually with confirming photographs -- of parties where Whites, young males and females, blackened their faces and acted in ways that stereotyped Blacks as gangsters, whores, pimps, welfare recipients, morons, and buffoons. A troubling development is that these parties are sometimes hosted as Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations (such as Clemson University in 2007). Whatever you call the parties they share this with the blackface minstrel shows: Whites entertaining themselves by defiling Blacks.
March 2007 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum