Just in case I ever lose my mind and run for public office, I want to come clean now.
I once sported blackface. Here’s what happened.
It was 1982. The Academy of Our Lady of Guam announces its spring musical, “Finian’s Rainbow.” A bunch of us from the all-boys' Catholic school risk humiliation, present our awkward selves before a testy, flamboyant director, and miraculously earn places in the cast. It would be an understatement to say that I was never particularly talented in musical theatre; nonetheless, I attend to the try-outs with great gusto because it means, if I succeed, that I win permission from my mother to spend hours after school and weekends in the capital city, away from my sleepy southern village.
Being in town means that I can satiate the nagging teenage hunger for walking aimlessly at the mall. For this, nothing is beneath me, or any of my fellow alumni. That spring, pretending to be singing and dancing sharecroppers, dressed in straw hats and denim overalls, seems a small price for us to pay for rare, unfettered freedom. Nor is having to wear rouge, lipstick, eyeliner, thick pancake stage makeup or any other object our little roles require. We are firmly prepared to kowtow to the demands of retail loitering.
If memory serves me well, we may have even played with maquillage during the long breaks of tech week. As the student production team members rehearse their own scene-setting choreography, a compact of press powder discreetly passes between the sharecroppers. We mimic the star performers, as they check themselves in their own small mirrors, seeking in our reflections what we imagine the world admires of them.
Alas, none of the members of the chorus is destined to step on the stage at the Orote Theatre with cosmetically enhanced features. The theatre is good for kids. In those few weeks, we learn to accept ourselves and laugh at our shortcomings. The performances offer a chance to transcend our insecurities, and we hope that for a few minutes we might look to the world as perfectly shine-free as the lead characters look in everyday life.
But in the last hour before our first performance, a bowl of ashes mixed with baby oil is handed to us. We are instructed to smear this greasy, gritty concoction over our faces. In horror, I touch the oily dross to my powdered face then rub it vigorously into my skin when the shrill director screams into the chorus to hurry. In truth, we have no real time to think about our blackened faces; it is the least of our worries now, a real audience waits to be entertained. The time has come for our steps and our lines to be spot on.
Fast-forward to today’s headlines. The entire executive branch of the Virginia Commonwealth is in turmoil over old photos of a governor and others in blackface. Members of the media, most of whom are the most critical of racism, have themselves been revealed to have also blackened their skin. And here I am, admitting to doing the same.
What, then, is the world to make of brown kids in blackface? Can a person of color be accused of cultural appropriation, or of disrespecting dark skin? The funny thing about this particular production of Finian’s Rainbow is that the lead characters were actually white, or at the very least, their fathers were. The sharecroppers were plenty dark; I certainly was. As I think on it now, the oily ash was just plain silly and absolutely misguided. Malicious? I don’t think so.
America is a country where cultural appropriation is a tradition. Our Constitution, after all, is based on Roman law, English Common Law, philosophies from French, German and Scottish thinkers, and government models from the Native Americans themselves. The USA is hardly the land of originals. We cannot proudly claim to be a melting pot, while at the same time resist imitation. Above all, this republic champions self-expression, which in almost every case, irritates.
Dan Ho, a native of Agat, is a writer and teacher and holds a Ph.D. in indigenous studies. Follow his garden adventures on Instagram @HoandGarden.