MEGAN KELLY COLLIDED WITH
A PAINFUL POP CULTURE IMAGE
The uproar over Megan Kelly’s remarks about white people in blackface demonstrates once again that there are certain issues so emotionally charged that it’s all too easy to give unintended offense when addressing them.
Megan made a very odd assertion that when she was a kid, blackface was okay at Halloween, as long as you were dressing up as a particular “character.” That comment raised questions, not only about what “characters” might have been acceptable in those days, but about the kind of neighborhood in which she did her trick-or-treating.
Nevertheless, video footage of her “Today Show” discussion shows clearly that she was not unaware that blackface is considered offensive. Rather, she was attempting to draw a distinction between being sensitive to other people’s feelings and being crushed under the arbitrary dictates of political correctness.
That someone with her media savvy and cool presence did it so awkwardly shows how delicate such a task can be.
The irony in this situation is that, while we constantly hear calls for a “great national conversation about race,” bringing up anything that might become part of that conversation is a risky business.
Which is why the conversation keeps getting put off.
Blackface remains one of the most painful images in American pop culture. Originated in mid-1800s minstrels shows, it was practiced by white and black entertainers alike.
White stars like Al Jolson and Eddy Cantor made it part of their repertoire of onstage gimmicks. And it became so common a piece of Hollywood shtick that you can see it in movie musicals produced as late as the 1950s.
For black people it served two purposes.
First, it got minority performers work in venues from which they would otherwise have been barred. Exploiting the prejudices of white audiences, doing blackface allowed great Negro vaudevillians to became actual headliners. Bert Williams, one of the most famous, was a star in the “Ziegfeld Follies.”
At the same time, blackface provided a way to strike back at the racism in mainstream popular entertainment. While blackface imagery was unquestionably demeaning (and some black performers may have had to swallow hard to take it on), it represented a certain kind of social subversion. As African American writer Amiri Baraka explained it…
“The black minstrel performer was not only poking fun at himself but in a more profound way, he was poking fun at the white man.”
Blacks in blackface were, essentially, mocking the whites in blackface who were trying to mock blacks.
Today, pretty much everybody gets that creepy feeling when blackface is displayed or even referred to — everybody, that is, except pompous lefty showbiz types (Ted Danson, Julianne Hough, Joni Mitchell, Beyoncé, and others) who seem to think fame immunizes them from criticism.
Hollywood jackasses and the occasional Ku-Kluxer aside, I doubt there are very many ordinary folks (of whatever ethnicity) who feel comfortable watching a performer (of whatever ethnicity) cavorting about publicly with face blackened. And if they do nurture some secret taste for that sort of thing, they wouldn’t likely admit to it.
The taboo is too thoroughly established.
As for the Megan Kelly controversy — shifting from Fox News, Megan was an odd fit at NBC all along. And her departure was not unlike that of Rosanne Barr at ABC. Both networks quickly seized on tactless remarks made by their non-conformist stars to extricate themselves from creative relationships that had been uneasy from the start.
With the mainstream media under scrutiny for hewing to a leftward agenda, this incident will largely be seen as another example of political correctness in action. Megan may have demonstrated a deficit of astuteness toward the sensitivities of her black viewers, but she wasn’t actually advocating blackface.
And then she apologized, with what appeared to be some earnestness.
But as New York-based writer Daniella Greenbaum Davis points out in The Federalist, the Left is interested only in…
“regulating through shame. NBC has thrown their talent to the wolves, and it’s only the most recent example of a network or publication that opts to sacrifice one of their own rather than standing up for the values of a free and open exchange of ideas.
“NBC had an opportunity here to demonstrate to their media peers and the country as a whole that they tolerate dissent within their ranks. They hired Kelly to express her opinion, and should have defended her as she did so, especially given her apology.
“Instead, it looks like the network has chosen to confirm what we already know: holding and expressing opinions that contradict the ‘liberal’ zeitgeist is a fireable offense.”
NBC will pay a high price for its ill-considered hiring of Megan Kelly, the inability to make her distinctive on-screen persona work within its morning format, and then axing her in such an ungracious way.
As for Megan herself, the remainder of her $69 million contract (or whatever part of it she gets) ought to cushion the blow of being fired and subsidize the writing of her inevitable tell-all book.
And who knows — this incident may even prove to be a step toward that “great national conversation about race.”
The one we never seem quite able to have.
Wikipedia has a very comprehensive article on the tortured history of blackface in American popular entertainment, from which the Amiri Baraka quote, above, was drawn…
I’ve written before about the burden of awkwardness and conflict created by our racial past, along with the difficulty of addressing the topic of race honestly. If you’re interested, you can check out my thoughts from back in 2016 at…
Mediaite documents some interesting incidents of NBC on-air personalities in Halloween costumes that cross racial lines, including “Nightly News” host Lester Holt (who is black) lightening his skin to impersonate British pop singer Susan Boyle (who is white). This is NBC, folks, the network that fired Megan Kelly…