Halloween was one of the few holidays when you could have a good time, run around the neighborhood without your parents, and eat enough candy to make you sick for a week.
Then Megyn Kelly went and said something that was not all that stupid, but given her background and the position she seems to take on racial issues, made a great big hoopla about what you can and cannot pretend to be on Halloween.
My personal opinion is that NBC wanted to get rid of her anyway, and this was a good opening.
Kelly’s politics are only a few steps away from Ann Coulter, who used to be the poster child for the least attractive side of the far right.
The only differences between them are the shade of blonde hair dye that they use, Megyn had a better agent, and Ann Coulter has a black boyfriend (Jimmy Walker).
Now, with all this to-do about Halloween and “blackface” (the word Megyn misused. If she had said “makeup,” she might have been able to slide by), a person has to be very careful about which character they wish to portray. The guidelines should be clear. If it is demeaning to people, it’s wrong, if it is uplifting, it is right.
No matter who you go as, either a good guy or a bad guy, it is seen as a kind of celebration of that guy. So, it’s not cool to go as Hitler or Idi Amin.
So how about Aunt Jemima? Nope, not even if you are Jemima James and an aunt.
The rules should be that you can go as any race, gender, or character you want. Our country has become so divisive of late that we can’t do that. A few years ago some Halloween revellers in the South thought it would be funny to have a depiction of a lynching as a Halloween float. Just a few days ago, a man in Alabama had a black man hanging by a rope from a tree. Nope, not funny; neither is a depiction a scene from a Nazi concentration camp or a Japanese internment camp.
So, when are you crossing the line between crassness and comedy? When Kathleen Battle sang Rosina in “The Barber of Seville,” she put on whiteface to look like the character as it was written. She got a lot of flack from some who criticized her for “trying to look like white.” Whereas the truth was, she was trying to look Italian, since Rosina was Italian.
African Americans have been made fun of and denigrated for so many centuries that it is hard to be in neutral. The wretched history of racism is always there, no matter how slight a shadow it may cast.
Women have had a rough row to hoe as well. Does that mean that Milton Berle should be drawn and quartered? Should “Charlie’s Aunt” be banned or “Tootsie” taken off Netflix? Why is it that when men imitate women, they make them the butt of the crudest of jokes and satire?
Eddie Murphy’s characterization of “Saul, the Jewish guy,” in “Coming to America” is possibly one of the best portrayals of that undervalued type.
Here is one major thing to consider: He did it with love. You could see the love and respect he had for Saul. He never took a cheap shot.
When they did “The Crucible” in my college, I was resigned to playing the part of Tituba, the only black character in the play. No one could have been less suited for it. The director saw this and cast me as Mary Warren. He cast my white roommate Sheila Nadler (who went on to become a well-known opera singer) as Tituba. In the makeup room, Sheila and I looked carefully at each other to make sure we got it right. None of us thought we were doing anything derogatory; we weren’t, we were doing the right thing for the play.
OK, so looking like the character you are playing makes sense. The sensitivity for this comes from the past, when people did not look for people in the same ethnic group to play that ethnic group. The “Fresno Indians” are a great example of that. Most of the “injuns” in cowboy and Indian movies were Armenians from Fresno, Calif. Nobody thought to look for authentic Native Americans to play the part. The television series “F Troop” is also a great example. I wonder just how wide a net the casting director spread out before deciding that they had to settle for Frank de Kova and Don Diamond?
Here is a good guideline to go by. When I was a little girl, and people like Eddie Cantor came on in blackface, or any black character was portrayed in a negative manner in the movies, I would get so embarrassed that I would try to hide behind the seat so as not to be seen. These negative characters were often played by black people as well. Who could be more demeaning than Stepin Fetchit or Butterfly McQueen … who names their baby Butterfly? Not to mention the cereal kids, Buckwheat and Farina.
So as a black woman, I am never allowed the luxury of being in neutral. I am always on the alert for racist connotations.
Of course, that’s only for my own people; when it comes to somebody else, I used to laugh like crazy. It took me a while to realize that of all the actors who played Charlie Chan, not one was Asian. One of them was half Afro-European, but not one of them had a drop of Asian DNA. Myrna Loy was my idea of an Asian woman. I had no clue that she was wearing “yellow face.”
Jerry Lewis made me peal with laughter when he did his mentally challenged character. I wonder if I would have laughed so heartily if I had a mentally challenged child.
But what does any of that have to do with what to go as for Halloween?
Is it because those in the past have been so insensitive that my black son cannot go as George Washington or Luke Skywalker? Are we saying that my white son cannot go as Frederick Douglass or Fannie Lou Hamer?
How will anyone know who they are if they do not change their appearance? Can you go as Marilyn Monroe without a blonde wig?
Intention is everything. Racist, mean-spirited caricatures of the past make us all suffer today. It should make us more sensitive and aware of other people and their pain. In some cases it does; unfortunately not for Megyn Kelly.
Abigail McGrath is the founder of Renaissance House, a retreat for writers of poetry and social issues (which is currently looking for a new home on the Island). She created Renaissance House in memory of her mother, the poet Helene Johnson, and her aunt, Dorothy West, the novelist, both “Island” girls.