Today is Halloween, a holiday that’s known for its tricks and treats.
But there’s one trick -- an alarming trend nationally as well as here in the Bennington area -- that crosses the line into the realm of hate expression.
A Bennington resident called the Banner yesterday to let us know that she had seen something frighteningly racist at a hayride in North Bennington earlier this week.
This resident took her 12-year-old son, along with a friend, to the seasonal event looking for a family-friendly evening. What she saw there wasn’t so friendly: Some of the hayride-goers were dressed in Halloween costumes. One man’s costume involved blackface makeup.
"He got to go on the hayride in that costume. And I had to explain what blackface meant to my son. It’s concerning," she said.
The woman was so disturbed she confronted the young man in blackface, who told her he was dressed as a popular comedian and that he was proud of it. He even allowed her to snap his photo.
The caller was appalled. "People might not know the impact of what they’re doing when they put on blackface," she said.
Is it ever OK to don blackface when dressing up as a favorite celebrity?
What about donning a "bloody" hooded sweatshirt to portray slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin? Or a full-on minstrel at a splashy Africa-themed party for the fashion elite in Milan?
According to a recent Associated Press article, each of those costumes made headlines this Halloween season. And the answer to each, African studies and culture experts said, is never.
"The painful history of minstrelsy is not that long ago for us to think that now, somehow, we can do it differently or do it better," said Yaba Blay, co-director of Africana Studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Blackface minstrelsy, also called blackface, is an American theatrical form that constituted a subgenre of the minstrel show, according to Encyclopedia Brittania.
"Intended as comic entertainment, blackface minstrelsy was performed by a group of white minstrels (traveling musicians) with black-painted faces, whose material caricatured the singing and dancing of slaves," states the encyclopedia.
Blackface was most popular between 1850 and 1870.
So why the sudden resurgence?
Julianne Hough of "Dancing With the Stars" fame recently apologized on Twitter after being criticized for darkening her skin for a costume as Crazy Eyes from "Orange is the New Black" at a Hollywood bash.
Hough explained on Twitter: "I am a huge fan of the show Orange is the New Black, actress Uzo Aduba, and the character she has created. It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way. I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize."
In the San Diego area this week, two high school football coaches who dressed in blackface for a local sporting event and then posted photos of themselves in costume on Facebook have come under fire.
Witnesses told the local ABC affiliate, 10News, they saw Brian Basteyns and Harold Seeley wear the blackface costumes to a San Diego State University football game on Saturday.
Players at the high school where the men coach are defending Basteyns, who met with the team Tuesday and apologized.
There’s a fine line between mockery and tribute -- and it’s a line that blackface has the power to obliterate, said Marita Sturken, professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, to 10 News.
"It’s never something very simple, and if you’re going to don a costume and put on a black face there’s no possibility of nuance there," she said. "It doesn’t matter that it was a character from a TV show. That doesn’t get her off the hook. If she’s going to put some substance on her face, that constitutes blackface and this incredibly complicated history gets evoked."
Last week, two Florida men were photographed, and the photos widely circulated on social media, wearing especially heinous Halloween costumes.
One was in blackface with a simulated bloody bullet hole at the chest and the other simulated a gun to the head of the faux 17-year-old while dressed as George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot Trayvon in Florida and was acquitted in court, per the AP story.
Halloween costumes are meant to be ghoulish or outlandish or playful. When they cross the line to racist, the trick’s on those of us who tolerate such bad behavior.
Freedom of expression is one thing, racism another.
Blackface in any instance is racist.
Shame on the young man in North Bennington for thinking his blackface makeup was anything less.