Affion Crockett: In The Flow, Or Same ‘Ole Coonery?

I’ve often wondered where and why we draw the lines in our morality the way that we do. Other than the fact that life is far too short to be pissed off all the time, how do we decide when to be entertained by the offensive, and when to throw our fists in the air? And, if these lines are arbitrary, how do we resolve these themes within ourselves?

For example, I found myself flipping to “In the Flow with Affion Crockett” for the series premiere. Understanding that comedy is often times inappropriate, I hoped for laughs by an entertainer of color on a major television network. Comedy amuses me most when artists draw attention to issues that society faces. After all, satire is both amusing and filled with some sort of lesson. Affion is catchy; he’s intelligent and young. He seems to have an appreciation for hip-hop culture, and his show even has break dancing in both the opening and the intermissions. His main skill set seems to be in physical comedy, especially in the form of impressions.

For those who have yet to see the show, it’s a variety/sketch comedy show featuring Mr. Crockett poking fun at pop culture and celebrities. I’ll tell you – dude did a clever Drake impersonation; it nearly had me in tears! However, flipping back and forth to the show, I found some themes to be troubling, especially as it poked fun at themes that the Black community continues to come against. Admittedly, the “Hilight” sketch – meant to poke fun at both Twilight and the plight of mulattos and light skinned Blacks – was when it all began to go sour for me.  There was also a very clever sketch of Chris Rock that had him painted a darker shade of brown.

Beyond that, the real resolution I’m struggling to reach is this: are Affion Crockett’s performances, especially where he colors himself darker or lighter, merely a minstrel show on a major network?

Really Dude?

Blackface was at one point an international phenomenon; though popular in the US during a time when Blacks were rarely allowed, even for whites, to perform in theatre arts. White people (initially and most generally men) painted their faces black and exaggerated their facial features in order to achieve an appearance that they equated to be of Blacks. They went to great lengths to even achieve such a look. Their faces were painted with burnt cork or, eventually shoe polish. Their lips? Jumbo and clown-like, often made to seem jovial and benevolent. The personalities were any amount of typical stereotypes of Blacks: lazy, foolish. Top these characters off with nappy-haired wigs, tattered outfits, and attempts to reflect the styles with buffoonish behaviors that they perceived then-Negroes – enslaved physically or otherwise – to be.

Eventually, Black artists were allowed to perform for white audiences in blackface. In blackface, many of the stereotypes, like the Tom, Mammy, and Pickaninny, were personified and reinforced. And so, for the amusement of white society in the performance arts, our image was decided for us. Eventually, ethnically based stereotypes in the performing arts extended beyond Blacks; but none as offensive as painting one’s skin and behaving in idiocy, nor the minstrel shows that poked fun at our history as socially disadvantaged. Shit, just 50-or-so years ago the American entertainment industry allowed our beloved Bugs Bunny to appear in blackface!

Unfortunately, the Back-casted minstrel artists were perceived to be, by most whites, authentic. This created a realm by which Black artists performing for white audiences soothed the beliefs maintained that the white blackfaces were in any way offensive. As such, the white imagination – still largely in control of the entertainment industry – was validated.

In the context of plantations and our painful American past, even whist rejected by some, the entertainment industry received shuffling Negroes and visually verbose mammies. Blackface and minstrelsy was about more than the act of painting one’s face in an offensive manner. It demeans the Black struggle and reduces Blacks to characters of the white imagination.

Indeed, I am wondering if what Affion is doing – whether intended or not – is performing a minstrel show while literally and figuratively in blackface. In his comedy routine there were troubling visual images and themes that go beyond a racial context. I do not intend to limit the expression of any artist, especially of color. People of color are often boxed and reduced to certain expectations. However, I wonder in the literal painting of his skin who Affion Crocket is really entertaining. Where do we draw the line between mere entertainment and the offensive?