Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Gordon Gartrelle says: By Golly! Sarah Palin’s Rural Blackface

One of the most fascinating things about Thursday’s Vice Presidential debate—aside from the fact that Sarah Palin either could not or would not answer the most important questions (on subprime lending crisis, deregulation, nuclear proliferation, Vice Presidential power, global warming)—was Palin’s deluge of “by gollies, “you betchas,” “there ya go agains,” “dog gone its,” “darn rights,” “heckuva lots,” “straight ups,” “Hockey moms,” “Joe Six-Packs,” and winks. Palin’s “debate” performance was a bizarre spectacle in which she managed to take the grating, odious persona she unveiled during the Republican convention and make it ridiculous.

I sat in amazement as this cipher of a human being somehow charmed the talking heads with an utterly transparent display of phony “aw shucks” populism. While the commentators disagreed on her substantive points, there seemed to be a consensus that Palin’s “folksy” mannerisms and sayings were charming and allowed her to connect with the American people. I’m almost positive that The National Review’s Rich Lowry typed his ode to Palin with one hand.

I took away two main nuggets from the Vice Presidential debate and its aftermath: 1.) that Sarah Palin, in effect, performed rural blackface, and 2.) that the so called charm of this performance hinges on the small town fantasies of conservatives and media elites.

Consider that traditional blackface saw refined black entertainers performing a base, stereotypical blackness for adoring audiences. Everything about minstrel blackness was exaggerated: the movements, the language, the clothing, the color. Let’s revisit Palin’s debate. Along with the exaggerated down-home sayings, (she actually said “I’m the Joe Six-Pack candidate.” How’s that for subtlety?), she twice made reference to the liberal media filtering her straight talk to the American people, and incredibly, made plain her intention to not answer the moderator’s questions in the name of this supposed straight talk. Palin took the negative aspects of rural America—the simplistic worldview, the anti-intellectualism, the hostility to difference—and magnified them to the point of near parody. That, my friends, is rural blackface.

Contrary to popular belief, Palin’s folksiness (and indeed the Palin pick itself), is not directed toward “regular Americans;” it is directed toward elites, media elites in particular. It’s clear that media elites on the right have bought into the notion that small town America is the real representation of the country, that one must go to the “heartland” to see American values. Surprisingly, though, Palin’s shtick is just as effective on liberal media elites because these liberal elites share the same faulty assumptions and insecurities as their conservative colleagues.

Most of these elites, conservative or liberal, are stinking rich, were reared at the same elite schools, and live in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. These elites enjoy the freedom, variety, and bustle of big cities, yet they suffer from a great deal of self-loathing, guilt, and insecurity about their metropolitan lives (the cities they call home may as well be Sodom and Gomorrah). They therefore construct fantasies of a simpler, more pure life in rural America and regard small town residents as morally superior folks uncorrupted by the big, bad city. It’s like nostalgia for the 50s, only set in the present.

In any case, Palin and McCain know all of this and are more than willing to have Palin “coon it up.” W.C. Fields described legendary blackface performer Bert Williams as “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew.” Part of this sadness stemmed from the internal conflict based on building his personal success on hideous racial stereotypes of his people. I doubt that Sarah Palin has any inner-conflict. She strikes me as a supremely happy person.


Anonymous said...

Another subtle moment was her comment "...it's so obvious I'm a Washington outsider...just not used to the way you guys operate." Well, she said a mouthful right there. She's not just a Washington outsider though, she is an "intellectual outsider," although I'm pretty sure she's not as dumb as her "folksiness" makes her sound.

Anyway, I love this blog!

macon d said...

Thanks for this, very useful way of puttin' it (Palin grates on me, but that gratuitous g-droppin' is infectious).

I'm not sure, though, that "blackface" is quite the right term, is it? Isn't the staged act you're pointing out here more classist than racist? Something like "hillbilly face," instead of "blackface"? The two aren't quite mutually exclusive of course . . .

Anyway, you got me wonderin'.

Cheri said...

While I was irritated by Palin's use of winking and "folksy" statements, I hadn't considered the possibility that she was actually mocking the group that she professed membership to.

I think that your analogy of Palin's mockery with black face is quite accurate. Of course they key difference with black face was that it was done primarily for entertainment, and the reinforcement of negative racial stereotypes was a welcome byproduct.

Since we know that Palin's mockery wasn't for entertainment purposes, then why?--Cheri

gordon gartrelle said...

Thank you all for the comments.

anonymous, I don't think her (phony) "folksiness" is what makes her sound dumb; her lack of substance and her narrow worldview make her sound dumb.

macon, you're right. I never meant for anti-black racism to be integral to the definition. I considered "redneck face," but "redneck" isn't the right term and I think I had to use "blackface" to convey the proper meaning.

cheri, that's an interesting take. I didn't necessarily see her as intentionally mocking rural folks; I saw her as adopting a phony persona because it works on her audience. Think of her as a political studio gangsta.

I disagree, however, that Palin's performance wasn't done with entertainment in mind. Mainstream politics today is all about entertainment. The media has become almost as shallow as the Hollywood gossip shows and publications.

All-Mi-T [Thought Crime] Rawdawgbuffalo said...

now that made me laugh and it wasnt supposed to be funny

Anonymous said...

In any case, she's a joke.

I for one have heard enough from both campaigns. What, praytell, will be the point of yet another debate? We've all heard it all before and really, if voters are still undecided at this point, they will still be playing "eenie-meenie-miney-moe" come election day regardless of what else is said. Let's just vote already!

-Same anonymous from yesterday

Cheri said...


I am so ready to vote too! It's too bad we can't just text our votes in like on American Idol. However,if we did it that way, we'd have to worry about folks cheating and sending votes in the wrong direction.

Well, I guess that pretty much like using those electronic voting machines, isn't it?


Touché to your point about Palin's performance being done with entertainment in mind. I can see how there is an element of entertainment involved with one's political persona.

Perhaps it's because I'm not part of the GOP "base" that Palin is intended to mobilize, but I just can't see how the fake accent and all helped her cause. That would be like someone who's not black speaking ebonics in front of black audiences. Doing so would be acting under the assumption that all blacks could identify with it. Well I guess that just underscores your original pont...--Cheri

Glennis said...

she actually said “I’m the Joe Six-Pack candidate.” How’s that for subtlety?

Anyone who calls herself something like this - ain't.

"Blackface" is the right word - "blackface" was to costume oneself in an exaggeration of something. In minstrel days, both white and black performers corked their faces - it's a clear exaggeration and stereotypical image.

There wasn't really a "redneck" face - maybe the closest you could get to it was the old TV show HeeHaw, where musicians wore bib-alls and hung on on TV sets with bales of hay. And that was far more of a broad dimensionness mockery than minstrelsy ever was - Minstrelsy had some interesting undertones and unspoken messages.

Now, maybe the word you should really use for Palin is something like "hood face" - because what she's doing is blowing a dog-whistle to those who can hear racist and dominionist-Christian frequencies that are too high for most human ears.....

the ugliness exhibited at her rallies is truly frightening.

gordon gartrelle said...

Thanks, g,

I considered capping the post with a Hee Haw pic, but that blackface beauty contestant pic was too perfect to pass up.