Skin or Mask?

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Here is another example of a set of shakers that exudes an intriguing ambiguity. It represents a clown, clearly, accompanied by a drum. Why a drum? I have no idea. Perhaps the drum originally came from a different shaker set–although the color tones do suggest these two do belong together. But that’s not the source of the ambiguity. The source of the ambiguity is the clown’s face.

It’s a clown in blackface. Or, wait, maybe it just a clown of African descent, depicted without his makeup. Perhaps he hasn’t put his makeup on yet and he will soon appear under the big top in whiteface–after all, he seems to have grey hair, and surely fully dressed clowns would never wear grey wigs, so that there is still another wig to come. Or, wait, maybe it’s a clown of African descent who has already put his makeup on,and his makeup is a sort of blackface on top of his real pigmented skin.

One way or the other, the face is a version of the one anyone familiar with salt-and-pepper depictions of African Americans will have learned to expect: the fat, bright pink lips dominate–although the equally pink nose does seem to be a more definite indication of a clown face (unless it’s an alcoholic African American with the stereotypical very shiny nose). Since similar faces are found on shakers that do not represent clowns, it might well be just a stereotypical attempt to depict an actual African-American. But since this one does represent a clown, it might just be an attempt in makeup to create an artificial version of that stereotype. It might be a white guy in blackface. And the odd fact that it might just as easily be either of these two quite different things is the essence of its ambiguity. Not the raw and the cooked exactly,but the real and the imitation for sure. The ambiguity is intriguingly revealing of the phoniness and inaccuracy of the stereotype. Even when it isn’t attached to the idea of clowning, the stereotype is essentially a sort of clowning, an imposition of masquerade which, as in the case of the Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose shakers I discussed in an earlier post, purports to represent reality in a way that seriously diminishes it.

Published by pernodel

Children’s literature critic and author of books for children

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