Mimicking minstrels

Correction appended

With his face coated in black paint and his mouth encircled in red lipstick, Omari Daniels harkens back to an often-forgotten and racist practice in American history.

As of late, the black freshman has made his presence known on campus by dressing in blackface for the entirety of Black History Month to spread awareness about the minstrel shows of the 1800s.

Minstrel shows reached the height of their popularity in the pre-Civil War era and consisted of white actors painting their faces with black charcoal and covering their lips in red lipstick or paint to create an exaggerated portrayal of blacks at the time. They used widely accepted stereotypes and slapstick comedy to entertain a variety of audiences.

Daniels, 18, has often been asked, why minstrels?

“I wanted to embody this ugly form of racism,” he said. “People had to endure this ugly racism for years.”

Every morning Daniels wakes up in his Somers Hall room and begins a regimen to transform himself into a minstrel. He begins by coating his face with cocoa butter as a primer and then carefully applies black Crayola paint to his entire face. He then uses red lipstick bought at CVS to cover his lips and the surrounding area, as done by original minstrels. At the start, this took him 30 to 45 minutes, but he has winnowed it down to 15.

The overall look is completed by a black suit worn with a crisp white dress shirt, a carefully knotted tie, a black velvet hat given to him by his mother and white evening gloves he borrowed from a friend.

Day in and day out, Daniels roams campus in this ensemble, half-waiting and half-hoping that someone will question him about his motives and inspirations. He said he has been surprised by how little GW students and community members seem to know about the history of minstrelsy and that the majority of those who do know are black.

“If one person a day asks a question, I feel like I’m doing something,” he said.

Daniels said he has received a considerable amount of negative attention as a result of his “blatantly offensive” outfit. “People do a double take to make sure they’ve really seen what they’ve just seen,” he said.

“One Tuesday someone said to me, ‘This looks stupid,’ ” Daniels recalled. “Of course it looks ridiculous. The point is to show how America accepted this.”

Friends tried to persuade him to impersonate more positive images in history such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Marcus Garvey, but Daniels has had his eye on creating awareness about minstrels since high school.

In his senior year he said he wanted to dress as a minstrel for a presentation for younger students, but his principal at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in D.C. axed the plan.

“My principal felt that some people wouldn’t understand it,” Daniels said. “Here there are more liberties.”

As one of GW’s Stephen Joel Trachtenberg scholars, his advisers expressed similar concern that the statement would be lost in translation. The Trachtenberg scholarship is awarded annually to a number of students from D.C. who demonstrate academic and extracurricular excellence. But Daniels continues to feel confident about his commitment and even plans on doing it annually.

“Each year is a new class with new people to inform,” he said.

Despite the initial shock factor of the minstrel costume, Daniels said he is simply trying to educate.

“It’s one of the images our country has had to overcome,” he said. “I’m not trying to stir up negative emotions.”

He said he recognizes that our country has come a long way since the days of the original minstrels, pointing to the recent election of President Barack Obama as proof. But in his mind, America still has a ways to go.

“Racism is not dead,” he said.

And regardless of the ease with which he took on this project, he wondered if his true message of awareness is coming across.

He asked, “Do people see a guy with paint? A minstrel? A student? Or an ugly image of racism they want to forget?”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: (March 13, 2009)

The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Omari Daniels attended Ballou Senior High School. He attended Benjamin Banneker Academic High School.

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