On Sept. 25, I was contacted by a local news station to address reports that the mayor of Medley took a photo at an “African Safari” themed party with a resident. This photo shows a man wearing blackface and a costume complete with grass skirt, spear and afro wig at a city-sponsored event organized for elderly residents in the city.
My emotional response immediately took me to the first two stages of Elisabeth Kübler Ross’ five stages of grief. My first feeling was denial that this type of behavior continues to be socially accepted in a local municipality in South Florida. I then moved to anger that, in 2019, such a blatantly disrespectful and racially insensitive costume could be worn at a city-sponsored event and graciously accepted by city officials.
As I reviewed additional photos from the event, I noticed other attendees dressed tastefully in African garb, although it didn’t appear that anyone of African descent was present.
For those that believe this is much ado about nothing, allow me to provide context, a brief history of blackface, also known as minstrel shows. Minstrels have their origins in the northeast United States in the early 1800s. White performers would burn corks and smear the soot on their face leaving only their eyes and lips in their natural color to portray black people as obnoxious, lazy, slow-witted buffoons. Some scholars believe that this practice came about for the purpose of affirming white superiority.
In recent years, headlines have been replete with high-profile individuals apologizing for wearing blackface: Louisiana House of Representatives candidate Robbie Gatti, South Carolina county council candidate Brant Tomlinson, former Florida Secretary of State Mike Ertel and Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, who posed in a medical school yearbook either wearing blackface or a KKK hood. These men — all of whom eventually apologized — exhibited a deep insensitivity or willful ignorance in making such a regrettable choice, perhaps because there was safety in their spheres where no black people would be in attendance to offend.
I have since met with Medley Mayor Roberto Martell, and he was deeply apologetic about the photo and the hurt that it caused members of the black community. I accepted the mayor’s apology, gave him a brief history of blackface and its purpose and recommended that city institute a policy and code of conduct prohibiting any inflammatory, and racially/ethnically offensive conduct with city staff and city-sponsored events. Additionally, Mayor Martell has agreed to provide cultural sensitivity training for city staff and police, as well as working to foster a more diverse workplace.
In addition, the city has approved a Code of Conduct resolution.
I commend Mayor Martell for his willingness to listen and learn. First, for his heartfelt apology; his willingness to gain a better understanding of the history of blackface and finally, for his commitment to instituting policy changes clearly stating Medley’s position on racial/ethnic insensitivity. At the end of our meeting, one thing was clear — the mayor and I agree that that it is far more important for us to build bridges, not walls, especially in one of the most diverse counties in the great state of Florida.
It is my hope that other municipalities take swift action as Medley did on matters of racial insensitivity to help unify communities.
Ruban Roberts is president of the Miami-Dade Branch of the NAACP.