ON PETER ADAMYAN’S “BLACKFACE BARBIE MINSTREL SHOW”
Want to say “nigger” without taking the chance of getting beat the fuck up? Are you a white liberal tired of white guilt? Feeling a little transracial? Does everything about you seem black, but your skin? Do you sketch self-portraits using a brown crayon, instead of peach? Find yourself tweeting #blacklivesmatter, but still getting bussed to the #alllivesmatter side of town? What about that blackface frat party you always wanted to throw? Want to get shot for no reason? Can’t take advantage of affirmative action when applying for college? Is your blackness too hip to be down with that wigger shit?
Try Equality Snake Oil, established in 1776, rub it in your skin and let the oppression begin. Act now. Diminish your white privilege and enhance your simulated black experience. Enjoy the benefits of getting disproportionately arrested, shot, killed, and expelled from school. E.S.O. won’t crack, smudge, or run; guaranteed to give you that golden brown YOLO glow.
Warning: If you feel a burning sensation or develop what looks like permanent skin damage, please continue to use E.S.O. as instructed to get that full Nubian complexion. The screams and cries you hear when applying E.S.O. are the shackled remnants of slaves getting buried alive in the pores of your skin. Please do not mistake it for your soul hacking at its roots to dislodge itself from you. E.S.O. may turn you into a black caricature modeled after your white superiority complex. E.S.O. will not give you full lips, corn rolls, chiseled muscles, an afro or a fat ass. It will not anoint you Queen of the Nile or give you black beauty that will be copied, bleached, and become pop culture. E.S.O. will not make you tougher, jump higher, run faster, or anything else that is likely a result of big, strong slaves forced to procreate with each other to make bigger, stronger slaves. Take caution, E.S.O. will dehumanize you.
Side effects include low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, or bouts of psychotic rage. Your blackness will be cut open, dissected and doubted. Your new history will be reduced to a sentence or paragraph. Your new ancestors will not be credited for birthing civilization. Their inventions and cultural contributions that are the backbone of American ingenuity will be whitewashed. E.S.O. may also cause you to be paranoid when driving, shopping, or jogging. If cops demand permission to enter your residence without a warrant, you may be at risk of getting shot and killed for failing to give up your rights to an unlawful home invasion. If you are standing in a crowd full of actual black people, you may be at risk of getting shot in the head. Keep in mind, said situations will give your rap career the boost and authenticity it deserves. If you are not sure that E.S.O. is right for you, please consult your social media friends and followers.
I’ve been living in Japan for five years. My Japanese wife, Haruki, and I decided to start our married life here, so I could get to know her within the context of her own culture. For the first two years, I was like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in the movie They Live without those x-ray sunglasses, and the aliens still fled in horror at the sight of me. Somewhere beyond the fourth wall I could hear a faint Bob Dylan singing, “because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?”
Culture shock had me like, “Don’t tase me bro!” Consumers hugged the block waiting in line to eat this exquisite food called pancakes. They crowded the sidewalks looking at menus, waiting to be seated, all for the sweet seductive taste of an intriguing snack called caramel popcorn. Purple-and blue-haired old ladies wearing kimonos shuffled down the streets. Young adult men carted leather purses and had spiked hair that rivaled Dragon Ball Z characters. Girls with long, curly blonde hair were human dolls wearing Alice In Wonderland-dresses, detailed with embroidered red roses and ribbons with matching umbrellas, decorated stockings, and glossy platform shoes. People bowed everywhere, bobbing their heads, bending their hips as if to praise each other like Olympian Gods or benevolent members of a holy covenant. Above the red-dotted land of the rising sun, a giant omnipresent eye floats through the sky, but it can’t see beyond Japan’s shores. The eye doesn’t blink or sleep. It’s overworked and wary. It’s been conditioned to laugh, obey, gawk, stare, and smile. Through the eyes of the homogenous people below it follows me.
As I would wait in line at the grocery store, locals’ mannerisms twitched and turned. The anxiety could’ve materialized into rain. A middle-aged woman in front of me did a 180 to confront me. She had a brown mole the size of a pinky fingerprint below her right nostril. The peach hairs on her cheeks broke through the makeup layers masking her face. I could smell her breath as an aftertaste of her shampoo. I didn’t know if she was afraid of turning her back to a potential boogieman prone to savagery, she wanted to fuck, or she wanted me carried away with a hand strapped across my mouth. A gap formed in the line as it moved forward while she froze. When she realized that it was her turn she gasped, swinging around to rush towards the cashier. She folded her shoulders and fumbled through her purse, discarding the spectacle that stood behind her.
To keep my paper bag of marbles from getting wet, I filtered my reality through a self-imposed veil of willful ignorance, becoming less interested in Japan’s language and culture. Video-calling family and friends, writing assignments for Hi-Fructose Magazine, and watching The Daily Show with John Stewart was my transportable version of America. They were triggers of the familiar that virtualized home. It served me well at first. Haruki and her family had lived in the States for five years while she was in elementary and middle school. She’s been to Russia, China, and the Caribbean. Unlike me, she’s well-traveled. She went to Manhattanville College as an exchange student, where we met. Before we had a daughter, my wife and I took the idea of America’s diversity, my parents’ creed of “love knows no color,” Japan’s civility and their religion of patience, and turned our apartment into an embassy. We engaged in continuous, stop-start, at times gridlocked, at times successful negotiations, deciphering cultural differences from marital conflicts, while forging our twin values, and syncing our paths of emotional rhythm. “Forever and ever,” Haruki likes to say. “Forever ever?” I ask.
Our multi-national consulate divided itself from a nation that believes its DNA to be separate from the rest of Asia, or unique, if not at one time superior, as they believed during their alliance with Hitler. The walls of our embassy laminated their own micro cracks to soundproof our xenophobic neighbors from hearing me make my wife laugh by dancing to Kelela and Run The Jewels. The second I stepped outside I was a black unicorn that could, though probably wouldn’t, gouge out an eye when I bowed. On numerous occasions people told me that I looked like Bob Sapp. Who the hell is that? My wife wasn’t surprised when I told her.
“I’m glad we don’t have TV,” Haruki said. “You’d see blackface almost every day.” My eyes lit up like “What do you mean?” I meant, like “What the fuck?” When I searched Sapp online, his massive physique and big perspiring bald dome had nothing on my growing beer belly, chicken legs, and egg-shaped head, “Duck this dude out (-Wiki),” I rapped out loud, oh, we all look a-like. He’s a black American and former professional mixed martial artist that went from kicking people in the mouth to holding a banana like a monkey in Japanese advertisements. On TV he’s a jigaboo-acting modern minstrel who speaks strange Japanese, eats raw meat, bugs his eyes out and spears the air with his tongue, while a split screen shows Japanese hosts laughing at him. When the locals think of black people, he must be one of the first to pop into their heads, along with the other mixed martial artist turned jigaboo, Bobby Ologun.
“You go to Japan, they don’t have problems with certain folks being discriminated against because mostly everybody is Japanese,” President Obama joked when talking to a Chicago crowd about immigration. At my edge of the Western media echo chamber, the staying power of the blackface children’s book Little Black Sambo has crystallized it into a lauded classic. Japanese actor Koichi Yamadera donned blackface and twisted a head off a cat to do a rendition of “What A Wonderful World” as a tribute to Jazz great Louis Armstrong. During the first year of the first black President of the United States, a blackface “Barack” and “Michelle Obama” appeared on a Japanese variety show. “Barack Obama” is a magician saying, “Yes we can” after doing a magic trick. The clapping crowd and pundits laugh, mouths open, putting their whole bobbing heads into it. When artist Peter Adamyan showed me a collection of his work to pick from, thinking about that scene prompted me to choose Blackface Barbie Minstrel Show, a contemporary take on the face of a horrible past that, through the brush of America’s ruling class, has tried to paint itself another. It’s difficult to say whether the painting is selling snake oil, or is recruiting for the military rolled into a white-appropriated show.
Cue the twinkling suburban dream-girl music and Bob Sagat voiceover: Whoopi Goldberg is Transracial-Barbie’s token black friend and moral advisor, giving ol’ Barb street cred. “Go-on girl,” she says to Barb about escaping complacency to find true love. Meanwhile, Ken is just a simple Klansmen terrorizing coloreds at night, daydreaming of raping black girls like a real live slave owner. Barbie is a brown-toasted hot-blooded doll, twerking to pay tuition. Find out what happens when fate collides the lives of these star-crossed lovers.
Barbie and Ken’s passionate unconventional love divides dinner tables and unites multiracial bedfellows. Barb’s girl-next-door swagger and Katy Perry persona catapults Blackface Barb into primetime’s most talked about and watched TV program. This year’s Halloween saw the number of young white adults wearing blackface Barbie costumes surpass those wearing costumes that look like Orange Is The New Black character, Crazy Eyes, and like the latest unarmed black male shot dead by policemen who feared their lives were in danger. From TV, Barbie’s show gets pushed out of online’s viral womb and Barb-mania is born. The show’s makeup artist gets interviewed on daily talk shows, giving tips on how to fake black features. Mattel Toys releases Minstrel Barbie, which comes with a burnt cork and red lipstick to color Barb’s face. The new doll echoes Mattel’s past releases, including Oreo Barbie, Bull-fighting Spanish Barbie, and the wrestling action figure, Junkyard Dog, inspired by the once-real-life wrestler, a shirtless black man brandishing a chain around his neck. After rigorous animal testing, The Barbie Minstrel Show execs go for the jugular, releasing E.S.O., “when ya got that glow, ya powerful,” a blackface skin cream that paints your face a color not found in the natural world.
It’s the first painting I’ve ever owned; my luck that Adamyan was purging his old work to make room for the new. As a thank you, he shipped it to me from California, not long after I interviewed and wrote a feature about him. I was geeked to get a big package in the mail from home, let alone art. Unwrapping it, I was taken aback by the painting’s detail, which I couldn’t get from its computer image. The thin acrylic layers accentuate the contorted muscles in the characters’ faces as if they’re posing for a 3D movie poster. Mounted on my wall, they look alive, though cellophane-coated, suspended in an emotional state, motivated by the cattle prods stabbing at them from behind, “C’mon, smile, Goddamnit.” The Equality Snake Oil bottle is dyed-water, the sheen of tar sand. Uncle Sam’s grimace “wants you” to help him invade other countries and oversee war-torn regions from a drone’s eye point of view. The red and white Mattel logo behind him is a bursting bomb from an airstrike. All unintended casualties are considered enemy combatants. Framed by a red, white and blue heart, Ken and Barb are Donald Trump supporters, embracing each other for the camera, reppin’ that redneck love. Whoopi flashes her brown gleaming eyes from behind her Hollywood shades, juxtaposed with the light reflecting off each bead of her ever-looping necklace, resembling something a first-world reader would see in a National Geographic.
One benefit of our not owning a TV is that it helps preserve my faith in the progressiveness of Japan’s worldview.Adamyan’s Minstrel Show hangs above my desk as a theoretical substitute for Japanese television, but if it were an actual idiot box broadcasting a local infomercial selling a race-altering ointment, it’d probably go something like…
Want to get down black, but not be black, keeping your distinctive DNA intact? Spending hours practicing your dance routine, but wait, that public school brainwashing that made you a tool won’t let your inner robot bust a move? Got no junk in your trunk? Can’t jiggle that conservative figure? Can’t copy that sassy-sexy attitude that black girls radiate on YouTube? Want a black girl servant and a sister sex slave mistress? What about touring Japan, donning blackface, singing Motown tunes, and making money actin’ a coon? Trying to get over your fear of sitting next to that foreigner on the subway? Feeling nostalgic about the mid-90’s when you used to get your skin burnt at Blacky’s tanning Salon? Wasn’t it A Different World when you were a Ganguro girl? Are you an aspiring B-Styler, looking to live that Black Lifestyle? Ever wish you could turn into a blackface gorilla and wake your kids up on reality TV? Want to look like your favorite rapper? Is Beyoncé the true face of your character? Introducing Equality Snake Oil, invented in the Edo Period, during Japan’s most famously historical pop cultural boom. One slap of E.S.O. on your face will make you look like you’re a part of the black race. E.S.O. is perfect for taking advantage of all the good things black culture has to offer, without ever having to deal with actual black people.
Warning: E.S.O. will remain on your skin until removed with paint thinner, bug repellant, or hand sanitizer. E.S.O. will make you appear to be an exotic animal possessing bizarre homo sapien-like behavior. Please notify your co-workers, classmates, and family members that you are using E.S.O. for fear of them suspecting that you have skin cancer, or that you have turned into a monster. Strangers may assume you bleed green, and that you are scary, subhuman, and stupid, but above all, they will assume you are cool. You will not, however, be a “soul brother.” E.S.O. will not give you swagger, an afro, dreadlocks, or an onion butt. E.S.O. won’t help you rap, play basketball, or ollie higher on your skateboard.
Side effects include, but are not limited to, suffering from an acute anxiety that dwarfs the usual discomfort you get when trying to read the air in normal social situations. People may keep asking you where you’re from, prompting you to say “planet Earth.” You will be stared at, objectified and marginalized. You will be compared to a talking ape. People seeking free English lessons who have a fetish for foreigners will want to take a picture with you. Every person you encounter will ask you “Why are you in Japan?” “Are you married?” “Is your wife Japanese?” “How did you meet your wife?” “How long have you been in Japan?” “What do you do?” “Where do you live?” and “What’s your email?” Keep in mind, they will not tell you anything about themselves. As soon as said questions are neatly answered to their liking, they will walk away. They will compliment you on how well you use chopsticks. And if you speak some level of Japanese, they will say, “You speak good Japanese,” which is tantamount to white Americans telling African Americans, “You speak so well.”
If you are not sure that E.S.O. is right for you, just watch everyone else and do the same thing. If you’re still not sure, you’re not Japanese. Call now while supplies last.
Before I came here, I was told that Japan is “The black man’s paradise.” We out here, but it’s 99% Japanese. Living that one-percent-life had me spending the first three years wondering whether I was madhouse-bound. Japan almost turnt me out like Ramsay Snow did Reek. Tokyo’s architecture could be remixed palm trees built by Majesticons as offerings, trying to get right with their Infesticonian brethren. The ancient wooden temples scattered throughout this island are cowrie shells and sand dollars. The boardwalks are surreal woodblock prints by Japan’s original masters that still influence the world. Humanity is the ocean, swirling its colors until they bleed into each other, eating away at those presumptuous spaces that numb empathy and denounce cultural differences. Beautiful women stroll to the beat of the folding waves. The eye in the sky is the almighty sun, bringing light to the coldest of shivering hearts blinded by darkness. Here, God is more prone to stab me with a hand-thrown thunderbolt, than a cop’s bullet is to put me down. Still, even in paradise, the same rule applies in Japan as it does in America: White is right, but if you’re black get back.
Tracy Jones is an aging skateboarder, born-again human, wanna-be photographer, recovering mind reader, and a self-published author of two books of poetry: I Think Therefore I Am and still breathing…. Winner of The Bill Gates Millennium Scholarship, he graduated from SUNY Purchase College with a BA in Creative Writing. As a freelance writer, he’s written for Mugshot, Hi-Fructose, Alarm Press, Dig In, Intouch, Tokyo Art Beat, Metro Pop, Under Pressure, and Stark Life Magazine. Originally from Orlando, Florida, he lives in Tokyo with his wife and daughter.
Image credit: Peter Adamyan, Blackface Barbie Minstrel Show; used with permission of the author.