The Privileged Elitist Who Saw Blackface, Not Black Lung
The other day, a Facebook friend shared a photo -- and an article about the photo. The photo, a vintage item that looks as if it might date back as much as a hundred years, shows a group of white coal miners, their faces black with soot, standing at a bar, presumably at the end of a workday, and enjoying a round of beers together. The soot on their faces testifies to a long day of toil, in fact a lifetime of thankless, underpaid, backbreaking toil, far beneath the surface of the earth, which they performed in order to support their loved ones, some of them doubtless contracting respiratory ailments that shortened their lives.
Yet despite their hardship -- a degree of hardship that is barely imaginable to most people living in the Western world nowadays -- the expressions on the miners’ faces are cheerful. They’re enjoying their refreshments and one another’s company. They aren’t looking around for something to complain about. They’re making the most of this brief respite from their labors.
The photo, which hangs in a restaurant in downtown Phoenix, was reproduced on January 28 at AZ Central, the website of the Arizona Republic, that state’s largest newspaper. The accompanying article, by one Rashaad Thomas, was about his reaction to the photo, which he had noticed recently while attending a party at the restaurant.
Now, if you or I had been there and seen this photo, we might have regarded it as a small tribute to the quiet dedication of these men, as well as to other men like them, whose unsung labors contributed to the development of their nations’ economies. But Thomas, a black man, saw the picture differently. It made him angry -- so angry that he spoke to one of the restaurant owners, a white man, and “explained to him why the photograph was offensive.”
To Thomas, you see, the men looked as if they were in blackface. It reminded him of the racist 1915 movie Birth of a Nation, “in which white actors appeared in blackface.” The restaurant owner, by contrast, “saw coal miners in the photograph. Therefore, it was not offensive.”
Well, yes, the owner saw coal miners. Because it’s a picture of coal miners. But to Thomas, this was irrelevant. “The context of the photograph is not the issue,” he asserts. “That photo tells me I'm not welcome.” To Thomas, “the photograph of men in blackface” (notice how these miners, grimy from a hard day’s work, are now “men in blackface,” as if they were deliberately out to insult black people) represented “a threat to me.” The soot on their faces, Thomas writes, “culturally says to me, ‘Whites Only.’ It says people like me are not welcome.” Thomas maintains that “the photograph should be taken down -- sacrificing one image for the greater good.”