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Birth of An Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation

Nicholas Sammond, Author

This page was created by Patricia Hill.  The last update was by Alice Xue.

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Introduction, Page 16

Prior to "Christmas Attack Zone," Jane Krakowski's Jenna Maroney had appeared in blackface, in the 2008 30 Rock episode "Believe in the Stars," in which Jenna and Tracy Jordan (Morgan) compete to see who has it harder in the world, white women or black men. Tracy comes to work dressed as a white woman, in the style of the Wayans brothers' White Chicks (2004), wearing a blonde wig, white tights, white face makeup, with a monster claw on one hand. At the same time, Jenna arrives in full blackface, with an Afro wig and a suit from the 1970s, all while an overmedicated Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) hallucinates that a teenage girl she has met on a plane is Oprah Winfrey.

This episode uses blackface in an attempt to critique the deployment of identity as competitive victimhood, and parodying race blindness it through Lemon's racist inability to tell the difference between Oprah Winfrey and a teenage girl. The episode ends with Jenna and Tracey singing Bill Wither's famous R&B tune, "Lean On Me" to each other.

Traditional blackface made use of a white nostalgia for simpler times and racial relations; here that nostalgia is treated ironically...but not necessarily unproblematically. This episode poses a provocative question: If you perform racist behaviors and stereotypes in order to demonstrate their absurdity, do you deflate them or invest them with new life? Is the comic depiction of racism itself racist?


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