The Trouble with Shirley

I spent part of the recent Martin Luther King Day holiday at Club Spirit on West 27th Street in Manhattan, not dancing my cares away, but standing with 50 other people in 20-degree weather. We were protesting yet another appearance of Shirley Q. Liquor, a character created by Charles Knipp, a white man from Mississippi who portrays an overweight, black mother of 19 children on welfare, in blackface. The appearance was promoted as part of a King Day celebration hosted by DJ Junior Vazquez. Knipp initially appeared in New York in 2002 to protests.

Representatives from the Audre Lorde Project, the New York State Black Gay Network, the South Asian Lesbian Gay Association and other organizations gathered at Club Spirit as part of the King Day protest and named Junior Vazquez the winner of the “Jesse Helms Award for Profiting from Racism and Misogyny on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.” Eventually club staff members emerged to inform us that Knipp had made a decision some time before not to travel to New York for the event. One staff person also suggested that we would be better off spending our energy in other ways than demonstrating.

Apart from that arrogance, the advice did spur me to think about why Knipp’s performance of Shirley Q. Liquor was important enough to devote part of a holiday standing in the cold to exercise my right to protest. Supporters of Knipp and his Shirley Q. Liquor act have accused protesters of infringing on Knipp’s rights to free-speech. They are correct that he has a right to say and perform in whatever manner he chooses, but exercising these free speech rights are not without their costs, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people who support Knipp seem to be unaware of those costs.

Blackface performances by white people have a historical context blithely ignored by supporters of Knipp. Blackface draws on a popular symbol used in stage performances in the United States since the 1830s as a tool to demean and distort the image of African Americans at a time when they did not have sufficient economic or political power to effectively counteract such racism. The 19th-century purveyors of these images recognized the power imbalance that existed between white people and African Americans and reveled in it. Crucially, the blackface images helped them to reaffirm their supremacy as white people and to reassert what they believed to be the degraded status of the African Americans whom they ridiculed. After the Civil War, at a time of widespread anxiety that the end of slavery might fundamentally upset a critical power dynamic in American society, affirmation of white supremacy became even more important.

A cottage industry eventually grew up propagating a range of “darkie” products that included household items, songs, theatrical pieces, as well as jokes. Charles Knipp has created Shirley Q. Liquor—with “darkie”-like products sold on his Web site—in the context of this legacy which cannot be ignored, explained away or excu

What is the cost of such a portrayal? I believe the cost is much greater than the indignant feelings of people within the people of color LGBT community and their allies who have been the most vocal protestors against Knipp. The LGBT community has recently framed its quest for same -sex marriage and other LGBT rights in the context of the African-American civil rights movement. To the distress of some in the LGBT community, some African Americans have responded to this framing by saying that there is no comparison. Some black leaders have even gone so far as to say that gay rights are not civil rights. I do not agree with them. I do not believe that African Americans or the civil rights movement have a monopoly on the discussion of rights or the extension of rights. But I do understand why some African Americans reached the conclusion that they have.

For many African Americans, their image of the LGBT community is one of privileged men, primarily white, who have no understanding of the historical and current obstacles faced by African Americans. As a black gay man, I know that this image is not accurate, but the fact that some in the LGBT community continue to support and defend the demeaning image of Shirley Q as presented by Charles Knipp has the potential to make it much more difficult to argue the case for the LGBT community to African Americans. As LGBT people attempt to form multi-racial coalitions to undertake work on critical issues, if the Shirley Q. character were to become known in the black press, the insensitivity seen in LGBT fans of the Shirley Q. character could diminish the LGBT community’s credibility on issues related to racism. This is the unaccounted cost to the LGBT community associated with Shirley Q.

If Charles Knipp has the right to portray Shirley Q. Liquor, why shouldn’t he do so? In answering this question, I would point to the recent uproar when Britain’s Prince Harry attended a costume party dressed in a Nazi uniform. While the offense occurred in Britain, U.S. citizens shared the dismay felt by most Britons. One may have the right to undertake a broad range of activities, but a consensus exists that some activities should not be pursued out of respect, such as making racial and ethnic insults. This consensus helps to maintain a community in which all groups, regardless of economic or political power, are treated with respect—that understanding is the root of a civil society. In its absence, the concerns of aggrieved parties fester as they seek ways to retaliate for humiliating and disrespectful acts, often acting through their frustration in violent ways. The world has long witnessed the results of indignities left unaddressed—in riots, pogroms and other violent acts of strife.

The core of the modern LGBT rights movement has been its aggressive advocacy for respect and fair treatment. In the last 35 years, the LGBT community has experienced success in the extension of anti-discrimination rights in many parts of the nation, and the consideration, even among opponents of the LGBT community, of civil unions to recognize life partnerships and families. It is ironic and troubling that some in the LGBT community, through their continued support of Charles Knipp’s portrayal of Shirley Q. Liquor, do not seem able to extend the respect that they seek for themselves to African Americans.

Kevin McGruder is the Craig G. Harris Fellow of the New York State Black Gay Network.