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Halloween unmasks our troubled history with race

Halloween is one of America’s favorite yearly activities. Unfortunately, Halloween can be America’s scariest, too – especially for those of us seen as costumes you wear rather than the human beings that we are. Asian Americans, Native Americans, blacks, and Muslim women in burqas, hijabs, and Muslim men in turbans with beards are frequent targets of race-themed costumes. Whites donning blackface is commonly accepted misbehavior that dates back long before it was disclosed months ago that the present Virginia governor, Ralph Northam, once went in blackface as Michael Jackson in the 1980s. With anti-immigration sentiment toward Mexicans evident with the mass shooting in El Paso, there will be some Halloween revelers mocking this racial group. However, those not intended to mock or to mimic yet dress up in Mexican serape and hat or in the “Little Mexican Amigo Toddler Costume” sold on Amazon will hit racial landmines, too.

We are a country that doesn’t want to confront race. Halloween, an activity that’s masked with tricks and treats and playful mischief, ironically unmasks the face of America’s troubled history with race.

It’s hard not to make the connection with contemporary topics, themes, and people trending in news and culture to Halloween costumes worn that year. For example, a year after Trayvon Martin’s murder, a rash of Trayvon Martin Halloween costumes appeared with white people wearing hoodies, carrying Skittles, and sporting gunshot wounds. That same year, in 2013, Julianne Hough, a judge on ABC’s DANCING WITH THE STARS, wore blackface as her favorite character Crazy Eyes in the Netflix hit “Orange Is the New Black” for Halloween. Award-winning Nigerian American actress Uzo Aduba portrays the character Crazy Eyes.

This year we see Halloween decorations of lynching across the country. In Chesapeake, Virginia, a figure was found wrapped in black trash bags hanging from a tree. In Brooklyn, a Halloween decoration displayed children hanging from nooses. Now gone, the display was across the street from an elementary school. Here in Andover, MA, just a 30-minute drive from my home in Cambridge, a McDonald’s apologized for a Halloween decoration displaying a person hanging from a tree by the neck.

In this racial climate of a resurgence of white nationalism, it’s not hard to connect President Trump’s recent comment about lynching to some of the lynching-themed Halloween decorations popping up across the country. In a tweet, Trump compared the House’s impeachment inquiry into him to a lynching.

“So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching. But we will WIN!”, Trump tweeted.

The horrific act of lynching is a form of domestic terrorism and social control. Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American male teen lynched in the Mississippi Delta in the summer of 1955, became this nation’s iconic image of the cowardice acts of white supremacist terrorism. In 2018 the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (informally known as the National Lynching Memorial) opened to commemorate the thousands of recorded black bodies lynched in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Trump’s use of the racial trope essentializes and erases the particular history and context of black struggle in America. Our present-day fight is to pass legislation to make the act of lynching a federal hate crime in this century. Also, in this climate to “Make America Great Again,” Trump’s use of the racial trope of lynching sadly might encourage some to taunt, jeer, frighten, and even act violently toward non-white, non- Christian and LGBTQ+ Americans.

Even with the best intentions, Halloween hangings displaying the act of lynching ought not to bring joy or laughter-whether intended to cause harm or not. Danyn Rose just recently learned this lesson. Rose’s home window display of brown cut out paper dolls hanging by their neck immediately prompted community outrage and protest. Rose, the co-director of ArtShack Brooklyn, who recently resigned from her post, offered the following apology:

“The images were based on the horror movie Annabelle, but because they were made of brown kraft paper and hanging from nooses, they were deeply racially offensive… I understand that ignorance is no excuse and apologies are not enough, but nonetheless I want to apologize sincerely to my neighbors and community.”

Some feel Halloween no longer brings joy and laughter in a “woke” culture where the tyranny of political correctness and identity politics police behavior. However, if you feel you’re rocking your Halloween outfit instead of mocking an ethnic group or cultural practice, please keep these thoughts in mind: wearing the traditional clothing of another culture is not a costume. Donning “blackface” is not a mask. Dressing as a homeless person isn’t funny. Adopting someone else’s dialect for the evening is not cool. Purchasing the “Disguise Women’s Dragon Geisha Costume” from Amazon is not okay.

Halloween is a Celtic festival. People lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts. We can do the same without dredging up the ghosts of America’s racism.

Listen to Rev. Irene Monroe’s Bi-weekly Podcast All Rev’d Up here.

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