Political Satire… or a State-funded Minstrel Show?

A rodeo clown by the name of Terry Gessling (right) dawns a mask intended to be a caricature of President Barack Obama.
A rodeo clown by the name of Terry Gessling (right) dawns a mask intended to be a caricature of U.S. President Barack Obama.

Everything seemed to be going well and according to plan as the annual Missouri State Fair neared its end on the evening of Saturday, August 10, 2013. The Fair, along with the State Rodeo organized and held in the small town of Sedalia right in the heart of Missouri, is a timely tradition touted as a place for families to bring their kids and enjoy family-oriented activities, and for the most part this year’s festivities honored that tradition. By the final night, there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary that many people would find objectionable (*). That all changed, however, with the sudden announcement of a very “special guest” appearance that the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association had managed to get lined up for the final main bull-riding event, a guest who who would elicit quite a spirited response from this evening’s audience.

One of the witnesses to the evening’s event, an event partially funded by Missouri taxpayers to the tune of $558,000, was a 48-year old Higginsville resident named Perry Beam. Beam and his wife had brought along with them a young foreign exchange student on a visit from his home country of Taiwan, thinking it would be nice for the young student to be able to indulge in a bit of Americana the way Missourians often do. All three were in the audience when, according to Beam, “as they were bringing the bulls into the chute and were prepping them… they [brought] out what looks like a dummy.” As the so-called “dummy” approached, an announcer named Mark Ficken who, in addition to being president of the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association (the event’s organizer) is the superintendent of the Boonville School District, asked the crowd if they’d yet laid eyes upon their “famous helper for tonight.” Once the special guest’s face emerged and was in clear view of the audience, the crowd immediately “recognized” him and lit up with excitement at the sight of what was an apparent mockery of the current president the United States, Barack Obama. Upon seeing their reaction, a second announcer announced, “Here’s our Obama dummy, or our dummy of Obama.” This “Obama dummy” was none other than a white man with the rather unfortunate name of ‘Tuffy’ Gessling (who has since apologized, albeit insincerely, via Facebook) donning a black mask meant as a caricature of President Obama, with the rather odd addition of an upside-down broom dangling from his backside.

An actual pre-Civil War photograph of a white actor decked out in 'black face' makeup during the early days of the popular racist Minstrel Shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
An actual pre-Civil War photograph of a white actor decked out in ‘black face’ makeup during the early days of the popular racist Minstrel Shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

While political caricatures, satire and comedy is a timeless tradition and can often be quite enjoyable, this particular ‘Obama mask’ has for some conjured up images of the once-popular blackface minstrel shows – a crude and insulting form of American “entertainment” the United States would rather the world simply forgot. In the earliest days of these performances during the 1830’s,  white male actors would paint their faces black using burnt-cork, proceeding to act out sketches before live audiences in which they incorporated the deeply-held negative stereotypes widely attributed to Black people during that era, stereotypes that white people themselves had in fact concocted. (Neither men, women or little children were spared from the cruel, nasty, racist forms of ridicule which white people called “humor”.) Eventually, as theater progressed, female performers as well as Black performers were allowed to don the ‘blackface’ and offer their take on Black stereotypes. (**) It is an indisputable fact that ‘blackface’ minstrelsy was by far the most popular form of American entertainment for an entire century, spanning from the early 19th century to the early 20th. It has the distinction of being the “first distinctly American form of musical theater”, and the practice was not fully, for all intents and purposes, stigmatized as being wrong and racist until the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. It is from the era of the popular Minstrel show that many if not most of the derogatory stereotypes used against Black people in this century can be directly traced back to.

rodeo-clownIn the case of the ‘Obama-mask’ worn by the white Missouri State Fair rodeo clown, it had several features that were reminiscent of the original image of blackface minstrelsy, not least of which were the exaggerated lips superimposed on an abnormally large mouth; features which in reality bear little resemblance to the real Barack Obama. To those present in the audience, however, the non-resemblance the mask’s features bear with President Obama’s matters very little, for they paint all African Americans with the same brush, and the President of the United States, his wife and family are no exception. This was made abundantly clear when, in what was perhaps the most offensive part of the entire hillbilly extravaganza, a second unidentified rodeo clown approached the clown wearing the Obama mask and, after pretending to tickle him, started “fiddling with the lips on the mask”; an unfortunate sight which sent the crowd into roaring waves of approval. Perry Beam would later say that “it was at that point I began to feel a sense of fear. It was that level of enthusiasm.” Afterwards, one of the announcers, possibly Ficken, repeatedly demanded to know of the crowd whether or not they’d like “to see Obama get trampled over by a bull,” and each time they’d answer euphorically, “Yes!!” “The crowd went absolutely nuts,” screaming with thrill and excitement. Beam reported that “they mentioned the President’s name, I don’t know, 100 times. It was sickening. It was a feeling like some kind of Klan rally you’d see on TV.” Videos from the event seem to lend support to his testimony:

As is typically the case with such crass events, grown men are seen jumping on and intentionally angering a poor, helpless bull that has been removed (i.e. kidnapped) from its own natural habitat in order that these men can profit from this absurd form of “entertainment” they call “rodeo.” As they rile the bull up, one of the announcers taunts the man in the “Obama” mask, shouting, “We’re gonna smoke Obama, man. Are you ready?! Obama, they’re coming for you this time… Don’t you move! He’s gonna get ya!” He can barely contain his childish sense of glee at the sight of the fake Obama getting chased down by an angry bull; his voice becoming noticeably more high-pitched and annoying as he tells “Obama” to “watch out for the little feller.” (“little feller” being the bull) “Obama, he’s gonna git, git, git cha!!!”

Beam and his companions had had enough and left the evening “in disgust.” Not long afterward he posted a picture he had taken from the Rodeo of the ‘Obama’ impersonator to his Facebook page, expressing his disappointment adding, “If an old country boy picks up on something like that, imagine what a person of color would think.” While Tuffy Gessling, the clown who wore the Obama mask, has reportedly been ‘banned’ from taking part in any further Missouri State Fair performances, he has become a cause celebre among Tea Party Republicans in the state of Texas. As for the young foreign exchange student visiting from Taiwan, he will certainly be in no shortage of stories to share about the “good ol’ American traditions” he learned about during his stay in Missouri!    

teabaggerIncidents such as what happened at the State Fair, far from happening in a vacuum, are a regular occurrence in just about every region of the nation and have been ever since Senator Barack Obama (IL) first announced his intention to campaign for his party’s presidential nomination back in 2007. (All of this will be chronicled in an upcoming series of articles titled it’s Hard to talk when you’re Tea-bagging: a look back at 5 years of right-wing protesting.) It was only a few short weeks ago that a group of conservative activists, widely known as the ‘tea party’ activists, showed up outside the Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, Arizona where the POTUS was scheduled to speak in order that they might protest his arrival. They were not the only activists who showed up, however. There were activists protesting for and against just about every cause imaginable – from climate change to the War on Drugs, drone strikes to government spying programs, health care benefits to capital punishment – all of which are completely legitimate causes of concern. Make no mistake about it – there is absolutely nothing wrong with protesting against, criticizing or disagreeing with the President of the United States. In fact, it is quite necessary to do so. For the Office of the presidency, regardless of who may hold it at any particular moment in time, is as a matter of fact a representative of Western Imperial Might and all the capitalistic objectives that come along with it. The Democratic and Republican parties may disagree on many, often trivial things. But the expansion of U.S. Imperial Power isn’t one of them. On this they are virtuously in unanimous agreement, as the nation has for more than half-a-century been in a state of constant warfare whether it be President Bush (R) or President Clinton (D) who is in Office. By the same token, it is completely disingenuous for people to suggest that somehow President Obama has somehow been any less “tough on terror” or any less war-like than all the white presidents who’ve come before him. Speaking strictly in terms of policy, there aren’t many notable differences between President Barack Obama and former-President Bill Clinton. While it can be taken for granted that Republicans are usually war-hawks and borderline-fascists, the Democrats, specifically the two most recent presidents to hail from the Party, weren’t exactly Marxist revolutionaries either (contrary to what right-wing rhetoric might suggest). And so it has been that Obama, like every president before him, is beholden to wealthy, powerful corporate interest groups whose wants come well before the needs of average poor and working Americans. He likely never could have been elected President otherwise. That truth, however unfortunate it may be, makes it all the more interesting that these ultra-right-wing conservatives have opposed Barack Obama’s presidency with such an unprecedented amount of venom and animosity; in larger numbers perhaps than they’ve ever protested anything in their lives before. The “tea partiers”, or Tea-baggers as they are known in some circles, have come up with some of the most incredibly absurd conspiracy theories during Obama’s time in office, and as of yet facts haven’t been enough to convince them their these theories cannot logically be true (preeminent among them are theories which suggest that the President was secretly birthed in Kenya, or that he is a ‘secretly-planted Muslim’). The thing that sets the Tea party movement from the rest of the legitimate activist movements, of course, is that it isn’t at all clear what policy measures they are actually unhappy with, or if they can name them they usually fail to identify what it is about those measures they find so objectionable. Often times it just takes a little reading between the lines of what they say to discover what’s really motivating them to finally feel genuine anger at their oppressive government, and it has little to do with the president or his party’s political agenda. It is beyond evident, given all that we’ve seen during the past five years, that what the Tea-baggers are actually protesting against is the particular shade of the face of the man currently occupying the powerful office of the presidency – a face that simply isn’t pale enough to their liking. For a demonstration of this, we need look no further than the actions and words of the Tea party protesters who attended the August 8th demonstrations in Phoenix.

A racist Tea-bagger holds a sign telling Obama to "go back to Kenya!"
A racist Tea-bagger holds a sign telling Obama to “go back to Kenya!”

Among the different factions who appeared that day, the line between political Left and Right was quite visibly drawn early on during the day, with Tea-baggers lining up on one side of the street and the rest of the crowd on the other. At one point the Tea-baggers joined together in a unified chorus, singing the lyrics to “Bye Bye Black Sheep”, making a not-so-thinly veiled reference to President Obama’s skin-tone. Others carried signs containing slogans such as “Impeach the Half-White Muslim!” or “Go Back to Kenya!” One young student barely 17 years of age lashed out at what she perceived as “the race card” being constantly trumped out by the President and his followers. Furthermore, she proclaimed that “Obama is ruining American values… He needs to go back where he came from because obviously, he’s a liar… I am not racist. I am part Indian. Obama’s half-Black, half-White.” A far older man, a former U.S. marine who’s lived to see the elderly age of 77, said he feels absolutely “ashamed” that his grandson, who is currently serving in the U.S. military, has to serve at the same time a “47 percent Negro” is the Commander-in-Chief. Judy Burris, a woman in her mid 40’s who was also present at the event, says that any racism having arisen as of late must be placed solely at the feet of the President himself, whom she accuses of having been purposely “inciting racism” all over the country. “We have gone back so many years,” she remarked, unable to hold back her intense feelings of bitterness. “He’s divided all the races. I hate him for that!”

Liberal and conservative protesters who rallied in front a high school in Phoenix, AZ where President Obama was to make an appearance don't exactly see eye-to-eye.
Liberal and conservative protesters who rallied in front a high school in Phoenix, AZ where President Obama was scheduled for an appearance don’t exactly see eye-to-eye.

Let me make it abundantly clear one more time. President Obama, far from being some Leftist Revolutionary and even further from being the socialist anti-capitalist crusader for Civil Rights and champion of Black Power that his most hostile opponents have attempted to paint him as, has been an extraordinarily pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist president. (Don’t believe me? How could Wall Street be raking in record profits if there were a truly “socialist” president in office for the past five years?! So much for the supposed “anti-capitalist” bogeyman trotted out by Fox ‘News’!) That his opponents could even attribute such characteristics to his presidency in light of his actual policies is simply further testament to how deeply entrenched their personal prejudices truly are. For Leftists such as myself, it is important that however much we may disagree with the President and are critical of his blatant disregard for human rights overseas (drone strikes in Yemen anyone?), this does not mean we should remain silent or sit idly by when these apparent racists hurl lines of attack against the POTUS. When it comes to matters of human rights and full racial equality, it is possible to vehemently oppose certain policies and executive orders enacted by the President (whether they be the use of drone attacks to destroy the lives of Yemeni civilians or NATO-backed coups in Libya and Syria) while at the same time recognizing right-wing racism against Obama for what it is. It shouldn’t be the case that one moral outrage is necessarily tolerated at the expense of another.



* That is of course if we are to simply ignore the cruel barbarity that is imposed upon the animals used in these shows, animals who are forcefully taken from their natural habitat and used for the purpose of providing “entertainment” for human visitors, but that’s a topic for a different conversation entirely.

** In a bitter twist of sick irony, once theaters finally started opening their doors to the talents of Black actors and actresses, they were to be cast in roles meant to caricature and demean themselves. The Black actor, so the established thinking of the late 19th/early 20th century went, could bring more ‘authenticity’ to the white man’s fantasized image of the Black man than any white actor could, so it was said.

3 thoughts

  1. I am glad I found your blog and you can be assured I will be consulting it often for inspiration for articles for my own blog. Thanks for sharing.
    Respectfully yours, John. (American Liberal Times.)

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