Disclaimer: DC, please don’t sue me! I’m just a nerd with a keyboard.
Whenever I tell people that I’m writing a story with a main character who’s a Black kid in blackface, the reaction is understandably confused, and a little angry.
Please don’t misunderstand, I do not condone blackface. Not even when Zoe Saldana did it.
This story is not a celebration of blackface nor is it a justification. Everything this story comes from me asking myself, “What if the Joker was Black?”
When the news about the Three Jokers first broke, I was ecstatic. Not only was it a great way to resolve the character’s changes, but it also reintroduced the idea that the Joker could be anyone! “The Joker’s not gay!” exclaimed enraged hetero parents at Lego Batman. Now I can say, “Oh yeah, which Joker isn’t gay? There’s three of them you know.” And if anyone ever talks about casting a non-white man as the Joker and it gets backlash, we can go “There are three different Jokers, of course at least one of them isn’t white!”
When I realized that latter point, I started thinking about what a Black Joker would be like. I realized almost immediately that I didn’t like the idea. The Joker’s entire philosophy is something that I don’t think really speaks to the experience of the majority of Black people. The Joker’s cosmic level nihilism is predicated on absolutely nothing, as evidenced by his fabrication of different origin stories meant to justify his rage. While The Killing Joke brings us as close as ever to an official origin for him, that is the origin of one interpretation of the Joker.
I started thinking of the Joker’s essential themes and essence. I asked myself “at the end of the day, what is the Joker?” The Joker is a Trickster much like Buggs Bunny, who challenges our social customs and expectations. But the Joker uses these challenges to distort all aspects of reality which we take for granted into something monstrous. He believes that in chaos, a story may continue. His chaos is necessary for Batman to exist, and as long as there is a Batman there will be ten thousand Jokers, or at least one. Ultimately, the Joker sees reality and our commitment to it as evidence of the greatest cosmic joke ever. The logic of the joke is something known only to him, and he doesn’t bother explaining it to people because he knows they’d never understand. To the Joker, we’re all just trying to walk across bridges made from flashlight beams.
The reason I don’t think the Joker’s character works for the average Black man is due to how unfocused his critiques are. The Joker finds the world and society hilarious, but rarely states any specific aspect he finds more reprehensible than others. I think this is because the Joker’s character has always been treated as race-neutral, ie white, by the writers. He doesn’t have a generational trauma to look back on. He doesn’t have anything by which people routinely discriminate against him. He’s depicted as poor in some of his origin stories, but even then he doesn’t specify whether he blames that on the rich, the government, or the economic system as a whole. He isn’t even recognized as crazy unless he absolutely wants to be. The political neutrality works for the Joker, but I don’t really believe it can work with anyone of a demographic who’s very existence is politicized. Or, at least, it can’t work in any capacity that I would still consider representation.
Minstrel is the exact opposite of the Joker. He hates society, but he has the context necessary to identify which aspect of society bothers him the most: racism and white supremacy. Minstrel’s nihilism isn’t based on ersatz traumas concocted for jokes, but is instead based on real, identifiable generational and personal traumas that shape his identity. The Minstrel is the Minstrel because of the Rape of Africa, Slavery, Jim Crow, the Black Wallstreet Massacre, the Fred Hampton Murder, poverty in Haiti, mass incarceration, the AIDS epidemic, the manufactured crack epidemic, COINTELPRO, and every atrocity to befall Black people because we are Black. His nihilism is based on the surreal feeling when rage meets dejection as one realizes that there is little they can do as an individual to prevent a slow genocide against their people, and the fury that inspires them to do whatever they can.
Minstrel is the living embodiment of the old tale of the enslaved man who dies, discovers that God and St. Peter do not admit Negroes, and decides to sneak in to heaven and have as much destructive fun as he can. Minstrel is the Flying Fool who woke up and said “fuck it” then continued on his mad, mad day.
Blackface is often treated as a tool of humiliation and shame, but I and Minstrel see it differently. With Blackface, the white society was attempting to take what they fear about Black people and make it something they could mock. The ‘simple mindedness’ was a stand-in for our supposed animalistic, violent natures. The physical features of the minstrel and his friends (Sambo, Nat, Sapphire, Jemima, Rastuss, etc) evoked every physical feature we actually had, which they feared. Our dark skin scared them, so they made it darker. Our big lips scared them, so they made them bigger and gave them sinister smiles. They feared that we didn’t have souls, so they gave us large, expressionless eyes. They feared our sheer numbers and their inability to recognize us, so they gave us nondescript faces that blended together. Through the minstrel show, white society allowed itself the opportunity to “reclaim” power over their basic fears.
Why does Minstrel wear Blackface? Because he wants to draw on that fear and weaponize it for Black people. The Joker terrifies people to laugh at what a joke the world is. Minstrel believes that hate crimes can only be deterred through fear.
Yet at the same time, it’s ridiculous that such features are seen as fearful in the first place. Hell yeah, I’m black! My hair is curly, my nose is broad, and niggas can’t see me at night! On some days, I think it’s beautiful. On some days, I think it’s just a fact of my appearance, and that placing such notions of aesthetics, whether positive or negative, is more unhealthy than anything. It still reinforces the idea that something has to be beautiful in the first place. On other days, I think it makes me sexy. It’s nonsensical, but I understand it. This is the Minstrel’s ultimate joke: the paradoxical notion that to be Black is beautiful while simultaneously understanding that we shouldn’t have to be beautiful in the first place. And also feeling sexy sometimes. It makes him laugh. And in those manic moments in which I’m reminded that I should probably see a therapist, it makes me laugh too. It makes me laugh like I’m a nameless man that just read a letter he wasn’t meant to open.
That’s all I’m trying to do with this series. I think that all too often Black media chooses to respond to our struggle as something that’s either so emotional that many people stop consuming it because they can’t handle the intensity, or it removes all context and gives meaningless comedy that doesn’t address the issues at all. I don’t want to make people feel so bad that they’re emotionally shattered, but I also don’t want to make people laugh at jokes that don’t mean anything. I want people to be somewhere in the middle.
Also, I just really love the Batman/Joker dynamic.
Thanks for reading this long essay. Unfortunately that’s all I can think to say on the issue right now. I know this story may not be received as I want it to, but I just wanted to explain my reasoning first. If it sounds like something you’re still interested in, go ahead and look at the next chapter. Trigger warnings for murder, violence, and racial violence all throughout. There’s also a few allusions to sexual abuse, but never graphic scenes (such descriptions of sexual trauma goes against my personal philosophy).
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