Under pressure, blackface shows canceled
by Jeffrey M. Johnson
Less than a week after being condemned by a gay rights organization as promoting "ugly racial stereotypes," a gay white man's blackface drag act has been canceled in New Orleans and Connecticut.
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation issued a statement last week condemning openly gay performer Charles Knipp and his character, Shirley Q. Liquor, whom Knipp describes as a welfare mother with 19 children from different fathers living in the Deep South. Knipp (pronounced "Kuh-nip"), a white man from Kentucky, performs the character in drag and blackface, usually in small venues across the country, mostly in the South.
Knipp's performance act, considered a throwback to the minstrel shows of the 1800s and early 1900s that portrayed black people in very stereotypical and disparaging ways, has long been controversial. His show has been the subject of protests across the country, often forcing his act underground at off-the-beaten path venues.
Knipp's character, Shirley Q. Liquor, speaks in a language littered with malapropisms and an unusual southern accent. She often asks, "How you durrin?" in what some people believe to be a derogatory, stereotyped voice that is a caricature of uneducated black women living in the Deep South.
Although Knipp has been quoted as saying, "My character, Shirley Q. Liquor, was created in celebration of, not to downgrade, black women," local activists disagree.
T. Kebo Drew of the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project and a Rickey Williams Leadership Fellow believes the show does exactly what Knipp says it doesn't â€“ it degrades black women. Drew told the Bay Area Reporter that she felt Knipp's portrayal was "not humanizing in any way" and "reinforces certain stereotypes to keep us separated."
"This is so painful to me, it makes me want to cry," said Drew, a queer black woman. "It's not an intellectual exercise for me, as a woman. It goes a little deeper than that. It causes pain."
For its part, GLAAD, which issued its statement during Black History Month, decided it was time to take a stand against Knipp's act. Marc McCarthy, senior director of communications, told the B.A.R. that the timing was right during the recent "cultural discussion about anti-gay prejudice" that began with the incidents involving actor Isaiah Washington, celebrity Paris Hilton, and the Snickers ad campaign. Washington publicly used the word "faggot"; Hilton used the word "faggot" and the n-word in an undated video making the rounds online; and the Snickers ad campaign launched during the Super Bowl was criticized as homophobic.
While acknowledging Knipp's right to free speech and expression, GLAAD President Neil G. Giuliano said in a statement that "we also have the right to condemn his performance and speak out against this harmful depiction."
GLAAD said it became involved in the issue after being contacted by community members. Activists in Los Angeles also protested a scheduled show that was subsequently canceled. Since its statement last week, Knipp's shows in Hartford, Connecticut, and New Orleans, Louisiana have been canceled. The New Orleans show was to have taken place this weekend, during Mardi Gras.
Knipp, critics speak
When contacted by the B.A.R., Knipp initially stated in an e-mail, "I don't really have any response to the GLAAD thing. Everyone's entitled to their opinion."
However, in a subsequent e-mail to the B.A.R. , Knipp said, "I have been so burned by the media lately ... Jesus. I wish I could send you my actual responses compared to what they've printed.
"I don't mind critics ... not scared of controversy," Knipp added. "I'm so glad black and white folk, especially the gay community, are finally getting the REAL discussion started. I'm glad to be the 'boogeyman' if Americans of various races will finally speak TRUTH to each other. This politically correct shit has done nothing but silence the conversation that black and white Americans have needed to have for WAY too long now."
The B.A.R. requested a phone interview but Knipp did not reply further.
It seems Knipp was right about one thing. A discussion has started, or has been re-started, by many members of the community.
Knipp has his supporters, as was evidenced by messages left on his MySpace page, which has now been shut down, but they have not been as vocal as his opponents. San Francisco resident Allen Baki, who met Knipp last year through a friend and attended Knipp's show in May 2006 in the South Bay, described the performance as "edgy," "hysterical," and "twisted." He likened the performance to the similarly shocking Divine.
Baki described Knipp's performance as an art form that "slaps you across the face and makes you look at it." But Baki, who is not African American, conceded that the rightness or wrongness of Knipp's performance is "really for the black community to decide."
Jasmyne Cannick, an African American lesbian who describes herself on her Web site as a "race and social issues critic," has been one of the most vocal opponents of Knipp's shows. She has spearheaded the campaign to shut him down through online petitions.
Cannick said in a statement that "Knipp's character, Shirley Q. Liquor, is racially offensive and demeaning to blacks everywhere. It's time to put an end to blackface minstrel shows for good, especially those that seek to promote negative stereotypes of blacks."
Cannick told the B.A.R. this week that although she knows Knipp's shows will probably still go on "underground," she is happy that some shows have been canceled.
Knipp said earlier this year that in spite of the character Shirley Q. Liquor not being politically correct, she is a hit with African Americans as well as Caucasians. "They're overwhelmingly positive," said Knipp. "It never occurred to me that doing Shirley Q. was in any way racist."
Zwazzi Sowo, who founded the Northern California Coalition of Black LGBT Freedom Fighters and also a Rickey Williams Leadership Fellow, told the B.A.R. that she believes there probably are black people who support Knipp's performance because "a lot of black people have internalized oppression." But, she said, that doesn't make it appropriate for people like Knipp to portray a character such as Shirley Q. Liquor because its "intentions are to offend and strike a funny bone" and Knipp is using his act as a "safe place to exercise his racism as a joke ...ï¿½ and it's not a joke."
LGBT and African American community leader Calvin Gipson had this to say: "I heard Shirley Q. on a RuPaul CD as I was driving with a friend ... I was laughing along until my friend told me that Shirley was not a black woman but a gay white male. I thought it was unusual but still got a laugh out of it, as we do with our drag queens, until I later learned that he performs in blackface, which is very offensive to me.
"Even though he claims to be performing from a place of respect and affection for the black community, to me it seems that it's inappropriate when he can wash off the black face and enjoy the privilege of being a white man in our society without fearing racism, discrimination, or being treated as lesser because of his race," Gipson said. "If he truly feels an affection for black people, he would not participate in offending them. He would stop."
It seems that Knipp has stopped, for now. What the future holds him remains to be seen. Some in the community believe the current media blitz will actually boost sales and promote Knipp and his act to even higher levels of celebrity, while others in the community believe, or hope, that he will be forced to shut down his act for good.