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I have a scene that I'm working on. The character in the scene is an actor who's black wearing a black face. At the end of the scene I have him wiping the makeup and resolving not to wear it again. Here is the closing paragraph.

Things were bubbling inside of him. Bizarre feelings that he shouldn't have. Feelings that belonged to a figment of an imagination. The image staring back at him was studying him and he thought he caught a glimpse of an expression of contempt. He closed his eyes shut trying to squeeze out the copious amounts of tears that refused to oblige earlier and were now flowing unhindered. He heaved a breath in, trying to avoid deteriorating into a sobbing fit. He didn't know what was happening to him. This was not the pain from the cigarette burn. This emotion overtaking him now was something else. Something much deeper. He felt betrayal. Moses felt betrayal. The actor picked up a cleaning cloth, wiping the tarnish from his face, vowing not to hide his true face ever again.

Notes:

  • Moses is the name of the character the actor is playing.
  • I wrote the last few sentences, shown in italic, are for the sake of this question. They may not be in the final piece.
  • Clarification: It appears that my original question didn't clarify my intentions for the scene well enough. The time period is early 1900s. The place somewhere on the East Coast (I'm considering Philadelphia). The Actor (MC) is black. Wears a blackface makeup. This behavior is historically accurate. Black entertainers used to wear blackface to meet the expectations of the audience and requirements of the industry. Bert Williams, one of the most prominent black performers at the time wore blackface makeup often.

The question is: how to reveal the fact that The Actor is black at the end? I hint at his true race to the reader by building up conflicting emotions within the MC. I hope I confirm their suspicions at the end in a surprising but "makes sense" kind of way.

  • By "blackface" you mean stereotypical offensive makeup, or just a dark colored makeup coordinated with actor's skin color? – Alexander Jan 13 at 23:33
  • Yes. My MC is a theater actor in the earlier years of the last century. He is black, and the play producer has required him to put on a blackface makeup in spite of it. – iamtowrite Jan 14 at 2:12
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    @hszmv Your response is historically inaccurate. Many black performers did in fact perform in blackface: exhibits.lib.usf.edu/exhibits/show/minstrelsy/jimcrow-to-jolson/… The tenor of the times was such that for black performers to appear in front of white audiences, they needed to be not just black, but visibly in alignment with the racist stereotypes of the time. – Chris Sunami Jan 14 at 17:00
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    @hszmv - I think you're misreading the question. The OP is talking about hiding the actor's true racial identity from the reader not the audience (of the blackface performance). You're assuming that the purpose of blackface was to hide identity, when it was actually to establish a stereotyped persona --similar, in some ways, to the white-faced clowning of commedia del'arte. You seem incredulous about the idea of black performers in blackface. Are you similarly disbelieving of white performers in whiteface? – Chris Sunami Jan 14 at 17:34
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    The OP here. I think @ChrisSunami got my intention right. My intention is to hide the The Actor's true racial identity from the reader. Additionally, I reiterate what Chris has stated. Historically, black entertainers wore black faces to align with what the audience used to expect and what the industry required of them. My piece is trying to record the conflicts within a black actor studying his reflection in the mirror wearing a blackface. – iamtowrite Jan 14 at 18:11
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It's often clumsy and artificial for a character to make references to their own race in a first-person or limited-third-person narrative, because most people don't often actively think about the color of their own skins, unless some situation forces them to. But you're depicting a situation in which almost anyone would be forced to ponder their own race, so it shouldn't actually be that difficult to reference here.

This gives you a range of options about how to do it. He might contrast the ugliness of the makeup with the beauty of his own skin, or ponder the irony of having to dress up as a stereotyped version of what he actually is. He might rage at the fact that he can't "be seen" except behind the mask of the makeup, or that his culture can only be appreciated as appropriated and repackaged to meet racist expectations. He might wonder how many people in the audience knew they were watching an actual black person instead of a white performer in blackface, and what they felt about it.

There is no one right answer here. The direction you go should match your themes, message, and character development.

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First, drop a line about actor's dark complexion. This would serve as a hint, but not the actual plot twist yet.

Second, drop a "bomb" - a clear and unambiguous reveal of actor's race. I understand the complication here is that you have to write it from a limited 3rd person view. Also (I assume) it should happen in a scene when your character is alone in his room, so there is no one else to point out his race. Establishing the race descriptively (i.e. by skin color and other features) I feel would not be concise - you would need several sentences to make sure that the reader would understand it.

So, the "bomb" must be the character's own thought. I recommend two thoughts. One, the actor thinks of the audience as a racially distinct one, referring to them as "whites". Second, he reveals a memory or memento that quickly establishes himself as black - for example an old photograph of his grandparents, a freed slaves.

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Putting the race of the Actor doesn't fit in the paragraph that you show us. If you do put the race of the Actor, it would feel rushed and forced. You could put it in a different paragraph or you could just put it at the beginning of your story. (Sorry, that was vague. Sorry, if this isn't helpful.)

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You're sort of tricking the reader, inasmuch as you're subverting their assumption about the character. Whether or not it works lies entirely in the reveal, which could be as simple as merely stating at the end that he is a black man working in a minstrel show, perhaps after saying "the black gave way to brown" (or similar phrasing) as he removed his makeup.

However, be sure of your historical context here. Black actors did commonly perform in blackface minstrel shows without conflict. And minstrel show performers (white and black) used burnt cork to color their faces until greasepaint makeup was popularized in the early 1900s. A quick newspaper search turned up plenty of contemporary and later references. A black former minstrel interviewed in old age described wearing blackface--for whites as well as blacks--as "pure showmanship" and compared it to circus clown makeup.

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