As previously mentioned, my mother made most of my childhood Hallowe’en costumes. Among the various paper maché masks, painted bedsheets, and crafted horns, one costume stood out as a favorite. I don’t know how the idea came to me; it could have come from a cartoon, a Tarzan comic, a Hardy Boys book, or anything. I wanted to be a Witch Doctor.

A paper grocery bag was covered with newspaper and floured water to make a hard shell, and then painted with garish “tribal markings” in tempera paint. A dowel rod was painted black and had a plastic skull impaled on the end, with some beads inside to make it rattle menacingly. Chicken bones were soaked in vinegar for days to make them rubbery, then strung together on black thread for a necklace. A grass skirt was woven out of something, I don’t know what. (My mother was a genius at crafts, a skill I sorely lack.) And a set of long underwear, a pair of white socks, and a pair of white gloves went into the washing machine with boxes of brown RIT dye, to give me a removable chocolate brown skin.

Yes: I spent that Hallowe’en virtually in blackface, and it was one of the best costumes I ever had.

All I can offer in defense of my costume choice is that I truly didn’t know any better. In those days — and to a kid as divorced from reality as I was — there was no difference between the jungles of Africa and the jungles of Venus except that the latter seemed to have more dinosaurs. It was exotic, it was eerie, it had bones, and it would make a great mask. In the mid 1960s not even my progressive parents would have thought there was anything wrong with that, although I do remember some otherwise inexplicable laughter coming from certain neighborhood adults, but it was Hallowe’en. Why make a big deal out of it?

Off I went, shaking my rattle, shouting gibberish, and collecting a sack full of Mary Janes and peanut butter taffy.

Vintage Hallowe'en makeup
Warning: Not for use in Arizona.

This is actual vintage Hallowe’en make-up from the 1950s: Spook; Indian; Chinese; Minstrel/Zulu; Mexican. Somehow I’ve ended up with a full display box full of these packages of “professional character make-up,” unopened. It’s really pretty horrifying to modern sensibilities, but back then it wasn’t uncommon for people to dress up their kids as any number of racial stereotypes. In fact, one of the most common non-monster costumes of the era was the Hobo: take off your shoes, put on a set of worn out clothes, rub some burnt cork around your mouth for a beard, tie a bandanna to the end of an old broom handle, and you were ready to go. Of course, today it’s more difficult to imagine dressing your kids up as homeless people for the holiday; it hits a little too close to the mark.

Actually, these are not for use anywhere outside of a Klan rally
Actually, not for use anywhere but a Klan party.

It is sometimes argued that those were simpler days. It’s true — it’s always simpler to be a racist than to look at people as individuals, or to recognize that cultures other than your own have intrinsic value. Doing the right thing doesn’t need to be easy, though. It just needs to be right.

For what it is worth, I wish I hadn’t asked for that costume back when I was seven. I wish I’d known better back then.

I wish more people knew better today.

[Photos by Scott Branch. Vintage racist make-up from the author’s collection.]

31 Days: Update 1

Vintage Hallowe'en postcard

We ran into a bit of trouble with the direct feed for the Hallowe’en project, but I think it’s worked out now. Just in case you ran into the same problems others did, here are days 1–4.

  1. The Cat With Hands (video)
  2. Why Hallowe’en? (essay)
  3. Skeleton Dance (video)
  4. The Blair Witch Project (review/essay)

Some non-Hallowe’en programming is also coming soon. No, seriously, I promise.