A couple of months ago, The Bert Show brought up a question that sparked a lot of controversy: whether or not Bert’s oldest son, 9-year-old Hayden, should wear brown makeup while portraying Muhammad Ali for class.
Hayden was doing a “Great Americans” project for school, and out of a list of greats like John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, et al., he picked Muhammad Ali. The goal of the project was to have students dress up like the icon they picked and give a presentation, and Hayden wanted to go all out…including changing his skin color to make his portrayal more accurate.
This incited a massive debate in the community, touching on hyper-sensitive and historical topics like Black Face, Minstrels Shows, racial equality in current climes, and even the idea of intent versus impact (while your intent when you do something might be pure and good, it’s the ending impact it has on people that should matter).
And it didn’t stop on-air; hundreds and hundreds of comments representing both sides were left online:
As other Atlanta stations begin to pick up and discuss the debate of brown make-up and historical black face, emotions started to run really high. Is it racist? Is it just a student wanting to accurately portray an American hero? Is it a gray area that should be avoided at all costs? Or should we move past racial boundaries?
White privilege and the argument of intent vs. impact come into play, and the latter resonates with the cast. Should you go through with something if it might hurt some people, even if you mean well and want to break down barriers?
As fate would have it, Bert has a friend who attended Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday party in Kentucky. They agreed to pass along a letter about the project and debate to Muhammad Ali, so that Bert and his family can get an answer from the source of Hayden’s presentation. The letter:
The Letter to Muhammad Ali
“Dear Mr. Ali,
First. My family and I wish you the happiest of birthdays.
I was hoping to get your opinion on what has become a very controversial subject in my community. My 9-year-old son was given an assignment to do a class biography on a “Great American.” The list his teacher gave him to choose from included names like George Washington, Abe Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and yours. He selected you.
I couldn’t have been more thrilled. Your life exemplifies so many things that my son can learn from; living life with your own truth, your pursuit of education, the way you challenge yourself, the way you have lived your life with love and the pride you exhibit in your unbending passion about your race and faith. All beautiful lessons that he can pull from your life.
He wants to present his biography “as” Muhammad Ali. His idea was to wear a boxing robe and boxing gloves and also wanted to apply brown make up to his Caucasian face to accurately portray your skin color. The idea initially made me flinch because I understand how demeaning, insulting and damaging that minstrels and blackface performances were to an entire race of people.
But to my 9 year old this isn’t a demeaning or an insulting act at all. My son wants to accurately portray you and honor you. You have such great pride in your color and faith that you lost four years of championship, almost went to jail and were publicly ridiculed for your decision. You spent your life fighting for equality.
Considering the racial history of our country couldn’t we point to true change when a 9-year-old Caucasian boy pridefully applies dark make up to his face to make him look black? Unheard of just 50 years ago.
Or is the minstrel and blackface history so damaging and so hurtful that any connection at all to it’s history will be considered insulting in a way that a white family can’t truly understand but simply must respect?
It is an honor to know that you simply looked at this letter. My sincerest hope is that you don’t find it insulting and understand that I send it in hopes of better educating my son and myself.
A response that I could share with my son would be extraordinary but certainly not expected. Either way this will be a teachable moment for my family and one I would cherish if I could get your input.
With sincerest gratitude and respect,Bert Weiss”
Both Muhammad Ali and Mrs. Ali thought Hayden should be able to paint his face brown; in fact, they thought that the only thing offensive about it is that people were offended about it.
A lot of The Bert Show community disagree with this stance, and they don’t think that the Ali’s response should be seen as a blanket statement on the situation:
So, should Bert’s son wear brown make-up? Bert’s friend and trainer from The Biggest Loser, Dolvett Quince, weighs in:
Bert speaks to his friends about it off the air, and they delve a little deeper into the roots of the debate…
and why this debate resonates so strongly with so many:
After all of the debate that went on, Muhammad Ali himself has agreed to meet with Hayden.
A HUGE honor, Bert and his family meet Mr. Ali…and Hayden reads him his report and shows him the photos.
And to add on to that, Mrs. Ali tells Bert and Hayden that Hayden’s report will be displayed in his museum in Louisville!
Producer Carl, who weighed in heavily when the issue was first discussed, has some comments:
Bert Show listeners call in about the decision:
And some Bert Show listeners are still unhappy about the decision – one listener even said she was so sick listening to it all that she actually threw up.