On the humid South Mississippi mornings when my father drove me to elementary school, Shirley Q. Liquor often made guest appearances on our favorite radio talk show. More than a decade later, I am stunned to hear that Shirley Q. is still around. Moreover, I am shocked to learn of a scheduled performance at the Russian River Resort in Guerneville, California on June 19, 2010. This is the date known as Juneteenth, or Emancipation Day, which is the oldest nationally celebrated holiday commemorating the abolition of slavery in the United States.
Shirley Q. Liquor is a fictional character performed in blackface. In bars, radio stations, and other venues, she is presented as an inarticulate woman who struggles to remember the names of her nineteen children (Kmartina, Oranjello, Shithead, Gingivitis, Chlamydia, and Couponida to name a few) while surviving on welfare checks, ham hocks, Kool-Aid, collard greens, and malt liquor. Ms. Liquor drives a Cadillac, shoplifts, and testifies in church every Sunday. She seeks to entertain audiences (whom she notes are primarily "gay men, their moms and rednecks") with songs such as "If I Was a White Lady," "12 Days of Kwanzaa," and "Who is My Baby-Daddy?"
Off stage, Shirley Q. Liquor is known as Charles "Chuck" Knipp, a white comedian, nurse, and ordained minister who identifies himself as a proud member of the LGBT community. Although Knipp recognizes that his performance may make some audience members uncomfortable, he contends, "Comedy is a way to heal past injustices, prejudice and hate." Furthermore, Knipp argues, "Shirley Q. Liquor was created in celebration of, not to downgrade, black women."
While the performances of Shirley Q. Liquor may seem to be a sideshow compared to other modern-day manifestations of racism, sexism, and bigotry, the controversy and debate surrounding this blackface character cannot be taken lightly by those of us who strive to create an atmosphere of respect, trust, and celebration for our fellow human beings.
Conversations about stereotypes involving race and gender are important -- even vital -- to social progress, but Chuck Knipp misses the mark of true discourse. If Knipp means to empower black women, he must put away his makeup and neon-pink wig and recognize the importance of solidarity and respect for others, especially those who have been the most marginalized, stereotyped, and abused.
Chuck Knipp can begin this process by canceling his Juneteenth performance at the Russian River Resort.