Why the Hangups?
By Tiffani Jones
In a matter of days, adults and children will spill out into the streets in costumes, putting on a spectacle and showing off their spooky finest in celebration of Halloween and hopefully none of them will be racially offensive or hateful.
Halloween happens to be my favorite time of the year as far as commercial holidays go. Without going through the motions of delving into the history of Halloween (aka Samhain), there’s just something about this time of year that puts me in a festive mood. Everything about the aesthetic and making an evening of indulging in a horror movie marathon while scarfing down mini-chocolate bars and Laffy Taffy is wicked fun and indulgent. Seeing people put their best foot forward to cos-play and morph into completely different characters for one (hopefully safe) night, is fun to see.
Halloween is big business and isn’t just Trick-or-Treat fun for kids. Despite its 2000-year-old Celtic origins, it has become commercialized and wildly popular with adults because it allows some people to escape into a different person and even use their costumes as a form of protest to make a social statement. Halloween is the second-largest commercial holiday behind Christmas. However, it isn’t at the top of everyone’s preferred list of days to celebrate. Particularly amongst some Black people.
While the culturally appropriative and offensive racial component willfully tone-deaf and flagrantly racist people perpetrate is, understandably, off-putting, some Black folks’ reasons for not celebrating Halloween or allowing their children to dress up as their favorite characters are rooted in strong Christian fundamentalist indoctrination and respectability politics.
This definitely isn’t the case with all Black Christians as some view it as an opportunity to provide safe spaces for families to convene or to put their own unique spin on Halloween, but some Black Christians view Halloween—and most other non-traditional, ancient spiritual beliefs—as ominous and nothing more than a reason to glorify purported demonic behavior, witchcraft (which isn’t necessarily bad and whose practitioners, and those suspected of being witches, were violently persecuted by Christian extremists.), and the occult. But these are some of the same attitudes that scoff at fantasy fiction as entertainment, that uphold patriarchal, oppressive, and sexist attitudes towards women, and who view any behavior or activity (no matter how benign) outside of the fundamentalist paradigm as wrong, sinful, or evil.
A lot of anti-Halloween sentiment doesn’t just come from devout Christians, though. Some Black folks not particularly open to anything outside of social (Black) norms espouse similar rhetoric to shame others and will just write things off before learning about them as opposed to some indigenous communities, who find a way to meld their ancient traditions with holidays like Halloween.
In Mexico, for instance, residents turn Halloween (or Noche de Brujas) into a multi-day celebration that stretches into the Day of the Dead (which officially starts two days later), with elaborate parades (It’s lit!), fantastical skeleton costumes and skull painted faces, street festivals, and altars (called offrenda) set up in remembrance of dead loved ones and ancestors.
While people have the right to celebrate or not celebrate holidays as they see fit, I think it would behoove so many Black folks to be more open and cognizant of how we examine and unpack things we aren’t completely familiar with and have been told are bad just to placate someone else’s sensibilities or agenda.
Halloween, as we’ve come to know it its 21st century commercialized form, is a wonderful opportunity for friends and family to convene and to be creative in a celebratory space.
Halloween can be radical for Black folks. For a single night, we get to dress up in a culturally relevant costume to convey a social message or in commemoration of our greatest Black activists and Civil Rights leaders.
It’s a fun way to reenact Black pop-culture references and to learn what significance October 31st may bear for other Black people who may not subscribe to Christianity or societal norms and whose belief system is rooted in other diasporic traditions.
Halloween, if done right, safely, and non-offensively is good fun. Witchcraft or whatever other non-Christian practice our folks choose to partake in is nothing more than them also exercising the freedom to explore their sacred practices.
The world is an expansive place and, while we do undoubtedly share many collective experiences as a community, Blackness isn’t a one-note experience and respectability and adhering to mainstream norms won’t save us nor are they definitive ways to define us, so let’s not villainize other Black folks on October 31st just trying to have fun, eat candy, and, maybe, observe their customs on this day. And let’s remind our non-Black friends to steer-clear of Black-face and let’s also stay away from Ouija boards…just in case.
Tiffani Jones is the creator and writer of Coffee Rhetoric, a blog about women, pop-culture, film, and race. A frequent contributor to both print and digital media platforms, she is also the Digital Content Editor for Northend Agents Newspaper. Tiffani has offered commentary on HuffPost Live, in the NY Times, and on WNPR in another life. More info about her work can be found on www.coffeerhetoric.com. Follow her on Twitter: @Coffey0072