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  • Janice Sebagenzi

Behind the Blackface: a history of racism and bigotry

Dernière mise à jour : 2 juin 2020

While Black History Month marks the time to celebrate and learn about Black individuals’ achievements and contributions throughout history, the various scandals that have occurred in recent weeks have reminded us that there is still a long way to go. From Florida's Secretary of State who dressed up as an African-American victim of Hurricane Katrina to the Governor and the Attorney General of Virginia who admitted having worn blackface to imitate black celebrities, and even to the Gucci brand who had to remove its infamous blackface turtleneck , it seems that many are still unaware of how problematic this behavior is.

It is not uncommon to hear the phrase: “What’s the big deal? It’s just paint”. In fact, in a recent study focused on issues related to race, ethnicity, and identity, the Pew Research survey showed that 1/3 of Americans believe that it is “always or sometimes” acceptable to wear blackface as part of a Halloween costume and 6/10 of Americans say it is “always or sometimes” acceptable for someone to wear a “traditional dress from a country or culture other than their own” as part of an Halloween costume. Unfortunately, what many might think is a harmless costume actually has a dark and derogatory past. The use of blackface dates back to the mid-1800s when minstrel shows began to grow as a form of entertainment. These shows consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music performances. In 1830, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, the “Father of Minstrelsy”, first performed under the blackface persona of Jim Crow. His rendition of the song “Jump Jim Crow” even became one of the most popular songs in America. Rice would later travel across the country and his caricatured performances became for many the distorted lens through which they saw African Americans.

In minstrelsies, white actors would darken their faces with burnt cork and a mixture of charcoal and grease or even shoe polish. They would dress up as African Americans with ill-fitting clothes and rags and perform what they had seen on plantations in a stereotypical way. These actors mimicked slaves’ dances, languages, and music to provide comic relief to the audience. They often depicted black people as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, aggressive, thieves, and prone to cowardice. Thus, it is no coincidence that the segregationist laws in the United States were later named after Jim Crow. Indeed, the demeaning caricature was used to legitimize the notion of African American “inferiority” and rationalize white supremacy. In the late 19th century, Minstrel shows reached their peak and were found everywhere across the country. Contrary to popular beliefs, minstrel shows were also prominent in Canada as American and Canadian minstrel troupes traveled frequently between the two countries. As matter of fact, the writer of the Canadian National Anthem, often performed in blackface throughout Canada and the United States.

In the United Sates, minstrelsy spread into radio, film, and television. In fact, the first American blockbuster movie “Birth of a Nation” (1915) featured white actors in blackface behaving like savages and being sexually aggressive towards white women and it portrayed the KKK as a heroic group. Moreover, the minstrel caricatures began to appear on games, toys, boks, postcards, and everyday items. Their pervasive presence undoubtedly shaped people’s attitudes and biases. To this day, the vestiges of minstrels are deeply rooted in American culture and have played a significant part in the dehumanizing narrative of the African American community. *Side photo of Birth of a Nation*

Regrettably, the blackface issue is also prevalent in the Netherlands due to the Dutch St. Nicholas (Sinterklass) holiday. At first glance, the holiday is inoffensive as citizens gather for parades where the saint arrives in town to give candy and gifts. However, the controversy stems from the fact Santa’s helper named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) appears as a blackface character with large gold earrings, and exaggerated lips. This character often serves as a costume for the parades’ participants and is also used for the purpose of amusing children. It is noticeable that the exaggerated appearance of the “Black Pete” costume found its influence through the American blackface minstrel shows, while its colorful clothing is similar to what enslaved children, given to Dutch nobles as gifts wore. Ultimately, the use of blackface has and will always have a detrimental impact regardless of the person’s intent. It has left a legacy of prejudice. One should simply refrain from perpetuating racist and despicable behavior for the mere reason of having a good costume.

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