Why is blackface wrong?
Blackface is wrong. But it's not prima facia, at-face-value wrong. (The pun is intended and meaningful.) There is nothing inherently immoral about blackening your face. It's not like theft or rape or murder. It is wrong because of its historical context; specifically, within American history and culture, a white actor using the pseudonym Jim Crow performed in minstrel shows in the 1830s portraying "blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice." That taint of racist intention has remained with the practice for almost two centuries.
Teaching American literatureWhen I taught American literature, I typically invited students to produce a "creative assignment" of their own choosing which reflected the content of the course. In this context, one of my students--an intelligent, cooperative, engaged, well-intentioned student--surprised me and the class with a one-man performance of a minstrel show in blackface. I came down hard on him and, to some extent, the class as a whole for their gleeful reception of the performance, which I described as not only racist but potentially criminal.
Talking to the student who had performed in blackface afterwards, he told me that as he was walking toward the classroom he crossed paths with a couple of African exchange students. From the expressions on their faces he understood immediately that he was making a terrible mistake. A lesson was learned. What's left to learn?
Is ignorance innocence?
It is worth stopping to notice that "innocent" is a synonym for "ignorant". There is a principle in law that "ignorance of the law is no excuse." However, contrary to what I told my students in 2003, blackface is not a crime (unless it could be argued that it rises to the level of hate crime). (Sometimes I get it wrong, or at least exaggerate.) This week, in the midst of an election campaign, images of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a young man wearing blackface have been widely circulated and exhaustively discussed in the media.
An Apology gone too far
Well schooled in the principle of "getting out in front of a scandal," Trudeau has apologized profusely and repeatedly, saying "Darkening your face, regardless of the context or the circumstances, is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface." "Regardless of the context and circumstances" goes too far. Blackface is wrong because of the historical context and circumstances within which it emerged. It is not an absolute evil unmitigated by the circumstances in which it occurs. (Similarly, the swastika is not a symbol of evil, but it was made into one by the Nazis in the 1930s.)
What did Megyn Kelly say?Oddly, I began writing this post almost a year ago when Megyn Kelly was fired by NBC from her job as host of Megan Kelly Today because of her "comments" on, "defence" of and "support" for blackface. At the time, I was curious about what exactly she had said because reports on her transgression were so uniformly vague? Were her comments so outlandishly racist that they could not be repeated? Eventually I found this online article--Megyn Kelly doesn’t understand why blackface Halloween costumes are offensive--which included the video of her comments.
In the pandemonium of panel exchanges this is what Kelly said:
"What is racist . . . ?" [ . . . .] You do get in trouble if you’re a white person who puts on blackface on Halloween or a black person who puts on white face for Halloween. Back when I was a kid, that was OK as long as you were dressing up as a character.”Subsequent articles on Kelly's "racist tendencies" cited as evidence her claim that "Santa Claus was white." ( For my thoughts on Santa see "Mateus da Costa, the Very First, Original, Authentic, Pure Laine Québécois de Souche and the Real Santa Claus.")
Best Evidence"Best evidence" is a legal concept which, in its barest form, means that at trial the original document should be presented and not a copy. In a more general sense, researchers in all fields understand that wherever possible you want to use authentic documents. Unadulterated, first-hand evidence of what someone said, or did, or wrote is best evidence. A second or third party's interpretation, paraphrase, quotation, re-contextualization, edited or doctored version is not. Obviously in the internet age, journalistic rigour tends to get lost as everyone is looking for the worst possible spin on the worst news of the day. "Bad news," as the cliché goes, "is good news." These days the worse, the more terrible, scandalous, outrageous and enraging the news, the more likely it is to go viral.
Consider: CGP Grey's This Video Will Make You Angry
"Every picture needs a thousand words."
My communications professor, John Buell, loved to counter the bromide that "a picture is worth a thousand words" by claiming that "every picture needs a thousand words." In his Introduction to Communication Studies, John Fiske outlines how a picture is a metonym (or synecdoche); that is, like the figure of speech where a part of something stands in for the whole. Fiske's (and Buell's) point is that we have to "read" photographs and add the reality, the context, that is missing from the image we are looking at. We may think we are looking at "reality," but we are simply looking at pigment or pixels and imagining a reality attached to those bits and pieces.
Reading the images of Justin Trudeau as a young man in blackface, what I interpret is his rapid ascendency, on the coattails of his father's fame, from ski instructor and high school teacher to Prime Minister. The images of a foolish young man are evidence of a steep learning curve. Obviously when he allowed himself to be photographed in blackface he wasn't thinking that he might someday be Prime Minister and called upon to explain himself. He may have been insensitive and unthinking, or simply unaware of the implications and interpretations of his behaviour, as were my students in 2003.
When did blackface become verboten?Blackface is a theatrical tradition which lasted for almost 200 years, from the mid 19th to the early 21st century. Al Jolson, the American actor, comedian and singer, and the most popular performer of his day (1920s, 30s and 40s), was best known for his performances in blackface. Orson Welles portrayed Othello in blackface in a film version of the play in 1951. Actors on British and Quebec television performed in blackface as recently as 2003 and 2013 respectively. As near as I can judge, the clear and general consensus in the USA that blackface was a social taboo only coalesced in the mid-1980s in the aftermath of the civil-rights movement, after Afro-Americans had taken on and defeated more blatant and injurious forms of racism. (Just as the swastika became a heinous symbol only after World War II and the facts of the Holocaust became generally known and understood.)
Gender transgression versus racial transgression
Ignorance of history is a feeble excuse, but it is, nonetheless, an excuse. We should stop to notice that we are at a very unusual crossroads of history where transgender expression (See The Pronoun Wars) is being protected as a civil right. Racial transgression, however, is still decried. Michael Jackson was criticized for appearing white. Rachel Dolezal, one-time president of the Washington chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was charged with fraud and perjury when it was revealed that both her parents were white. In 1961 John Howard Griffin underwent chemical treatments to blacken his skin and travelled the US southern states, eventually publishing an account of his experiences in Black Like Me. In the 60s and 70s, Griffin was heralded as an anti-segregationist hero, but in contemporary times, it is argued that “Black Like Me” Is Blackface Too.
Blackface and saturnalia
Megyn Kelly's attempted use of Halloween to justify blackface seemed only to make matters worse. We are hostages of a racist history that has made blackface such a potent symbol that it, seemingly, cannot be mitigated by circumstances or intentions. However, we still need to recognize that as a product of human history, it is a contingent evil, not an absolute, permanent, immutable, universal evil as some partisans would have us believe. We need to take note of where we are in history. We should look forward and hope that in a more tolerant, equalitarian society, future generations will have moved beyond the kind of problem that blackface emblematizes. We also need to recognize that we live in a rational universe which is less and less likely to accept the irrational justifications of saturnalian ritual.
Halloween Matters: Why Do People Dress in Costumes?Halloween is an ancient Celtic ritual to mark the end of the harvest season, which was adapted by the Romans and later by Christians. The Greeks celebrated the festival of Dionysus, the god of wine and madness and tragedy, around the same time of the year. For the Romans, Dionysus became Baccus and the festival the Bancannal. The wearing of costumes was, in particular, common during the Saturnalian festivals, which Christians converted to the Christmas period, and is the underlying ritual of various carnival celebrations such as Mardi Gras and the Brazilian and Portuguese Carnivals. What all these rituals have in common is the upsetting of the social order, a beggar could be named King, men dressed as women, for a temporary period social roles and taboos were suspended. In a chaotic, cryptic discussion of Halloween, Megyn Kelly asked if the ritual tradition didn't suspend the taboo of blackface today as it did during her childhood. The answer she received was a resounding "no."
In some cultures, Halloween is a celebration of the dead. For Catholics it is "all souls day." Rituals, most typically, are designed to mark and to aid in the transition from one period to another. We have rituals like christenings and baptisms to mark births, bar mitzvahs and confirmations to mark the entry into adulthood, weddings to begin married life, birthdays, anniversaries, parties of all sorts and ultimately funerals and memorials. Traditionally one of the most common forms, which today are an endless source of controversy, are rituals of initiation. As James Frazer's The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion established at the end of the 19th century, initiation rituals are widespread. The typical pattern was of the death of a young man's youthful being and the taking on of an adult spirit--being, attitudes, life, or what you will--marked by an encounter with death and a first sexual experience. World literature, in particular the war novel, is marked by the repetition of this pattern. In the 21st century, it is possible to describe but impossible to rationally explain such rituals. Hence outrage at hazing rituals of initiation in universities and sports teams, though the long history of initiations might explain visceral, irrational attachments to these rituals.
The underlying purpose of all these rituals, these episodes of temporary madness thought to promote long-term stability, was social solidarity--even at the cost of attachments to individuality. Rachel Dolezal, John Howard Griffen, Al Jolson and others have put on black faces claiming that the gesture was one of solitary. Today, their claims are being rejected but, I think, we can at least hesitate to brand them as racists. And what of Justin Trudeau?
Racism, hypocrisy or something else?
Trudeau's juvenile antics in blackface have been described as "disturbing" and "disappointing," yet his policies and demeanour as Prime Minister have garnered the consensus that he is definitely not a racist. Partizan Conservatives have downgraded the accusation from racism to "hypocrisy." I have never found politicians calling one another hypocrites very convincing or meaningful. The question which comes to my mind is: How is it that these images, which have existed for decades, have only appeared in the midst of an election campaign? As a follow up: If it is sincerely believed that these images are unacceptable, disturbing and demeaning for racialized Canadians, why are they being promulgated and displayed in public--by exactly the same people who decry their existence? Far from any semblance of sincerity, we are witnessing political gamesmanship and dirty tricks. In this context, claims of "hypocrisy" ring hollow.
Personally, the brouhaha only adds to my sense of self-assurance as I head to the polls with the intention of voting for the party headed by a man who wears a turban and a local candidate who just happens to be black.