Three days before the death of British abolitionist William Wilberforce in 1833, the British House of Commons gave a third reading to the Slavery Abolition Act. It would receive royal assent shortly thereafter, on Aug. 28, and come into force a year later on Aug. 1, 1834.
As the conditions for emancipation were being laid for the Commonwealth (including payments to slave-owning aristocrats), a nascent actor named Thomas D. Rice had begun to blaze a trail across the United States—at the time a country whose reckoning with abolition was decades away still. Rice, or “Daddy,” as he would eventually be called, was the progenitor of a bourgeoning trend of popular theatre that white audiences around the world couldn’t get enough of in the post-Abolition Act years—blackface.
I bring up Rice because it’s become a fall-back position—whenever a politician or public figure of some kind is found to have painted their face black and engaged in minstrelsy for a camera—to say that that form of mockery is “unacceptable.” Or, as Prime Minister Trudeau said in the first press conference addressing the emergence of a yearbook photo (with his face caked in black makeup and dressed in an “Aladdin” costume): “I’m pissed off at myself.”
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But the main problem here isn’t only that the aesthetic is offensive (though it is), the problem is that the aesthetic is intended for a purpose when performed in closed company: to dehumanize the people being imitated, to justify their subordination, and damn the high-minded abolitionists for turning the savage races loose.
In 1885, physicians Hunter McGuire and G. Frank Lydston had the following to say in a scholarly book entitled Sexual Crimes Among the Southern Negroes: “In the South, the negro is deteriorating morally and physically; and as the American Indian, the native Australian, the native Sandwich Islander, and other inferior races, disappear before the Caucasian, so the negro in time, will disappear from this continent…”
The reason, the two agreed, was that Black people raised in the Southern environment had grown too indolent and degenerate, without the yoke and the whip to keep their criminal and animalistic instincts in check.
They continue: “The natural shiftlessness of the negro, when left to himself, is simply a reversion to the primitive type, which is well illustrated by the Zulu, who is content with a breech clout, a plentiful supply of grease for his glossy hide, and plenty of wives to administer his various appetites…How much of inhibitory faculties could we expect to develop in a race, primarily so barbarous, within a short time?”
The common theme among these texts—and I have studied several dozen over the past year—are essentially twofold. One: that it is the responsibility of the white race to govern the lessers, lest the foundations of civilization collapse underneath the swarm of savage hordes. And two: that nothing produced by these lessers—not their sacred attire, not their customs and faiths, not even the skin on their bodies—is worth acknowledging as belonging to other humans.
While the forms of scientific racism that came en vogue during the 19th century (led by Arthur de Gobineau’s The Inequality of the Human Races) helped propagandize lawmakers and the gentry class against the enfranchisement of the lesser races in America as well as European colonies in the Caribbean, Africa, and South Asia, blackface operated as a tool of ideological capture among lower-class mainstream white audiences.
In other words, as Europe invaded and colonized Africa and the Orient, audiences everywhere from London and Paris, to Toronto and Montreal, were treated to Jim Crow performances. Audiences cheered negro melodies in New Brunswick, as British gatlings and cannons were loosed upon Zulus in Ulundi.
And that is, ultimately, the history that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is contending with when he admits to his appearances in blackface as a young man, and brownface as a school teacher. It’s also the history that everyone from a former Mayfield Secondary School principal to the Canadian Opera Company to theatre actors in Quebec are contending with when they wear blackface, while not only refusing to publicly apologize but by defending their actions.
This isn’t just mockery or having fun at the expense of offended minorities. It is the continuance of a white supremacist tradition that, outside of mixed company, reifies a silent belief in race hierarchy that positions the white race at the top.
Diversity our strength, indeed. Just as long as we’re clear who’s in charge.