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Justin Trudeau´s Blackface

STOCKHOLM / ROME, Oct 11 2019 (IPS) - Politics is a dodgy game, maybe even more so if you represent political views based on a moral approach. When the charismatic Justin Trudeau, son of a cosmopolitan liberal who served as Canada´s Prime Minister for 16 years, in 2015 was elected Prime Minister it was within a global political climate different from what it is today. Barack Obama was in the White House, Angela Merkel served her third period as German Chancellor, and the UK Government had not yet announced its country’s withdrawal from the EU. Nevertheless, Russia had three months before Trudeau´s election annexed Crimea, while Viktor Orbán´s Hungarian government the month before initiated the construction of a 4 metres high barrier along its nation´s eastern and southern borders to keep immigrants out.

After Donald Trump on January 27, 2017, had announced a ban on entry from seven Muslim-majority countries, Trudeau tweeted that “Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith” and since Trump was elected more than 40,000 asylum seekers have from the USA crossed the border into Canada.1 Just after taking office, Trudeau issued a statement promising to work for gender equality, to fight environmental degradation, rebuild relations with indigenous people and run an open, ethical and clear government, as well as he declared that his first legislative priority would be to lower taxes for middle-income Canadians and raise them for the highest percentage of income earners.

However, Trudeau´s stance as a stout liberal is becoming increasingly difficult within a global context and ahead of the Canadian general election day on October 21 his political opponents are exposing and trying to benefit from several shortcomings of his politics, as well as casting doubts on his personal integrity. A recent addition to this campaign has been when on September 18 Trudeau attracted controversy for a photograph published in Time on which he wore “brownface makeup” at a party at a private school where he was teaching in 2001. Time also published two earlier photos on which Trudeau wore “blackface”. Eventually, Trudeau was accused of being a populist politician obscuring the fact that he grew up as a privileged, white boy in close connection with the corridors of power where he learned to avoid accusations by acting as a firm believer in equality and multiculturalism. At once Trudeau apologized for unconsciously having hurt people:

    Darkening your face, regardless of the context and circumstances, is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface. I should’ve understood that then, and I never should’ve done it […] I’m not that person anymore. I’m someone that understands the deep hurt caused by actions like that to people who live with discrimination every single day. I regret it deeply and I’m deeply sorry that I did that. It was something I didn’t think was racist at the time, and now I know it was racist.2

Trudeau was probably right. Dressing up and acting like a person from another culture and with another skin colour is probably something many of us have done. I remember how happy I was when I as a kid was chosen to play the African king Caspar in the Church´s Christmas pageant, wearing blackface and a beautiful robe. Furthermore, one of the favorite games among us kids in Sweden were to play Cowboys and Indians. I always wanted to be Sitting Bull and even had a magnificent feather war bonnet that my father had made for me.

Wearing blackface in the US or Canada may occasionally be equally innocent. Racist connotations of blackface are easily discernible, but its history is nevertheless multifaceted. Music and entertainment have always been a means for discriminated people to express frustrations and criticize an oppressing society. In his book Blues People from 1963, Leroy Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka, traced the origins of blues and jazz.3 Among other findings he described the cakewalk, originally a dance performed at get-togethers of plantation slaves, ridiculing the pretentious behaviour of slave masters. The polyrhythmic and syncopated music accompanying such dances was influenced by the hambone rhythm common among the West African Ewe people. After a troupe of former slaves performed the dance at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia it became popular all over the U.S. It was named cakewalk since the dancers were awarded with an enormous cake. Several composers, like Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Stephen Foster, made use of cakewalk tunes, but most famous was Scott Joplin´s inclusion of these specific rhythms in his ragtime compositions.

Cakewalk also captivated Europeans. In 1908, the French composer Claude Debussy published his Children´s Corner, a 6-movement suite for solo piano. The sixth piece, Golliwogg´s Cakewalk, is a jaunty, syncopated tune inspired by American ragtime. At the time Golliwogg dolls were fashionable all over the U.S. and Europe. They were stuffed dolls with jet black faces, bright red lips and wild, woolly hair. They wore red trousers, a shirt with a stiff collar, red bow-tie, and a blue jacket with tails, all reminiscent of performers in blackface minstrels.

Over the years, cakewalk had developed into popular shows, so called minstrels, in which both white and African American actors painted their faces jet black and then engaged in equilibristic song and dance numbers. Even the composer of the Canadian national hymn, Calixa Lavallée (1842-1891) spent 10 years of his life on stage in blackface. Famous Afro American blackface performers were Bahamian born Bert Williams and young comedy star Josephine Baker, who later brought her act to France, transformed it by introducing exotic ”African” traits and eventually became not only one of the most famous African American performers ever, but also a hero of the French resistance movement against the Nazi occupiers. The list of white artists performing in blackface is vast; famous among them are for example Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Doris Day. Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple and Judy Garland, just to mention a few of them. Most famous of all blackface acts is when musical artist Al Jolson sang Mammy in the 1927 movie The Jazz Singer, the first sound film. As a son of a Jewish, Orthodox cantor who could not accept that his son had become a vaudeville artist, both Jolson and the character in the movie wore blackface during their performances as an indication that they had broken away from the ”enclosed traditional Jewish life” and become integrated in ”American culture”.4

The Golliwog character that inspired Debussy was created by the illustrator Florence Kate Upton, who in 1895 began writing children books about a black doll. The doll became the hero of thirteen enormously popular, rhyming books and was presented as a gentle and inventive character. The last of Upton´s books about Golliwog was published in 1909, but dolls manufactured in his likeness had by then become a common addition to thousands of nurseries. In far away Sweden, I was unaware of their existence but like millions of other children around the world I had read several of Enid Blyton´s (1897–1968) books – they have over the years been published in over 600 million copies – though I was never a great fan of them, the kids ate too much and were far too well-behaved. Her books are still popular and have been translated into 90 different languages. She built a literary empire, sometimes producing fifty books a year, among them a series of Golliwog books, like The Three Golliwogs, The Little Black Doll, The Golliwog Grumbles and Here Comes Noddy Again, it is only in the last book that a Golliwog is really naughty – he asks a driver for a lift only to end up stealing his car. Blyton´s books about the Golliwogs have been defended as being innocent children´s literature. Neverthelss, they are racist. The looks and simplistic behaviour of the black characters contribute to conecptions that more or less consciously influence the minds of young readers. The name Golliwog is offensive as well. Wog is a derogatory word referring to a ”non-white person”. The term apparently originated from sailors and used to label a person as a clumsy newcomer, someone who had not yet crossed the equator – pollywog was another name for a tadpole, i.e. someone who is not yet fully developed.

In Blues People, Leroi Jones characterized blackface performances as yet another proof of unawareness of how black people relate to oppressors. According to him, white people are brought up within a culture that thoughtlessly infantilizes and discriminates against persons of another skin colour. Most white Americans lack awareness of the origins of their own culture, which in reality is a mixture of contributions from a vast number of people with different skin colours. Especially American music, fashion and literature contain important traits of African culture and much of what now is used to denigrate African Americans were originally used by them to criticize the whites:

    If the cakewalk is a Negro dance caricaturing certain white customs, what is that dance, when, say, a white theater company attempts to satirize it as a Negro dance? I find the idea of white minstrels in blackface satirizing a dance satirizing a dance satirizing themselves, as a remarkable kind of irony.5

Racism is absurd and all of us, irrespective of the colour of our skin, ought to realize that if we do not admit that certain behaviour can be considered as denigrating by others we remain at an infantile state of mind. When kids play being Cowboys and Indians, or when grown-ups impersonate people from other cultures, this is mostly done in an innocent manner. However, it is a quite different case when, as for example D.W. Griffith did in his classic and still admired movie Birth of a Nation, blackfaced actors are ridiculing and demonizing black Americans.

Trudeau did the right thing when he apologized for his use of blackface. However, his political opponents’ way of interpreting thoughtless, bygone playacting as a racist statement may be considered as a politically motivated maneuver intended to damage someone who actually has been trying to improve race relations.

3 Jones, Leroi (1999) Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Harper Perennial.
5 Jones (1999), p. 86.

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.

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