A month ahead of the October 21 election in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s carefully cultivated image of the posterboy liberal has been called into serious question by pictures and a video from the 1990s and 2001 that show him dressed in blackface and brownface.
There are pictures of him in an Arabian Nights party, dressed as Aladin in a turban and brownface makeup. And a video, released by the Canadian news organisation GlobalNews and confirmed as authentic by his election campaign, shows the PM in blackface and a wig, flailing his arms, sticking out his tongue, and pulling faces.
Subsequently, Trudeau himself has admitted to having dressed up in blackface on at least one other occasion, and the possibility of there existing other examples as well.
He has apologised profusely, referred to his privileged life that had a “massive blind spot”, and said, “I should never have done it”.
Trudeau is just the latest celebrity public entity in the centre of a blackface controversy.
Examples keep surfacing every now and then, which underline the enduring popularity of this offensive lampooning and stereotyping of black people that began in the United States and spread to white communities elsewhere.
Some examples in just the past one year, and only in the United States:
* On February 6 this year, the fashion label Gucci pulled from stores a turtleneck jumper after it was pointed out on social media that the “balaclava” knit resembled blackface. The sweater covered most of a white model’s face, with a cut out mouth ringed with red to give the appearance of oversized lips.
* Days earlier, on February 1, Ralph Northam, the Democrat Governor of Virginia, had apologised after a picture from his 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced, which showed two men, one in blackface, the other in a Ku Klux Klan costume. Northam later denied being in the picture, but he accepted that he had blackened his face with shoe polish on another occasion that same year to portray the pop icon Michael Jackson.
* Soon afterward, amid a rising chorus for Northam’s resignation, the state’s Attorney General Mark Herring confirmed having worn blackface to dress up as rap icon Kurtis Blow for a university party in 1980. And then came revelations that the Republican Senate majority leader Tommy Norment had been managing editor of a 1968 yearbook that featured students in blackface and carrying Confederate flags, and contained racial slurs.
* While these controversies ironically come in February, observed as Black History Month in the United States and some other countries, blackface has made frequent appearances in day-to-day American life. So, in December 2018, the luxury label Prada apologised after it displayed products resembling black monkey figurines with large red lips at one of its New York stores.
* In October 2018, the superstar television host Megyn Kelly was fired after she appeared to trivialise the outrage that blackface Halloween costumes triggered.
* It has also emerged that the popular comedians and talk show hosts Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon both wore blackface on multiple occasions several years ago.
So, what is blackface, something that keeps appearing in both apparently lighthearted situations as well as in more serious ones?
It is a form of theatrical depiction of black characters by white performers that was part of the American tradition of popular entertainment known as minstrelsy, which typically consisted of comedy skits, dancing, music, and stand-up acts.
Minstrel shows were first performed in the 1830s in New York, in which white men blackened their faces with burnt cork or shoe polish and wore torn clothes in caricatures of slaves on plantations in the South.
According to the website of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, minstrel shows depicted blacks as “lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice”.
Stage to White House
Thomas Dartmouth ‘Daddy’ Rice, one of the best known figures on the 19th century American stage, created the blackface character Jim Crow, who became immensely popular among the public.
The popularity of Rice’s caricature led to black men being referred to as “Jim Crow”, and many believed his song and dance number Jump Jim Crow to be the country’s anthem.
Laws enacted in the 19th and 20th centuries to enforce racial segregation in the Southern United States became known as “Jim Crow laws”.
By the middle of the 19th century, an entire subindustry of minstrel songs and music, make-up, costumes, and stereotyped character templates had been created.
Minstrelsy reached the vaudeville stage, Broadway, radio and Hollywood. ‘The Jazz Singer’ (1927), the first full-length talkie film, featured the entertainer Al Jolson in blackface. Thomas F Dixon’s 1905 book, ‘The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan’, was made into the film ‘The Birth of a Nation’ featuring white actors in blackface, and was screened at President Woodrow Wilson’s White House.
The first depictions of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse featured the character in blackface. Blackface spread to many countries beyond the US, and the tradition survived in the UK until the early 1980s.
The inherent racism
Despite its continuing existence in popular culture, blackface is a mocking, deeply offensive, racist portrayal of black people, whose dehumanising tropes strongly suggest the inherent superiority of white people, and reduce blackness itself to a joke. Indeed, at the heart of blackface depictions lies racial derision and stereotyping.
Minstrelsy served as a justification for state violence against black people and to deny them citizen’s rights; in modern times, blackface continues to suggest that black people are appropriate targets for ridicule and mockery.
The popularity of “black” Halloween costumes and blackface performances in American universities has been seen as a disturbing commentary on continuing racial prejudice, even as those criticised for their actions have insisted on every occasion that they are not racist, and did not intend to cause hurt.
Indeed, many have asked if Trudeau’s apology might not have been a little less grovelling if he did not have a difficult election coming up so soon after the video and photos surfaced.
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