The University of Toronto’s Student Newspaper Since 1880

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A black voice on blackface

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Each semester, The Varsity publishes a satirical joke issue that contains no actual news content. Last semester’s joke issue (Nov. 19) included a story entitled “The new face of Charlie Brown” about a fictional avant-garde student production of the play You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. Among other theatrical imagery depicted, students were described as using blackface makeup (a racist theatrical costume once popular in the U.S.) in the invented production. An image of an actor, digitally altered to make it appear he was in blackface, was also published. The Varsity was subsequently contacted by students representing the Black Students Association, Black Lawyers of Tomorrow, UTSU and other student groups who requested this space in the paper to express their belief that the Nov. 19 article was offensive to black students.

Just before winter exams, I received a call from a friend telling me about an article in the November 19, 2007 joke issue of The Varsity entitled “The New Face of Charlie Brown.” He and other black students had just come across this article, coupled with a large photo of the cast of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, with Charlie in blackface. They were furious. And after seeing it for myself, so was I.

We thought that maybe the authors of this article didn’t know the history of blackface. Maybe they didn’t understand that blackface is more than a “theatrical trope,” as described in the article.

I feel compelled to set the record straight, so here goes. Blackface began as a theatrical representation that depicted blacks in a racist and grotesque manner. Actors in blackface put on black makeup and enlarged the appearance of their lips in order to present a form of “pseudo-blackness.” These performers would also speak, sing, move, and dance in a way that was seen as a black “stylized manner.”

This misrepresentation of blacks was used to make them appear ugly, monstrous, and inhuman. This is exactly how Charlie Brown was depicted in the picture: as a buffoon.

Blackface has a long and troubling history. It first appeared in minstrel shows of the 19th century, where both white and black actors would perform onstage in blackface. At the turn of the century, theatrical performances of blackface declined as they began to appear onscreen, where they reached an even larger audience. Early films like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation and The Jazz Singer depicted blacks as lazy and simple-minded. Blackface has and always will reinforce racist characterizations of blacks: Sambo, Coon, and Mammy come to mind.

After discussing this article, other black student leaders and I promptly requested a meeting with The Varsity. At the meeting we were shocked to learn that those who contributed to the article did in fact know the history of blackface. Despite their knowledge of the repugnant history of this racist imagery, the editor told us that the article was intended to be satirical. However, there was nothing humorous or satirical about the article and we demanded an apology. Instead, what we got was this space in the paper to voice our concerns. We are still waiting for an apology. We are not asking for censorship but rather demanding respect as human beings. This is our right.

Unfortunately, The Varsity article is not the only emergence of images of blackface on Canadian university campuses in recent years. In 2006, a number of students at Wilfrid Laurier University decided to dress up in blackface for the winter carnival. These students blackened their faces with makeup and wore upside-down KFC buckets on their heads. This incident was met with contempt and corrective action by the university.

There is a connection between the article published in The Varsity and the incident at Laurier. Both have shown a disregard for the painful history of blackface just to get a few laughs.

We’re not overreacting. What made this article disturbing was not that blackface was in the paper but how it was presented. The supposed satirical nature of the article is non-existent. Why was blackface not discussed in a regular edition of The Varsity but rather ridiculed in the joke edition of the paper? Only after we pressed for space is the issue being discussed seriously in this publication.

George Orwell once wrote, “The aim of a joke is not to degrade the human being, but to remind him that he is already degraded.” The Varsity did exactly that with their presentation of blackface. Those in power often decide what is humorous, never making themselves the butt of the joke, but rather targeting marginalized groups who are subjugated and underprivileged.

Those who wrote the article may not have intended to offend black people. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and what they did demonstrates how disrespected blacks are in society, that black history is only worthy to be discussed when it is time for a joke or Black History Month. We’re tired of having our history demeaned, ghettoized, and ridiculed. It’s not funny and we’re not laughing.