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Exploring the untold history of blackface in Canada

Ryerson professor Cheryl Thompson’s scholarship finds hundreds of such performances took place here between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries
By: Connor Garel
October 15, 2019
Cheryl Thompson

School of Creative Industries professor Cheryl Thompson says we cannot understand the racial stereotypes we see in film and television if we don’t understand the history of blackface minstrelsy.

Earlier this fall when Justin Trudeau, the country’s prime minister, was exposed for having appeared — on various occasions — with his skin browned and/or darkened, Ryerson professor Cheryl Thompson was called on to comment about the things we remember and the things we forget and the largely untold history of blackface minstrelsy in Canada.

The immediate general consensus around the country was a kind of innocent shock, as though nothing like this has ever happened before (external link)  and it couldn’t possibly have been predicted. Headlines featured words like “surprising” and “bizarre.” British Columbia’s premier John Horgan announced that the occasion inspired in him an anxiety about “the rise of racism (external link) ” across the nation.

The impulse to be shocked, though, was not shared by Thompson, who, following the news of the scandal, quickly became the voice of record and reason both on television and in print, illuminating the cavern of history with a cool and steady logic.

“As someone who has spent the last 10 years studying blackface in Canada,” Thompson wrote in the Toronto Star (external link) , “the one thing I know to be true is that blackface is as Canadian as hockey. It literally was (is) performed everywhere.”

The point of the story here is this: Cheryl Thompson is not easily surprised — least of all by blackface.

“I’m old enough to remember a time in Canada when they would call you the n-word to your face,” she says, sitting in a book-crowded office at Ryerson University, where she teaches in the School of Creative Industries. “But there’s a kind of white amnesia to the past, and it’s like, ‘Why have you forgotten this history?’”

Thompson knows the answer is guilt: who can be blamed, held responsible, if no one remembers the actual infraction? Her present research on Canada’s embarrassing history of blackface — a project which is being funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) — is a kind of cure for this apparent lapse of memory.

“A lot of this work is about forgetting, and about nostalgia,” she explains. “Because people want to talk about how great the past was, but they don’t want to acknowledge this aspect of it.”

Searching for answers

For the last decade or so, it’s precisely “this aspect” of Canadian history that’s been Thompson’s most intense preoccupation. It started in 2011, when she was in her second year as a PhD student at McGill University, working on the dissertation that would eventually become “Beauty In A Box (external link) ,” published earlier this year. The day was ordinary as any other — until Thompson saw a video, published online, that was filmed 45 minutes down the road at the HEC Montréal, the graduate business school of the Université de Montréal.

It showed a group of white business students, dressed up as their interpretation of Jamaican sprinters: yellow tees, green shorts (Jamaica’s national colours) and their entire bodies painted in charcoal black.

“I remember seeing the way that people reacted and thinking, ‘Why does it seem like they’re shocked?’” Thompson says, laughing. “The only thing that surprised me, really, was that we didn’t seem to have any knowledge of why and where this came from.”

This mystification animated her desire to search for answers, and culminated, 10 years later, in the SSHRC project she’s researching now, titled “Newspapers, Minstrelsy and Black Performance at the Theatre: Mapping the Spaces of Nation-Building in Toronto, 1870s to 1930s.”

Not just an American institution

One of the interesting things she learned was how blackface, like slavery (external link)  and racism in general, has been falsely imagined as a distinctly American institution, despite material evidence proving the opposite. “It’s about a culture of forgetting,” she says. As early as the 1830s, blackface was being practised in Canadian theatre houses, and for four consecutive years, between 1840 and 1843, Black Torontonians petitioned city council (external link)  to have minstrel shows banned.

An excerpt:Your Petitioners would humbly pray that Your Worship would be pleased to prevent the occurrence of such annoyances and insults, as Your Petitioners believe that such attempted Exhibitions of the African Character are not at all relished or approved of by the sensible and well thinking Inhabitants of this Community.

Their attempts were in vain.

Clear examples like these punctuate Canadian history. The man who wrote the hymn that became the national anthem, for example, also played in minstrel shows (external link) . And in her research, Thompson found that hundreds of such performances took place in Canada between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries.

These shows took place in “churches, hospitals, summer camps for kids. Department stores like Eaton’s. Charity organizations. You name it,” Thompson says. “If there was a major public event taking place, then there was likely a blackface performance.”

The underpinning of racial stereotypes

Not only were these performances a mundane fact of Canadian life, they also haunted the beginnings of several other art forms. There was blackface at the onset of television, blackface on the radio; there was blackface at the movies, and blackface in newspaper cartoons. “Almost every form of entertainment is derivative of the minstrel show,” Thompson says. “You can’t understand the racial stereotypes we still see in film and television if you don’t understand that history.”

Still, in spite of this tower of examples, Thompson sees an effort to locate the problem outside of the country. If we can see racism as an external thing, she says, or as the result of individual actions rather than a feature of the collective social world, then we can pretend it isn’t systemic. The effort to imagine Canada as a beacon of progressivism is so determined, she says, that we begin to avert our eyes (external link)  from what really happened.

“I’m always trying to place us in the nation as living people — to put Black Canada into national discussions where we’ve been traditionally left out,” Thompson says. The point is to historicize blackness, to place it in context. Her approach to this is not political, does not resemble lobbying or picketing. Thompson is more interested in knowledge as an inexhaustible resource. “I want people to be transformed by this work,” Thompson says. “My agenda is consciousness.”

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