Blackface in Canada

Blackface refers to the act of artificially darkening the skin in an attempt to impersonate Black people. Blackface in Canada is not a recent phenomenon. Rather, it dates back to the days of blackface minstrelsy—a form of 19th and early 20th century entertainment that expressed nostalgia for slavery and racist violence, and employed stereotypical representations of Black people. Contrary to popular belief, blackface minstrelsy was a popular form of entertainment in Canada, much as it was in the United States. American minstrel troupes travelled frequently to perform in Canada, while Canada also had its own minstrel troupes such as the Saskatoon Minstrels and the Ardrossan Snowflake Amateur Minstrels (Le Camp, 2005 , pp. 256, 371– 372) performing in shows such as Belle Davis et ses negrillons (Le Camp, 2005, p. 358). Blackface was also a favourite form of Canadian entertainment for local amateurs at fund-raisers for schools, police forces, community groups, churches, and charitable organizations (Le Camp, 2005 , pp. 327– 329). Indeed, the writer of the Canadian National Anthem, Calixa Lavallée, performed often as a blackface minstrel throughout Canada and the United States (Thompson, 2015), thus it might be said that the blackface is as Canadian as O Canada.

Though there appears, in some ways, to have been a resurgence of these acts in the last 10-15 years, it cannot truly be said that blackface ever entirely lost popularity here in the interim. Full blown minstrel shows were occurring as recently as 1965 (Winks, 1997, p. 294) if one counts the scene of blackface in a performance of the Al Jolson Story in Toronto in 1999, which was apparently well-received by the audience (Le Camp, 2005, p. 315).

Contemporary Canadian blackface is, in its visual presentation, strongly reminiscent of, and often compared to, historical blackface minstrelsy performances.  Several instances of contemporary Canadian blackface have occurred in the last ten to fifteen years. They occur most frequently on Canadian university campuses, but several have also occurred that did not take place at universities (See timeline). Further, during research interviews for the research project from which the Arts Against PostRacialism project flows, the research team heard of many other incidents that had not appeared in the media, making it clear that contemporary Canadian blackface is more popular and occurs more frequently than one might otherwise conclude from media reports.

Contemporary Canadian blackface usually occurs in circumstances marked by ostensible humour and fun, taking place during Halloween parties, university frosh events, campus carnivals, at sporting events, comedy fests, and during satirical theatre performances. The dubious racial enjoyment associated with blackface incidents is not restricted to those who perform it, but rather is shared by large numbers of those who witness it, who have frequently expressed their approval with awards—often monetary—for best costume and other similar prizes.

Not surprisingly, when blackface incidents occur today, they spark intense debate, with many attempting to justify it as harmless fun, and in some cases suggesting that those who are offended by it are “too sensitive” or bound by unwarranted “political correctness.” Paradoxically, these claims are based upon elaborate popular Canadian mythologies that suggest (erroneously) that racism has had little relevance in its history, and that any racism there might have been has been overcome (Howard, 2017).  Nevertheless, contemporary blackface draws quite clearly on racial tropes—fried chicken, dreadlocks, monkeys. At the same time, and very importantly, it draws upon the ways that blackness is conceived of in dominant Canadian discourse today—most notably as foreign. A large number of contemporary Canadian blackface incidents in Canada portray Blackness as Jamaican or otherwise not Canadian. This Jamicanization of blackness is conspicuous and telling when considered in comparison to contemporary blackface incidents in the United States where Blackness is most commonly represented in the “ghetto parties” register, and demonstrates the ways in which contemporary Canadian blackface is constituted by, and helps to constitute, the ways in which blackness is understood in Canada (Howard, forthcoming)

- Philip S. S. Howard, 2017

To Cite: Howard, P.S.S (2017) Blackface in Canada. Retrieved from: https://www.mcgill.ca/aapr/blackface-canada.

Notes assembled from:

Other Sources:

  • Howard, P.S.S. (forthcoming) “A Laugh for the National Project: Contemporary Canadian Blackface Humour and its Constitution through Canadian Anti-Blackness"
  • Le Camp, L. (2005). Racial considerations of minstrel shows and related images in Canada (unpublished doctoral dissertation). Toronto: University of Toronto.
  • Thompson, B. C. (2015). Anthems and minstrel shows: The life and times of Calixa Lavallée, 1842–1891.  Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
  • Winks, R. (1997) The Blacks in Canada: A History. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
     

[view Timeline of Blackface Incidents in Canada (.pdf)]

[Further reading]