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George Elliott Clarke on the insidious history of Blackface in North America

George Elliott Clarke at the dedication of the Souster Steps in Toronto, 2014

George Elliott Clarke, a professor of African-Canadian literature at the University of Toronto, a former poet laureate in the city, and a former Parliamentary Poet Laureate, weighs in on the scandal involving federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau appearing in photographs dressed in Brownface and Blackface. Writing in NOW Magazine, Clarke offers a thumbnail sketch of the pernicious history of white people darkening their skin to burlesque other races:

The Blackface is either a harlequin type or Caliban-like. Able to jig, and able to go for the jugular. Conceive the character as being a kind of Oreo cookie: sometimes the filling is vanilla; other times, it’s arsenic.

While acknowledging that “race in Canada is not as starkly black-and-white as it is in the United States,” Clarke deftly illustrates the racist assumptions that underpin the stereotypes deployed by the dominant culture in adopting the appearance and broad behaviours of another, even when such adoption is putatively “innocent.”

Just last year, Robert Lepage got into huge trouble at the Montreal Jazz Festival for using a mainly white cast to perform spirituals – the historical songs of African-American slaves. To the protestors of Lepage’s show, SLAV (pronounced with a long “a”), reproducing African-American suffering in “white face,” as it were, was just as unthinkingly reprehensible as is, for me, our Prime Minister’s not-ready-for-prime-time, “Black” showmanship.

Clarke also references Michele Lalonde’s poem “Speak White,” which, somewhat ironically, plays a central role in Lepage’s autobiographical one-man play, 887, remounted earlier this year at Canadian Stage.

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