Some Notes on Blackface

Gary Raymond looks at the outrage surrounding a Blackface float in Aberaeron in which a group of white men attempted to pay tribute to cult comedy Cool Runnings.

Firstly, let me apologise. The title of this article has an ironic joke in it. It states a plural when there is none. There are no notes to be made on Blackface. Just one. Here it is. Commit it to memory. Blackface is racist.

There you go. Got that?

There are no exceptions, no excuses, no dancing around the idea, no nuance. Blackface is racist.

Let’s not get mired down in attempts at equity to fancy dress enthusiasts – is it okay for you dress up as a woman? Can I dress up as a Jew? A native American? An Auschwitz guard? Let’s keep this simple for now. Blackface is racist. Store that and everything else may just fall into place.

It’s a depressing thing to have to write that – there were other things I could have been doing this afternoon. But after a recent controversy surrounding a Blackface float at Aberaeron, where a group of young white men attempted to pay tribute to cult early-nineties comedy Cool Runnings by dressing up as the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team, and the subsequent debate that has flowered, it seems there is some grey area over this. Well, I’ve cleared it up, and it didn’t take long. Let me just put it out there one more time: Blackface is racist.

All you need to know, if you are asking for an explanation, is to be aware of the history of Blackface. It was, and still is, a tool for perpetrating racial stereotypes, and helped, for centuries, to propagate the image of people of colour as servile, imbecilic figures of fun. It also has a history of perpetuating the image of people of colour as animalistic, “other”, and a danger.

There is more to it than that: but isn’t that enough? Isn’t that enough to decide to wear a different fancy dress costume? This isn’t political correctness, this is about changing the way white people treat and respect people of colour, who for centuries have been subjugated, murdered and raped by the fascistic societal treatments of western white culture. I am truly sorry if asking you to be sensitive to that spoils your carnival float.

Perhaps it is also worth pointing out that the colour of a person’s skin is not a costume.

Apparently there are many people who do not understand this. Some have excused the men who put on the Cool Runnings float as being probably unaware, “good guys” who meant no harm. But that only washes if you yourself are blissfully unaware that ignorance is a symptom of racism, not something that excuses you from it. Blackface is racist. There is no nuance to this.

Cultural and social historians have pointed out quite rightly that traditions such as black and white minstrel shows were in fact vital ingredients in the spreading of American black culture, but you have to remember that Blackface brought jazz into the auditoriums of clubs that did not allow people of colour as members, but were happy to have them serve tables, park cars, and attend the toilets.

Make no mistake: Blackface is about ownership. That is why there is no tradition of Whiteface. As Black Panther George Jackson wrote in his book Blood in My Eye (1971), “The majority of blacks reject racism. They have never found it expedient, wise or honourable to take on the characteristics of the enemy. I think it is vitally important to stress that for blacks a concern for the ‘survival’ of the race is not, patently not, definable as racism.”

Fighting racism is about survival. Blackface is racist. I am really sorry if that spoils your carnival.

When you black up as the Jamaican bobsled team you may think you’re paying tribute to a favourite movie, but you are not. You are actually aligning with a tradition that was a tool of oppression, disenfranchisement, slavery, rape and murder. Blackface is racist. Pick another costume.

When Wales Online interview Jamaican bobsledder Devon Harris and then runs with the headline that there are “more important issues” than a carnival float, they are guilty of insinuating that the Blackface in Aberaeron is not racist because it is not of the same seriousness of, say, the upsurge in neo-Nazis and White Supermacism in Trump’s America. The attitude that we found a black guy who thinks there are more important things to worry about is reprehensible, insulting, and mealy-mouthed. It is also enabling racism. All across social media racists have used this article as evidence of no wrongdoing. Invariably they have read no further than that headline.

Blackface Cool RunningsThere is, of course, a slightly less important point to be made – although maybe this is at the heart of why so many people are “innocently” confused about this. Some have argued that people just need to pick their battles. This was just a light-hearted tribute to a movie. But let’s just get something out in the open. Cool Runnings is a racist movie. The racist blackface carnival float was paying tribute to a racist movie. If ever you are having trouble figuring out where you stand on the Aberaeron controversry, run that sentence through your mind. If you still don’t think there was anything wrong with it, you’re a racist.

For those unfamiliar with the movie: Cool Runnings is the “true” story of the Jamaican bobsled team (“true” in the Hollywoodised sense). A group of friends, portrayed as black stereotypes throughout, each of them parochial, idiotic, lazy, sexually animalistic, products of an endemic island drug-culture, are catapulted to Olympic glorious failure by washed-up white guy John Candy. As a comedy the movie does not miss an opportunity to deal out gags based on the racial stereotypes that have been pushed around the world for centuries by… wait for it… Blackface.

The audience is asked to laugh over and over again at the sheer absurdity of the premise of the film, and that’s before the montages of idiotic failures, slapstick set pieces and the eventual failure. The real question here is: why is it a comedy? Think of all the great sporting biopics and then pick out the comedies. I can’t think of one. It is a comedy because those who conceived the movie thought the idea was primarily funny, and not a true story about achievement in the face of overwhelming odds. By the end the audience is asked to believe that not only was the real life team a group of imbeciles who needed an alcoholic white guy to whip them into shape – to discipline them in both body and mind – but that there was some kind of glory in earning the begrudging respect of the Arian teams who convincingly beat them in competition. Hollywood it seems can rewrite as much history as it likes, but they couldn’t bring themselves to have the black guys win a medal. By the end of the movie the victory is in winning the respect of white people, not in having won anything else.

But this is largely beside the point, as the movie is not really about the bobsled team at all. It is about the white guy. John Candy’s alcoholic wash up is the character who finds redemption, and who has the real glory in achieving his dream of gaining notoriety off the back of him civilising the savages. He also gains the respect of the Arians he is competing with, which is all he was really after. At the beginning of the film, you see, Candy’s character is so low he is essentially no better than a Jamaican. The film is about how he picks himself up in order to reinstate himself into white society. In terms of success off the hard work of black people, it’s up there with Mick Jagger’s prancing.

I have always had a soft spot for Cool Runnings. As a twelve year old, my sister took me to the cinema to see it. I associate that film with that fond memory. I laughed. I laughed at it again the numerous times I saw it on television in subsequent years. And then one day, with the benefits of an education and what I like to think of as a critical mind, I saw the film for what it was. Does that mean when I was a child I was a racist? Well, it does, I’m afraid, albeit I could probably plead that I was both too young to have yet been educated about these things, and that I was an innocent member of a society that did and still does nurture racist attitudes. I grew up, read books, listened to brilliant people. I now recognise racism because I am less ignorant than I was when I was twelve.

Blackface is racist. Just pick a different costume. And pick a different favourite movie.


Gary Raymond is a novelist, poet, critic, and editor of Wales Arts Review.