Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau is the latest politician to be revealed to have appeared in blackface in the past.
Less than five weeks before the federal election on 21 October, the Liberal leader’s campaign was rocked when images emerged of Trudeau wearing blackface makeup.
On Thursday, new video emerged of a third instance of Trudeau in blackface – just hours after he had apologized for wearing what he described as “racist” makeup to a costume party in 2001.
The latest images came in a short, undated video clip published by Global News in which, Trudeau – his face, arms and legs painted black – waves at the camera and sticks his tongue out.
Trudeau immediately apologized, and acknowledged that he had previously blacked up at a high school talent show, when he had sung Day-O, the traditional Jamaican song.
“I apologise profoundly,” Trudeau told reporters aboard his campaign plane. “I didn’t think it was racist at the time, but now I see, it was a racist thing to do.
When, how, and where did this idea of white people painting themselves black originate as something desirable to do and why did it have such a fascination for white people? I am not aware of the opposite whiteface phenomenon, where people of color put on white makeup and perform just for the hell of it, having occurred anywhere. The only people who seem to wear white makeup are mimes and clowns and they are also usually white.
It is clear that for a long time it was seen as unproblematic for white people to do this, right up the very recent past, less than two decades ago, long after the civil rights struggles, the elimination of Jim Crow laws, and the recognition of the horrors of slavery and racism in the US. The 1619 Project that I wrote about before has an interesting article by Wesley Morris (pages 60-67) that has some folkloric information on how blackface minstrelsy probably originated, with a white actor named Thomas Dartmouth Rice.
In 1830, Rice was a nobody actor in his early 20s, touring with a theater company in Cincinnati (or Louisville; historians don’t know for sure), when, the story goes, he saw a decrepit, possibly disfigured old black man singing while grooming a horse on the property of a white man whose last name was Crow. On went the light bulb. Rice took in the tune and the movements but failed, it seems, to take down the old man’s name. So in his song based on the horse groomer, he renamed him: ‘‘Weel about and turn about jus so/Ebery time I weel about, I jump Jim Crow.’’ And just like that, Rice had invented the fellow who would become the mascot for two centuries of legalized racism.
That night, Rice made himself up to look like the old black man — or something like him, because Rice’s get-up most likely concocted skin blacker than any actual black person’s and a gibberish dialect meant to imply black speech. Rice had turned the old man’s melody and hobbled movements into a song-and-dance routine that no white audience had ever experienced before. What they saw caused a permanent sensation. He reportedly won 20 encores.
Other performers came and conquered, particularly the Virginia Minstrels, who exploded in 1843, burned brightly then burned out after only months. In their wake, P. T. Barnum made a habit of booking other troupes for his American Museum; when he was short on performers, he blacked up himself. By the 1840s, minstrel acts were taking over concert halls, doing wildly clamored-for residencies in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. A blackface minstrel would sing, dance, play music, give speeches and cut up for white audiences, almost exclusively in the North, at least initially. Blackface was used for mock operas and political monologues (they called them stump speeches), skits, gender parodies and dances. taking over concert halls, doing wildly clamored-for residencies in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
As a result, white performers putting on blackface became highly popular. And this led to a bizarre development in which even black performers felt obliged to put on blackface and make caricatures of themselves in order to appeal to white audiences.
But where did this leave a black performer? If blackface was the country’s cultural juggernaut, who would pay Negroes money to perform as themselves? When they were hired, it was only in a pinch. Once, P. T. Barnum needed a replacement for John Diamond, his star white minstrel. In a New York City dance hall, Barnum found a boy, who, it was reported at the time, could outdo Diamond (and Diamond was good). The boy, of course, was genuinely black. And his being actually black would have rendered him an outrageous blight on a white consumer’s narrow presumptions. As Thomas Low Nichols would write in his 1864 compendium, ‘‘Forty Years of American Life,’’ ‘‘There was not an audience in America that would not have resented, in a very energetic fashion, the insult of being asked to look at the dancing of a real negro.’’ So Barnum ‘‘greased the little ‘nigger’s’ face and rubbed it over with a new blacking of burned cork, painted his thick lips vermilion, put on a woolly wig over his tight curled locks and brought him out as ‘the champion nigger-dancer of the world.’ ’’ This child might have been William Henry Lane, whose stage name was Juba. And, as Juba, Lane was persuasive enough that Barnum could pass him off as a white person in blackface. He ceased being a real black boy in order to become Barnum’s minstrel Pinocchio.
After the Civil War, black performers had taken up minstrelsy, too, corking themselves, for both white and black audiences — with a straight face or a wink, depending on who was looking. Black troupes invented important new dances with blue-ribbon names (the buck-and-wing, the Virginia essence, the stop-time). But these were unhappy innovations. Custom obligated black performers to fulfill an audience’s expectations, expectations that white performers had established. A black minstrel was impersonating the impersonation of himself. Think, for a moment, about the talent required to pull that off.
I found this to be a truly bizarre story.