A brief history of racism and filmmaking…

NB: This talk was originally given on 5/12/2016 at the EYE Film Museum as an introduction to the film “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986) by Spike Lee, as part of the Looking for America: Black Lives on Screen series. Note that you may find some of the images used below distressing. 

It is difficult to pinpoint the very first moment that blackface was used in the depiction of people of African descent on stage. There is evidence to suggest that the ancient Greeks were using face paint to depict theatrical characters of different backgrounds and it is well known that blackface has been used up until quite recently in productions of Verdi’s Othello.

Furthermore, in the UK Morris (or Moorish) dancing continues to be popular in certain rural locations. This tradition, which is said to date back to the Medieval era, arguably depicted the Moor, through the blacking up of the face and so-called “exotic” dancing and costumes. In the image below, you can see former UK Prime Minister David Cameron posing happily with a group of Morris dancers in 2014.

David Cameron with Morris dancers at Banbury Folk Festival, 2014.
David Cameron with Morris dancers at Banbury Folk Festival, 2014.

 

Quite often, when we think about the history of blackface, we immediately think of the American blackface minstrel of the 19th century, which depicted Africans and African Americans on stage accompanied by music. Below you can see TD Rice’s interpretation of a black man for his stage show.

Sketching of Thomas D Rice in blackface performing “Jump Jim Crow” (ca. 1830)
Sketching of Thomas D Rice in blackface performing “Jump Jim Crow” (ca. 1830)

Minstrelsy was like television back then. This is how the average person got to know about enslaved people’s everyday lives. However, these shows made a mockery of the very humanity of people of African descent. Black people were being portrayed as lazy, stupid, filthy, violent, over-sexed, happy to serve, etc. Therefore there was no reason for them to be granted their freedom or equal rights – so the argument went.

It’s no surprise at all that when minstrelsy groups toured Europe, their shows were very popular. And it’s within the context of US minstrel shows and Dutch slavery, that Zwarte Piet was reintroduced into the Sinterklaas festival.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet postcard (ca. 1860)
Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet postcard (ca. 1860)

 

Above, in an illustration printed onto a postcard but originally from the book ‘Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht’ by Jan Schenkman, Piet’s image is consistent with portrayals of black servitude in the mid-19th century.

Illustration from Florence Upton’s Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog (1895)
Illustration from Florence Upton’s Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog (1895)

 

By the end of the 19th century, the popular story book Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog had been released in the UK. The illustrator of the book, Florence Upton, was said to have been heavily influenced by the blackface minstrel shows she had seen as a child.

Postcard promoting Banania hot chocolate, printed in 2007.
Postcard promoting Banania hot chocolate, printed in 2007.
Poster for Golden Shred marmalade by Robertson's Jam.
Poster for Golden Shred marmalade by Robertson’s Jam featuring the Golliwog.

 

Minstrelsy complemented the misinformation inherent in European infotainment and advertising. Golden Shred is a type of jam in the UK and the Golliwog was their icon from 1910 to the early 2000s. Banania is a hot chocolate brand and has used a caricature of a Senegalese man as its mascot since the 1920s. This image is still in use today.

Book cover of The Proud Golliwog by Enid Blyton (1946)
Book cover of The Proud Golliwog by Enid Blyton (1946)
Zwarte Piet postcard (ca. 1950)
Zwarte Piet postcard (ca. 1950)

And by the mid 20th century, not only was the Golly increasingly prominent in British arts and entertainments – as we can see by his inclusion in various Enid Byton books, Zwarte Piet was being portrayed also in a more minstrelesque way.

However in the early 20th century, it was not only in books and food packaging that these images of black people could be observed.

D W Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915. This film is some serious wish fulfilment but it had dire consequences for black Americans. In the film, black characters are seen preventing whites from voting and also exhibiting anti-social behaviour in public. When one of the characters (a white actor in blackface) attempts to rape a white female character, he is hunted down by the KKK and lynched.

This film basically promoted the idea that black people cannot have equal rights because we’ll take over society and begin brutalising white folks. As a consequence, the release of Birth of a Nation actually led to an increase in lynching for the most trivial of actions. It was basically a way for whites to keep blacks in their place after slavery.

Photographs of real lynchings of black people, would have been printed on postcards and in local newspapers following the murder of a black individual, or as in this case, groups of blacks. This circulation of imagery of dead bodies, essentially informed the American public that the lynching they had seen in The Birth of a Nation could happen in real life, and was perfectly justifiable. It acted as encouragement for whites and a warning for blacks.

The very first Hollywood film to feature sound was The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jonson, who sang jazz songs in blackface. Indeed, in the 1920s black actors such as Josephine Baker would themselves also wear blackface. Eventually, blackface in film and on stage in the US became less and less tasteful due to the work of groups such as the NAACP. However, the same stereotypes of black people – as witnessed throughout the minstrelsy period – were omnipresent within cinema.

Hattie McDaniel winning the award for Best Supporting Actress, at the Academy Awards (1940)
Hattie McDaniel winning the award for Best Supporting Actress, at the Academy Awards (1940)

Popular characters between the 1930s and 1940s included Stepin Fetchit, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and of course, Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel won an Academy award for her role. While this was an incredible moment for McDaniel, as she was the first black American to win an academy award, she won it for her convincing portrayal of the happy servant.

Scene from Disney’s Fantasia (1940)
Scene from Disney’s Fantasia (1940)

 

This stereotype in particular was pervasive during the period. In cartoons, the behaviour of a character was completed with exaggerated facial features reminiscent of the blackface era. The above character from Disney’s Fantasia, was removed when the film was reissued in 2000.

Scene from Disney’s Fantasia (2000)
Scene from Disney’s Fantasia (2000)

 

Having said this, the above characters were kept in the film.

This version of black womanhood – the hypersexualised, exotic, plaything – continues to be common in various forms of media to this day (such as music videos, reality TV, soap operas). In the Netherlands, the film Alleen Maar Nette Mensen (2012) became infamous for its derogatory portrayals of black women, black female sexuality and black motherhood. Instead of offering actors of colour an opportunity to appear in a mainstream film, it contributed to existing negative and harmful ideas about life in Amsterdam Zuid Oost.

Immanuelle Grives as Rowanda in “Alleen Maar Nette Mensen” (2012) by Lodewijk Crijns
Immanuelle Grives as Rowanda in “Alleen Maar Nette Mensen” (2012) by Lodewijk Crijns

The black maid or the irresponsible and abusive black mother is also still a commonly rewarded role for black actresses according to Hollywood standards, which is clear when examining all of the actresses of African descent who have won an Academy Award so far (see below).

academyawards
Top Row L-R: Hattie McDaniel wins best supporting actress for Mammy in Gone With the Wind; Whoopi Goldberg wins best supporting actress for Oda Mae in Ghost; Halle Berry wins best actress for Leticia in Monster’s Ball. Middle Row L-R: Jennifer Hudson wins best supporting actress for Effie in Dreamgirls; Mo’Nique wins best supporting actress for Mary Lee in Precious; Octavia Spencer wins best supporting actress for Minny in The Help. Bottom Row L-R: Lupita Nyong’o wins best supporting actress for Patsey in 12 Years a Slave.

Furthermore, the troubling depictions of Zwarte Piet are still shown on television in the Netherlands. As for the UK, blackface should have stopped with the cancellation of the Black and White Minstrel Show in the late 1970s. But it reappeared as recently as 2006 in Little Britain. And all over the world, so-called slapstick comedy sketches in film and on TV portray people of colour as good for nothing morons. All in the name of fun, right?

trump-black-facegolly

US, Dutch and British blackface traditions are being used, even in 2016 to establish socio-political barriers that threaten the rights of non-white citizens and promote white supremacy. When Trump won the US election with his discourse of hate and racism, people celebrated with blackface. Dutch police brutalise protestors for their attempts to remove a blackface character – which explicitly mocks the victims of the Dutch slave-trade and their descendents. After voting to leave the EU, certain UK citizens believed Britain would become a white country again, using the “wog” character to illustrate this desire.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in “Belle” (2013) by Amma Asante
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in “Belle” (2013) by Amma Asante

 

This obsession with white dominance can be directly linked to images and narratives we’re exposed to from a young age – be that in history books or in films. Mainstream film critics praised 12 Years a Slave, and overlooked Amma Asante’s Belle (based on the life of the very real Dido Elizabeth Belle) because they’re more comfortable with the notion that a black women’s place in history is firmly routed in slavery, not Georgian aristocracy.

Melvin van Peeples, who directed Watermelon Man (1970) – the film in the intro clip that employed whiteface – also wrote and narrated the documentary “Classified X” (1998). This is what he has to say in the documentary, about black characters in US cinema:

“The coloured folks in the movies were always quaking and “Yassir” bossing and shuffling. They didn’t bear any resemblance to the majestic, hard-working black folks, strutting around the South Side of Chicago where I was from.”

He goes on to say that:

“Black movies, made by African American filmmakers, were extremely popular with black audiences, tired of seeing themselves portrayed as slaves, servants, mammies and dumb bucks.”

For a more detailed history of racism in US cinema, you can see the full documentary here:

 

My favourite filmmaker right now is Ava DuVernay. Her work consistently puts black resistance to racial inequality at the centre of the narrative, striving to depict human experiences that are relatable to black audiences. DuVernay’s characters do laugh, dance and sing but they also fight, argue eloquently, teach and learn.

To conclude, I’d like to come back to Spike Lee. The first film I saw by Lee was Malcolm X. This film really changed me. Everything I’d been taught about the various black nationalist movements that took shape in the US throughout the 20th century was challenged. The film educates its audiences about the life and work of Malcolm X by humanising him and his experiences. He is neither glorified nor vilified, and the importance of his legacy is at the centre of the narrative.

malcolm-x
Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in “Malcolm X” (1992) by Spike Lee

When we think of the rest of his filmography, part of Lee’s genius is the nuance in his satire. I’ll let you all decide for yourselves what Lee is trying to say with She’s Gotta Have It, which was his first feature length film. But it is clear, from films such as Jungle Fever and Bamboozled – while his humour might seem like a form of crass self-deprecation, the simple fact is this: you need to understand the very real history of the stereotypes on the screen, to understand the criticism inherent in Lee’s storytelling.

Lee has no time to break it down for those who don’t know better; his unapologetic concern is to speak to the folks already living what he is showing.

“Black lives on screen” is more than mere entertainment. It’s a reflection of reality. And who’s reality we’re talking about is a very important matter indeed.

 

Amsterdam EYE Film Museum Black Lives on Screen Series

I had the pleasure of joining the EYE Film Museum’s Black Lives on Screen series this week but giving an introduction talk for their screening of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986). The Black Lives on Screen initiative is part of a broader three month festival at the museum, honouring US cinema with Looking for America.

I had been invited their to discuss blackface and racialised imagery in US cinema, as an alternative to the Sinterklaas festivities taking place on the same evening. I’ll be publishing the full talk soon!

The talk and the screening were well attended by folks of various backgrounds and by linking Zwarte Piet to a more global network of anti-black imagery, it was clear that I got the audience thinking!

There will be more interesting introductions to a wide range of independent films up until the 21st December, when the series ends, so check it all out via the EYE’s website while you still have the chance!

 

Sign up now for ERIF’s 2nd Returning the Gaze conference!

Returning the Gaze II Eventbrite

Check out ERIF’s second conference Returning the Gaze II: Stories of Resistance, which will take place at the University of Innsbruck in Austria this November.

You can download and share the e-flyer for the event here.

There will be more news via ERIF’s website on the programme soon, but already the foundation has announced an exhibition by Karina Griffith, a performance by Mohammed Wa Baile and a keynote lecture by Anandi Ramamurthy!!!

Right now the first and most cost effective wave of tickets are on sale so sign up now before the offer ends!

See you in Innsbruck ❤

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Must Have Books: They Came Before Columbus (1976)

before columbus

I know I’ve been fairly absent recently. I can’t say much about that apart from life is really busy right now and as much as I’d like to take more time to write, it’s not been possible. That being said, in the final remaining hours of “black history month” I felt like sharing a book that I’ve been reading here and there for the past couple of weeks in an attempt to make up for several missed must have books editions, especially since the book relates directly to black history.

While in New York over the summer, I visited the Schomburg Centre for Research in black Culture, located in Harlem. There’s a really interesting book store located there and I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of Ivan van Sertima’s epic, decolonial, masterpiece They Came Before Columbus (1976). As I mentioned above, I’m choosing to share this book – quite deliberately – in the final hours of black history. I believe black history is more constant than merely the month of October (or February as it is in the USA), however it’s a start in using a platform to re-educate the masses on black (global) histories.

So back to the book then.

Van Sertima wrote this book in the 1970s and throughout the text he references works from as early as the Columbian period itself in order to shake the pervasive myth that Columbus (or indeed any other European individual) “discovered” the Americas. In the years following its publication, Van Sertima continued his research and gave lectures (see below) on his findings in order to promote his assertion that Africans had travelled to the Americas (and contributed significantly to indigenous cultures) centuries before the Portuguese and Spanish. You would think then that by now – almost 40 years after the publication of such a text – that these assertions would be common knowledge and/or informing 21st century understandings of colonial history. Certainly, Van Sertima’s arguments are based on incredibly compelling evidence. However, it doesn’t appear to be the case that the claims made in this book are widely known.

The Atlantic Black Star published a piece recently emphasising early African contact with Olmec communities – as argued by Van Sertima – as well as other archaeological evidence. The fact that any time was spent on such a segment illustrates that this is still news to some people and the very same devaluation of black social, political and cultural structures and contributions – on a global scale – which Van Sertima aimed to challenge, is still something we are required to question and challenge today. Such contempt towards people of African descent and lack of self – awareness on our own parts is the reason black history month is still considered necessary. I would go further by saying that we need black history every month of the year. Clearly we have a lot to learn!

In short, there is more to our histories than being slaves, nannies, butlers, postmen, cleaners, etc. We didn’t just arrive on slave ships. Our histories are much more complex, varied and full of agency, than we ever imagined.

Pleasure and Pain: using spaces for amusement

afropunk

A younger and much loved cousin contacted me recently, worried about the rising prices of Afropunk festival tickets for this year’s Brooklyn edition, which will be hosted this weekend. She reached out to me as I had told her of my plans to attend the festival with a friend. Besides her more general concerns that I should try to get an early bird ticket to avoid spending too much, she was also worried about the affect an increase in price would have on who would go on to attend the festival. Specifically, she was worried that less local Brooklynites would be able to attend due to the cost, paving the way for more (white) hipsters and yuppies. Communicated here, is the much wider concern over the level of white appropriation of spaces and cultures of colour at the same time as non-white individuals being prevented from enjoying their cultures and spaces. For example, there are numerous tales of black women and girls who have been criticised for or prevented from wearing natural hairstyles to work and school, such as braids, twists or afro-puffs. While it is not known whether or not white women are criticised for wearing braids to work, we do know that in recent times, white celebrities have been credited for starting trends such as “baby hair” or cornrows.

Meanwhile, we are already well-versed in the discourses highlighting the appropriation of various musical styles by white artists established within black communities (from blues, to jazz, to rock and roll to hip hop, etc). Furthermore, neighbourhoods such as Brooklyn in New York, Brixton in London and the Bijlmer in Amsterdam suffered from few resources and bad reputations, before hipsters moved in, removed local institutions and drove up property prices, thereby forcing out families who had been living in these neighbourhoods for generations.

These examples each correspond with my cousin’s fears for Afropunk festival as it becomes more popular and also at risk of becoming the next Coachella, i.e. a moment of recreation for the bored, rich white kids in their tunics and beaded jewellery, rather than an event of expression and celebration for people of colour. I will discuss in a later post on how Afropunk is a sort of pilgrimage for me to make, given my history of event and campaign organising, however for now, I’d like to focus on the politics of using certain spaces for mere amusement.

I’ve become increasingly interested lately in the imperial nature of globalisation and its link to the tourism industry. As someone who loves to travel (as hinted at since I’m going to New York for a music festival), this is often quite an awkward thought process for me to contend with. However the more I am confronted with the unbalance of space politics and cultural appropriation, the more I realise how much the material implications of the tourist industry (and other leisure industries) should be unpacked, discussed, critiqued and properly resolved.

As I have discussed in an earlier Rants & Raves post as well as in my recent article on The Clearing, the use of Roma caravans to sell a romantic sense of remoteness and isolation rings hollow when juxtaposed with the stark realities of isolation and remoteness experienced by Romany and Irish Traveller families due to NIMBYism and caravan site shortages. Furthermore, treating the cultures of caravan-dwelling communities in such a manner serves as a mechanism that diminishes their actual presence within society as well as undermining their socio-political exclusion. While many Roma caravan accommodation companies might argue they are honouring Roma culture, they do the opposite (albeit unwittingly) by feeding into existing discourses, which claim “real” Travellers live in bow-top wagons surrounded by pristine rural conditions, sustaining themselves by picking fruit in the summer. Anything deviating from this idyllic narrative simultaneously insists the culture is not authentic and therefore, the individuals are undeserving of their civic rights.

While I had noticed a certain level of space privilege and socio-economic unbalance when vacationing, the above conceptualisations surrounding the use of Roma caravans for “glamping” parks was a turning point in the way I understood the blatant cultural exploitation involved in tourism. No room is left for a fair exchange in many situations and thus instead of local communities benefitting from the money being poured into their nations and neighbourhoods by tourists, these spaces in fact become more of a playground for the apathetic and insensitive, who proudly seek to further their own personal geo-foot print.

Often the tourist industry also encourages blatant ignorance and insensitivity at certain locations. Take for instance the reported sale of golliwogs – an enduring symbol of British racism and imperialism – in a gift shop situated opposite the slavery museum in Liverpool, perhaps the UK’s most important institute to deal with this chapter of our history. Then there is the slave trail in Middelburg, The Netherlands, which instead of providing a damning critique of this chapter of Dutch history, glorifies the period and the economic gains established from it. Similarly is the “Africa Room” in a Belgian B&B, located in Brugge, which displays colonial posters and various other so-called African artefacts, which were (according to the owner) collected at various jumble sales and local auctions. The owner admitted he himself had never been to the continent and did not know very much about Belgium’s colonial history in Africa, let alone more general facts related to any African culture or history. The tour guides at Cape Coast and Elmina slave forts in Ghana do their best to honestly portray the horror of their sites of employment, however the gift shop makes light of the historical purpose of the fortresses.

Gift bag at Elmina Castle
Gift bag at Elmina Castle

Southern plantations have been opened up in the USA for tourism, which (for the same reasons as the slave forts in Ghana) doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing if these artefacts can be used to properly educate people about this shocking and brutal history. Unfortunately, influential publications such as the Lonely Planet books give a more romantic image, with one edition stating:

“Designed in 1741, this plantation’s vast gardens are the oldest in the US. One hundred slaves spent a decade terracing the land and digging the precise geometric canals…The bewitching grounds are a mix of classical formal French gardens and romantic woodland, bounded by flooded rice paddies and rare-breed farm animals.” – Page 358

Meanwhile, the Maritime museum and lighthouse in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil barely deals with slavery or the true nature of the Portuguese invasion at all. Some details are shoved in as an aside, however the wording on the display implies that these incidents were so long ago that they are not relevant anymore, Brazilian society is entirely interracial and equal. This of course could not be further from the truth.

These issues within the tourism industry became magnified for me by Dutch immigrants in both Tamale, Ghana and Kapas Island, Malaysia (interestingly, former colonies of the Netherlands) who set out to create their own versions of “paradise” in these distant lands. While I only reviewed the website for the Dutch-owned resort in Kapas, I actually stayed at the gloriously described guesthouse in Tamale, where I was greeted by rude owners, who barked at their staff, displayed Zwarte Piet iconography and had furnished their rooms with dirty, broken items from IKEA. These people were not interested in making the best of their opportunity; they appeared to take it for granted that they could hang out, make a decent living and control the livelihoods of local people.

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Another immigrant I did meet in Malaysia, was a guy from Den Haag who helped out with a market tour and cooking course in Georgetown. While his enthusiasm and welcoming nature were really great initially, things became awkward when he began correcting and contradicting the chef. Of course, the chef could well have been wrong about key ingredients to recipes in her own cook book or the history of the local market she had frequented for years before this Den Haag dude showed up with a backpack. But it’s unlikely, isn’t it? This year, I attended another market tour (which is also part of a cooking course) in Den Haag with my husband. Truth be told, the tour and course were a wedding gift to us. We never would have picked it out for ourselves on account of the fact that I hate fish (and the chef only uses fish) and the tour is at our local market, which turned out to be very awkward when we began walking passed our usual vendors. Furthermore, the chef and tour guide turned this neighbourhood shopping space into a site of intrigue and exploration for the suburban set who came to gaze at the “coloured” urbanites in their natural habitat. One telling moment included us going over to a Caribbean vegetable stall to just look at the produce. The chef openly admitted that he didn’t know what any of the products were used for and did not engage with the vendors at all to find out, instead showing off his knowledge of onions and potatoes. Moreover, he insisted that I “must know” – even after I explained that I was English and not of Caribbean descent.

In our neighbourhood, we have Turkish restaurants, Moroccan bakeries, Hindustani dress-makers, Ghanaian braiders, Polish delis, Dutch florists, Iranian jewellers… all before getting to the well known and much loved Haagsemarkt. There is real cultural vibrancy and exchanges in our quarter however as the above example illustrates, this provides plenty of opportunity for appropriation, gentrification and voyeurism.

This brings me back to the concerns for Afropunk festival.

It remains as critical as ever for people of colour around the globe to have access to safe spaces where we can express our cultures and our politics undisturbed and without threat of violence, especially given the level of brutality and control exhibited towards black bodies, be it in the USA, Europe, North Africa or South-East Asia or Australia. It is worth reiterating that white people have been able to travel unhindered and unharmed to all of these aforementioned spaces, turning them into their own adventure wonderlands, with very little regard for the socio-political unbalances that they may contribute to by just showing up. It must be easy to ignore that the USA and Australia were stolen from indigenous people and founded upon racist ideals for the purpose of white gain, if all you want to do is have a good time. But is it right? Especially given the current institutional racism of both countries?

Where we have the opportunities and resources to understand how our histories connect to present conflicts, we should make the most of them, which from a tourism and leisure perspective, requires us to divert attention from foolishness and promote healthier knowledge systems. We should for instance, support conscious and collaborative tourist projects such as the One Africa resort in Ghana – who take a critical approach to the West’s effect on Africa and promote a better understanding of West African culture and history. We can also contribute to and promote critical travel blogs and journals, which give a much needed counter narrative to mainstream tourist rhetoric. Furthermore, we should be more open to learning simple points of information, such as where to stay, how to behave, when to travel (during the calendar year) as well as how to spend money responsibly. Finally, we should ensure that when we launch projects that are supposed to be for our communities, be they for entertainment or education, that they remain accessible to those communities and that their cultural and political essence is sustainable.