31 October 2017




Museum collections are messy assemblages of cultural material that have been collected (read: stolen, coerced, acquired) over time. As time passes, collections grow and societal values shift, a museum may perceive some of its historical holdings as unacceptable for contemporary exhibition. These materials become proverbial skeletons in the museum collection that for conflicting reasons, the museum chooses not to confront. Blackface ephemera, specifically the history of blackface in Canada, is a fitting example of this phenomena.


Around this time every year, a Halloween costume faux-pas prompts us to revisit the history of blackface and why it is so hurtful when such racist representations resurface. Brian Roberts, author of Blackface Nation: Race, Reform and Identity in American Popular Music, 1812 provides a succinct definition. 

Blackface “was a musical genre in which actors and singers blackened their faces and hands with make-up and performed what were nearly always spurious versions of African-American song, dance and expression.”

Mr. Hickey, blackface theatre performer, Montreal, QC 1896. Source

Blackface is commonly associated with American musical traditions, but Canadian audiences also participated in this harmful cultural practice. Although Canadian blackface is less frequently discussed and acknowledged, archival material reminds us of the prominence of this genre.

Protest against blackface did not suddenly emerge in 2017. As early as the mid nineteenth century, Blacks protested these racist caricatures that were rooted in slavery. In the 1840s, Black Canadians organized a petition at Toronto City Hall hoping to outlaw the practice. Unfortunately, these efforts did little to stop blackface performances or mitigate its sweeping cultural influence. Blackface permeated numerous forms of popular culture, further perpetuating racist imagery.

Given the popularity blackface, why is this history of blackface not visible in Canadian museums?

Perhaps museums are conflicted about whether or not they should exhibit this material. It would be remiss not to mention that this history enacts violence on certain visitors, particularly visitors of colour, and encountering such imagery in a museum or gallery space must be done accurately and mindfully.  On the other hand, there is no doubt that blackface in Canada disrupts and complicates dominant Canadian narratives. Whatever the rationale for not sharing this history, it must be noted that there are consequences when museums do not engage with this history. Namely, hurtful stereotypes persist and manifest in new ways when certain stories are lazily labelled “difficult histories” and are denied the opportunity for re-contextualization through exhibition.  
Exhibition about blackface at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Photo courtesy of Kendra Campbell.

Rather than deny the existence of these skeletons in museum closets, cultural institutions should explore new approaches to interpret this history more empathetically. When museums engage in nuanced storytelling there is an opportunity to create space for learning and to contribute to dialogue. 

This week’s Arts Against Post Racialism Exhibition at OCAD U Grad Gallery (205 Richmond St. West) is an excellent advancement of this issue. From October 30 - November 3rd, experience video, sculpture and film installations that bring visibility and challenge blackface in Canada. 

Arts Against Post Racialism: Strengthening Resistance Against Contemporary Canadian Blackface is a SSHRC-funded knowledge mobilization initiative led by Dr Philip Howard (McGill University, Department of Integrated Studies in Education) in collaboration with artist/curator Camille Turner that challenges blackface and postracialism by supporting efforts to challenge them. Source. 

 Slanely, Catherine. (2003) Family Secrets Crossing the Colour Line, p.45.

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