Tuesday, October 13, 2009

An Aboriginal perspective on blackface

I've had a massive response to my post the other day quoting a black person's perspective on the Hey Hey It's Saturday blackface skit. (You can read it here.)Folks have been sending it around via Twitter and Livejournal, which I'm really happy about - good to see another example of how the new media can be used for positive social change.

After Mike Justice gave his perspective on the issue, he forwarded on to me a response from an indigenous woman giving her take on this business. I've also noticed an informative article by well-known indigenous Australian journalist Stan Grant, now working for CNN, adding some context for foreign readers. All of which is very timely, because a common argument used by many of the ignoramuses defending the blackface skit is that becase we don't have a history of blackface here, it therefore has no offensive connotations.

This is of course untrue, according to Jirra Lulla Harvey. She is a young indigenous community leader and artist, who has been previously awarded the National (Indigenous) Scholarship and two consecutive Undergraduate Indigenous Achievement Awards. She has been the Victorian Correspondent for the national Indigenous newspaper, The Koori Mail, while for her painting Jirra was named the 2004 NAIDOC Artist of the Year.

Here's what she has to say:

A dominant argument in the debate over a recent revival of minstrel performance is that Blackface is not offensive to Australian audiences, because we do not have a history of minstrelsy in this country. It has been said that that the typecasting, buffooning, and degrading of Black people, by white actors, is an exclusively American tradition.

Henry Melville’s Bushrangers (1834) is commonly regarded as the first play written and produced in Australia. An Aboriginal character made an appearance; his name was Native and he was played by a white man in Blackface. The script was as follows:

NATIVE – Me want baccy and bredley – me no long time – me got very old blanket.

ELLEN – Well blackey, you shall have both, if you will dance a corroboree?

NATIVE – He, he! Corroboree?

ELLEN – Yes! Corroboree. No baccy without corroboree.

The character “Native” then sang and danced a dance that had little resemblance to any corroboree.

Minstrel Shows were at one point the most popular form of entertainment in the United States of America and by the mid 1800s had become an international sensation. As well as being popular in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, they found a colonial audience in India, Jamaica, Nigeria and South Africa. Each country incorporated its own racism and as the popularity of minstrelsy spread, so too did the cultural stereotypes it projected.

In Australian minstrelsy Aboriginal characters were redefined according to this global typecasting. No longer were they Yorta Yorta or Wathaurung, they became simple characterisations of the Black Other. When relegated to this position, Aboriginal characters (and the people they supposedly depict) become laden with cultural stereotypes from across the ages and the seas. American and British minstrelsy was based on centuries of racism towards people of African and Caribbean descent; when Blackface hit our shores there was a substantial bank of racial stereotypes that aided in the portrayal/betrayal of a newly colonized people.

Charles Chauvel’s assimilationist tale Jedda (1955) was the first Australian film in which Aboriginal characters were played by Aboriginal actors. The character of Marbuk was played by Bob Wilson “a true blue-black” said Elsa Chauvel, Charles’ wife and working partner, “The darkest shade of Australian native” one who “could climb a tree as swiftly and nimbly as a chimpanzee.” Interestingly Half-Cast Joe, the narrator and male lead, was played by a white actor in Blackface.

In the 121 years between Henry Melville’s first Australian minstrel and Chauvel’s Jedda there have been countless white actors who have played Aboriginal characters by smearing Blackface across their skin and misrepresenting our languages, songs, dances and traditions.

There is a history of Blackface in Australia. It is a hurtful and degrading history that denied our right to self representation and helped to create the racial stereotypes that plague our nation today.

I am Australian, I like a good laugh. I am Aboriginal and carry the scars of this history. To revive Blackface is not funny.

Jirra Lulla Harvey

Again, I encourage you to email or twitter this around to anyone who is still thinks blackface performance is harmless fun.

Also I wish to restate that I don't think anyone is seriously accusing any of the people involved with Hey Hey of being racists. No one is saying that the sketch is causing the end of civilisation. But this sort of thing is an important test for our nation's character, and in this case we have failed.

I have heard, time and time again in response to this issue, that Aussies are an easygoing people with a good sense of humour, and we are not as sensitive as those Americans, who just need to grow a thicker skin. But this is shown just how sensitive we are to any criticism, and how insensitive we can be to anyone who is different to us. How dare anyone tell us that something we did was not right? I have lost count of the amount of times in the last few days I have heard people say "If you don't like our ways, go back to your own country."

I really wonder what would have happened if a popular black Australian celebrity like Ernie Dingo or Marcia Hines had been on the judging panel that day. Would the act have been allowed to go ahead? I suspect not.

In the face of global criticism, do Australians, a people justly proud of their courage on the fields of war and sport, have the balls to put their hand up and say, "Oops - my bad"?

Not on the evidence I've seen so far.

So why is some racial humour acceptable and some isn't? My take on that here.


  1. I can only expect the carriers of American cultural imperialism to think and act accordingly. ;)

  2. thanks for this chris. i've been wondering what the aboriginal perspective was.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this perspective. It certainly flies in the face of what white settler Australians would like to believe about themselves.