3 min

Blackface by artistic reasoning

Is this form of performance art acceptable in the world of drag?

Another Pride season come and gone. For many, the weekend’s highlight was Blockorama, celebrating the 15th anniversary of Blackness Yes’s wildly popular celebration of the black queer community. Organizers pulled out the big guns with headliners Diana King and 1990s divas En Vogue. King told me Blocko made her feel “free, strong and proud. In Jamaica, there’s a law that if you’re caught having sex, even in your own house, you can go to jail for 10 years. I am going to be myself with no fear. Coming out, I expected the worst, but people write me letters daily from all the islands. It’s been 95-percent positive!” En Vogue’s set was plagued with sound issues, but backstage afterward, Cindy Herron and Terry Ellis were nearly hyperactive about their love of Toronto. “Being here for gay pride is un-frigging-believable. We want to come back for WorldPride. Tell the organizers to have us back! We love the energy, especially here at Blocko. Shopping’s good here, and oh my god, the food: roti, shawarma, salads, fish soup, sushi.” They’re proud to rep the 1990s, saying, “It’s been so many years since we were here last, but the songs still feel good to sing. We love taking people back.”

Not wanting to kill their post-show vibe, I didn’t ask them about what I’d been asking everyone else all day: their thoughts on recent incidents of blackface in Toronto’s bar and club scene. Blockorama seemed like a perfect place to gauge opinions, but I had trouble getting folks to go on the record; many were disappointed in/hurt about Daytona Bitch’s recent performance as Miss Cleo but didn’t want to hurt their friendship with her, while others stood by her. Various nightlife denizens had much to say, and while their answers were wide-ranging, many were also ill-informed.

I am not someone who will stand here and say all use of blackface is bad. Ben Vereen, memorably, performed in blackface at President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, making a powerful political point about the Republican Party. I adore Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled. Mandy Patinkin (a white actor) gave an incredible performance in The Wild Party in blackface as a rage-filled, psychotic vaudeville performer. These are works of art that used the tool of blackface as something more than a punch line. Many of the white Toronto performers in the past few years who’ve been grotesquely painted up say things like “This is my art; it’s an artistic statement” but then can’t follow up with what exactly that statement is.

The reality is that, for a queer person of colour, a night out in gay circles will probably involve mockery of your race, culture, heritage or traditions. In Canada, there is a long history of blackface in Toronto (even Al Jolson used to grace the stage of the Royal Alexandra singing “Mammy” with fat red lips and shuffling feet) and Quebec (with contemporary performers like Jean Lapointe and Mario Jean), so pretending that it’s an American phenomenon of the past is willful ignorance. So is trying to posit blackface as something freed of its vaudeville roots; many shameful instances of black-, yellow- or brownface have stung since vaudeville died in the 1930s. Those who spoke out against Daytona’s performance were told by her fans, “Get over it — don’t be so PC sensitive” and “I’m not racist, but I thought it was funny.” To my eye, this line of thinking implies that racism is over, racism is something we’ve gotten past together, and racism doesn’t exist anymore.

I don’t think that Daytona Bitch is racist. Based on my personal and professional interactions with her, I would encourage folks not to paint her with that brush. However, it is possible for people who aren’t racist to do racist things, and here I look to my own family. My Irish grandmother was one of the painfully few people of her generation who supported my parents’ early-1970s interracial wedding. She danced, hosted the Irish/Dominican wedding dinner, and welcomed her new black in-laws into her family without hesitation. No racism there whatsoever. However, until her dying day she referred to Brazil nuts as “nigger toes,” and when people called her out, she would say many of the things that people are saying now when they try to normalize blackface.

Please, please, please Toronto performers: if you have to do blackface, prepare a solid artistic reasoning. Are you doing it in a venue where there’s room for context and decent artistic exploration, or are you doing it in a drunken bar scene where it’s about getting a cheap laugh?

As performers, we can’t always go for cheap laughs. Mel Brooks, the man responsible for a movie scene of cowboys sitting around a campfire endlessly farting, once told me, “You can’t always depend on the cheap stuff.” We have seen time and time again that blackface imagery is often not worth the trouble it will bring you, so my challenge to you is to find a laugh that’s strong, not cheap. Go for a smart laugh. Put your training and experience to use. And for the love of all things holy, do not sing “Mammy.”