Home > About Us, History > Blackface openly “eaten” in Sweeden – its face shares racial parallels with Jim Crow

Blackface openly “eaten” in Sweeden – its face shares racial parallels with Jim Crow

April 25, 2012

Blackface, a holdover from 19th century American minstrel shows which was long used to support slavery and discrimination, is currently being used in Sweden to apparently speak against female genital mutilation.

The artist Makode Lind, designer of the blackface cake, said its purpose was to bring attention to female genital mutilation in some parts of Africa. One might understand why one would want to bring attention to this topic, but what seems to pass over the head of the artist and Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, is that the cake used – as it was designed – shares unmistakable characteristics from the American south.

The lips are overblown, large and red, going round the mouth in an exaggerated degree. Then there are the large white buck teeth, large black and white eyes. There is a plethora of literature written about this most popular of entertainment in the Unites States (at least for part of the 19th century). For purposes of illustration, these images will show similarities between the Jim Crow and other minstrel images with the blackface cake.

This minstrel character has the exaggerated lips and white eyes. Anyone familiar with the U.S. history of slavery would instantly recognise blackface for what it is.

This next character is “Jim Crow,” but most people in the United States have been conditioned to think of the racist laws that separated whites and blacks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In reality, Jim Crow is a caricature of an enslaved African American whose purpose was to justify slavery and later on discrimination. Originally developed by Thomas Dartmouth (otherwise known as “Daddy Rice), and shown to audiences in 1828, this character soon became a national hit, with a myriad of variations that sometimes manifested themselves in interesting ways.

It did not stop with Jim, though. It continued with the character “Zip Coon,” a highly racist blackface character that had an interesting tune, not all that unlike the Jim Crow song. The Jim Crow song is in part

Weel about and turn about and do jis so, Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.”

This image of Jim Crow shows the exaggerated features and “dance.”

It is apparent that the writer intended to mimic “slave talk,” whatever that may have been. In other words, Africans, dragged from their homes across the ocean, forced to live new lives and bear children who would likewise end their days in chains, were never taught proper English. And with good reason. The slave-owners understood very quickly what could result if slaves communicated: they would rise up and kill those who were oppressing them. This and other reasons served to keep slaves in a state of ignorance. When slaves were in the United States, for example, after a generation or so, they would no longer know the African languages, religions or cultures to the extent of the original Africans. The only way slave-owners could keep them under control, since they were already able to speak English, was to prevent any sort of literacy, proper speech or betterment of the mind etc. – or so the logic went.

Needless to say, it is highly insulting to those Africans and their American born children to dress up and mimic their ancestors. On top of this, the caricatures are not even accurate. No one has lips, eyes or teeth in the manner depicted. Did some slaves say “weel”? It is possible. But if it is true, it was due to crimes of slave-owners during slavery, not innate inferiority. Such mimicking in the 19th century was arguably an attempt to dehumanise the Africans, which was an itself an argument to keep them as slaves.

The Zip Coon caricature is one of the most hideous characters of all the slave times. He was a free African American who was out-of-place, always causing trouble, and never quite able to copy the speech or looks of the whites. He is often shown in his former master’s clothes, which do not fit him properly. Unable to dress or act properly, he is blamed for society’s problems, including the tendency for some to claim blacks destroy society. This obviously is false, but the images persist and are very much a part of people’s lives today, even if they do not realise it.

Anyone who is familiar with racist depiction of blacks in the film  Birth of a Nation would immediately understand that blacks were accused of raping white women, and often suffered the consequences, even though in most cases they were entirely innocent. When it is propaganda, especially racist propaganda, facts are often left out. After all, the goal is not inform, but to indoctrinate. Below is a copy of an image of Zip Coon. Notice his clothes, chain and manner of walking. This character is more or less a buffoon. The message is clear: whites who created and distributed these images were saying blacks were inferior. He was the embodiment of the free slave, and an  argument for keeping blacks in chains.

This racist image presents an image of the free black. It is a form of libel which claimed free blacks were the cause of society’s problems.

At this time it might be educational to contrast these images of Jim Crow and Zip Coon with the images of the Swedish Minister of Culture.

Swedish Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth apparently feeds an “African” girl part of her own private parts.

The similarities are clear. What is striking is that a serious problem, female genital mutilation, is turned into a joke and a person dressed up to look like an “African” female is apparently having her own vagina fed to her. It is hard to imagine how one could possibly be more insulting to Africans. Listening to the video with the audible screams (here), one does not know if this is a sick joke or just designed to call Africans “backwards.” While the Swedish minister has apologised and the artist has denied racism was involved, it is not easy to ignore the parallels in the blackface images.

What seems clear is that some people have not learned much from the past. Are there no better way sto bring attention to female genital mutilation than using openly racist images of “African” faces or feeding an African to herself? The use of these images calls into question the sincerity of the people involved in dealing with the mutilation problem in Africa.

Lest anyone think this is not serious, the question arises: How does this art fit in with the European narrative that Africans are cannibals? For all the accusations against Africans, there has surfaced very little evidence to suggest Africans were cooking each other in pots. What does this image sugges?

Civis Journal

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