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Hey, hey, blackface comedy

By Peter West - posted Monday, 12 October 2009


A skit featuring men in blackface aired on Channel Nine’s Hey Hey it’s Saturday on Wednesday night. When I checked the web on Thursday morning under the entry “Blackface”, Wikipedia already had coverage of the Hey Hey “incident”.

The idea that such a skit could appear on national Australian TV will not enhance Australia’s reputation abroad. It will be taken in India and elsewhere as further proof of Australian hostility towards black people and, in addition, of Australian ignorance of slavery as an institution dedicated to white superiority and black suffering.

The Indian press has already made a great deal of attacks on Indian students in Melbourne and elsewhere. “White Australian Policy is alive and well”: I can see the headlines in the UK US and Asia already.

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Where would we start? Slaves were brought to the Americas in the 1500s. Slavery was used generally to force blacks to work cheaply; occasionally it might have been used on Native Americans. Slavery is familiar to most of us as a North American institution, but there were slaves in many other places. Although slavery was officially abolished in Brazil in 1888, there are disturbing discussions about forced labour in Brazil in 2009 which suggest that the institution lives on in various forms, even today.

During the Civil War in the USA, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the slaves free after winning the Battle of Antietam which finally gave the North a taste of the success it had been seeking:

I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and part of States are, and henceforth shall be, free …

A Civil Rights Act gave citizenship to black people in 1866. But success for the North and the subjugation of the South began a long period of difficult times for people of colour. The Ku Klux Klan was founded in Tennessee in 1868. It is merely the best known of many instruments to empower whites and subjugate people of colour. White governors gave orders, and police stood by idly, as lynch mobs shot blacks with impunity. Lynch mobs strung up black men on the excuse that they had attacked white women.

Lynching was explained by Benjamin Tillman, Governor of South Carolina:

"We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him."

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After men of colour returned to the US after World War I, they might have felt they had fought for and deserved equality. There were 25 race riots in the first six months of 1919, and black Americans were lynched and murdered, sometimes while still in US uniform.

A lynching in Marion, Indiana was photographed and later made the subject of a poem, Strange Fruit. Subsequently, this was made into a song by Billie Holliday. As whites had no guilt about these actions, they were often recorded, with whites smiling as they stand by blacks hanging from trees.

Struggles for equality continued throughout the1960s, with Southern Senators attempting to block or delay any legislation that would force schools, buses and other institutions to integrate. Riots in many US cities confronted Americans with the brutal realities of the “Land of the Free”. Struggles for equality continue to this day.

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First published in the Canberra Times on October 12, 2009.



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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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