“Je Me Souviens”: On Blackface and Transnational Myth-Making–A Non-Response

“But the burden of whiteness is this: You can live in the world of myth and be taken seriously.”—Ta-Nehisi Coates

Last December, the long-time editor of The New Republic, Franklin Foer, departed from the venerable American magazine. A number of prominent writers quickly began to publicly mourn his departure, and one that did not was the award winning African-American journalist and writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Instead, he wrote a piece for The Atlantic, a subaltern version of the magazine’s history, quite Trouillotian, and reminded lamenting folk that Foer was, indeed, alive and well, as was the magazine’s ardent racism during his tenure. Then, the sharks began to circle.

His article generated very defiant responses by some very high-minded pundits because well, America enjoys, as historian David Blight once lectured about the Civil War, a good old-fashioned “mourning without politics.” That is to say, a way to memorialize itself upon Itself and wipe away, in cheerful dishonesty, what actually was.

In America, this “wiping away” often comes at the expense of wiping away the bodies and histories of people who look like me, and so, my training as a historian and scholar has been an accumulation of defensive and offensive historiographies: I know you; I know me. Coates, who is similarly trained, offered a last word with his tweet, above, as a testament to the power of white supremacy: It is a reference to his New Republic dissidents, to their unshameful willingness to debate and defend the intellectual merits of mythical science and to nest, comfortably, within a house of myth-making.

There is no greater display of this ahistorical “wiping away” than within the Quebec popular media when the topic of race surfaces. Recently, Montreal journalist, Patrick Lagacé, wrote some commentaries responding to the public discord that has arisen of late from Le Théâtre du Rideau Vert’s decision to use blackface to satirize the persona of P.K. Subban, but absent any living Black person.

When challenged, the theater’s director, Denise Filiatrault, snarled back, paternalistically, that she was outraged and that she would not, next time in her scripting, create any Black characters (foot stomp). In fact, she added punitively, she would not hire any Black actors ever again (hands akimbo) given the criticism she received from theater colleagues and real Black Quebecers pointing out her blackface decision as one that should be rethought in her future satire planning. In archetypal colonial fashion, she added, ” J’ai été la première à engager un Noir à la television!” This discourse of enforced gratitude—enveloped both in white denial and “postcolonial melancholy,” as philosopher Achille Mbembe has termed– is a well-worn pretense that, cloaked as liberal post-racial equality, actually shares kinship with “l’extrême-droite, les colo-nostalgiques.”

Lagacé, like Filiatrault, was outraged, too. In his responses, he encircled his mythical anglophone and American detractors and fortified his own ahistorical house. The great strength of national myth-making lies in its ability to both command alternative versions of history and uniquely in Quebec, to blame the “Americans,” historically, for the importation of racism into the province. In addition to a local history of blackface, Quebec historians and scholars on the history of le belle province, —English-speaking, French-speaking, bilingual, multi-lingual–, have done an excellent job documenting Quebec’s ugly history of anti-Black racism dating back to New France.

In the past few weeks, there has been much talk about what “civilized societies” do. Civilized societies, as well known, have been those that have enacted long, brutal histories of colonialism and slavery upon a certain kind of people. In our post-modern age, the shards of national civility are judged, in good part, by a nation’s ability to simply say, “I am sorry” in the present. France has done a less than excellent job at saying sorry. In fairness, a large part of this unwillingness is due to the country’s remarkable and self-imposed prevarication, its outright erasure of history, its uncanny ability to memorialize itself upon Itself. This is familiar, too, in Quebec, where history textbooks hustle a one-toned narrative of provincial history to high school students and where spoken “racisms”–after inciting white rage–, are blamed away, a priori, to another country. With its own self-serious myth-making project, is it any wonder the historian, Michel-Rolph Trouillot has asked, wryly, on this very point: What exactly is Quebec trying to remember?

Or, more simply phrased: How can a nation—its politicians, its scholars, its pundits—engage in any kind of civility concerning its anti-Black racism if it cannot even, first, see itself for who it really is?




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