Cartoon: Back Then, No One Knew Blackface Is Offensive

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The Frederick Douglass quote in this cartoon is a paraphrase; I changed his words to better fit the tone of the cartoon. The exact quote is “… the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow-citizens.”

The immediate catalyst for this cartoon was Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau apologizing after a 2001 photo of him at a party in blackface recently came to light. But it’s not specifically about Trudeau (which is why I went with 2002 instead of 2001 in the cartoon). Even today, blackface controversies come up with depressing frequency. Earlier this year,  Virginia’s governor and Virginia’s attorney general both had blackface scandals.

And every time, apologists for the old blackface photos say the same thing: You can’t judge the past by today’s standards.

This is an old canard, and it comes up whenever any past instance of bigotry is discussed. And sometimes it’s fair; exactly what word was used to describe trans people really was different thirty years ago, for example.

But just as often, it’s ridiculously ahistoric nonsense. And it certainly is nonsense with blackface. When I was a teen, in the 1980s, we all knew that blackface was racist. Even us white kids, although we didn’t fully appreciate the reasons blackface is racist, understood that most Black people found blackface offensive.

That is, in fact, the reason to wear blackface – because we do know it’s racist and taboo, That’s why wearing blackface feels transgressive to some.

The biggest challenge, drawing this strip, was Frederick Douglass, who had an interesting face – wide but with extremely distinct cheekbones. And trying to get across the particular way he had white streaks in his hair was fun.

Looking at panel 3, it’s clear that all my conceptions of distinctly “1980s” fashions are just clothes that Madonna wore sometime that decade.


This comic has four panels, plus a tiny “kicker” panel under the bottom of the strip.


Two men, one Black and one white, are standing on a sidewalk talking. The Black man has an angry expression and is making big arm gestures; the white man looks very uninterested and is raising a hand in a “calm down” gesture.


BLACK MAN: They found an old photo of him wearing blackface?!? What the hell was he thinking?

WHITE MAN: You can’t judge 2002 by today’s standards. People back then didn’t know blackface was wrong.


Two women are seated at a round tale in a cafe, with coffee cups in front of them. One woman is Black, the other is white. The Black woman looks very annoyed; the white woman is grinning, making light of things.


WHITE WOMAN: Sure, we realize blackface is racist. But no one could have know that back in the 1980s.


Two women, one Black and one white, are walking together in a hilly park. They are both dressed in stereotypical 1980s fashion: Big hair falling in front of their eyes, boxy jackets, etc.. The Black woman is scowling while the white woman speaks calmly, making the “explaining hands” gesture.


WHITE WOMAN: We know that blackface is offensive, but that’s brand now! No one had any idea until recently.


In the foreground, a Black man with a thick beard and impressive hair is orating, looking stern, while gesturing towards a man in the background. The man in the background is dressed like an actor from a minstrel show, and is wearing blackface.

A caption shaped like an arrow tells us the Black man is Frederick Douglass. A small caption next to Douglass says “paraphrased, but yes, he really said this!”


FREDERICK DOUGLASS: Look at this filthy scum! He’s stealing our complexion, just so he can pander to the corrupt tastes of other white people! What the hell is he thinking?

Small kicker panel below the bottom of the strip.

The two women from panel two appear again; the white woman is talking eagerly, leaning forward a bit, while the Black woman rolls her eyes.

WHITE WOMAN: My white friends and I all agree that Blacks are too sensitive about blackface.

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19 Responses to Cartoon: Back Then, No One Knew Blackface Is Offensive

  1. 1
    Elkins says:

    I find that the older I get, the more appalled I become at “back then, people just didn’t know any better” arguments. Having lived through the decades in question really changes ones perspective on such defenses. It does make me wonder how many of the things that I think “people just didn’t know any better about” back in the 1950s, or the 1930s, or any other time before I was born are actually things that people damn well did “know better about back then.”

  2. 2
    Kelly Jennings says:

    What Elkins said.

    It also helps to have read widely in works written during the time — for instance, the 1550s or the 1950s, or in Douglas’s case the mid-19th century — and to know that plenty of people did, in fact, “know better back then.”

  3. 3
    J. Squid says:

    Cruel, but fair. But society’s to blame!

  4. 4
    Gracchus says:

    “I find that the older I get, the more appalled I become at “back then, people just didn’t know any better” arguments.”

    I think there is a general bias to believe the past is more morally distant than it actually was. Some people seem to have a sort of rolling border roughly 15-20 years in the past beyond which there was nothing but hatred, fear, horror, etc etc.

    This is sometimes used by people on the right to excuse behaviour that was clearly unacceptable. But I also, worryingly, see it used by people on the left to attempt to valorise extremely minor or modest contributions to the discourse on the basis that “it’s progress”, when in fact it says nothing that is not already widely known and accepted. To some people activism isn’t really about building anything, but just an endless cycle of minor gestures which are forgotten as they pass beyond the memory threshold.

    I am reminded of Sam Smith’s claim that he was the first openly gay man to win an Oscar. He just assumed that back in 1994 everybody was too bigoted to ever award an openly gay man an Oscar. Of course the fact that he could regard himself as a pioneer for equality was secondary.

  5. 5
    nobody.really says:

    That’s a good depiction of Frederick Douglass! And I love the tag “Yes, he really said this!,” anticipating the very question many readers will be pondering.

    Truly, Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.

  6. 6
    Petar says:

    I’m one of those people who think that blackface, in isolation and by itself, is no big deal. Most cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, etc. which have not been experiencing recent oppression do not worry much about their traditions being ‘culturally appropriated’.

    But nothing exists in isolation.

    Where everything changes, is that once it is clear that blackface offends people, anyone using blackface automatically becomes an asshole. It’s OK to say, “It is silly to be offended by A”, but it is not OK to offend people, unless you are in all out conflict with them. That is a conscious action, and no matter how trivial the original behavior, it’s other people’s feelings that matter.

    Yes, I will be disappointed with thin skin. But I would classify anyone pocking that skin as a person who enjoys hurting (provoking, putting down, embarrassing, pigeonholing, whatever) others.

    For example, in my country, we have a character, “Black Petar”, who is part of Christmas celebrations, who is the main card in a card game, and who is a trickster figure is many kids games and tales. He came to Bulgaria through a country in which he is associated with Moors, and where he is represented through blackface. No Moor connection so in Bulgaria, where he is a chimney with a face full of sooth, but the blackface is still three. (Removing it and passing for an aristocrat, fat cat, or government official is a central part of his bag of tricks.)

    Bulgarians are not about to give up Black Petar. But he sooth on his face has muttated in the last 20-30 years from a layer covering his whole face to two smallish circles on his cheeks, contrasting with chalk white skin and pale lips. Any attempt to connect him to Black people , in their presence, is understood to be offensive, and to say little about the Black person, and a lot about the one trying to be edgy.

    The last part is not a new thing.

    In the army, my MP unit investigated someone leaving Black Peter cards on the cot of a Black cadet in the Air Force academy. The victim was interviewed, and, officially, he denied being offended. That had absolutely nothing to do with the punishment meted out to the perpetrator. He had malicious intent toward a fellow cadet, and he failed in his obligations to a guest of the country.


    By the way, I do not understand why Ampersand said he paraphrased the words of Frederick Douglas. On 27 October 1848, in the North Star newspaper, he wrote: the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow-citizens..

    Quoting it as the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion[..] and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow-citizens. is perfectly legit.


    Black Peter (Черен Петър) from 1972.

    Black Petar from 1997.

    Black Petar
    on sale today.

  7. In Iran, the character is called Haji Firooz:

    He is a Santa Claus-like figure connected to Norooz, the Persian New Year. The Wikipedia entry I linked to above gives the traditional explanations for his soot-blackened face, which tend to locate the character in Persian/Zoroastrian mythology or some other “racially innocent” explanation. This blog post at Ajam Media Collective, places Haji Firooz in what is almost certainly a more accurate, racially aware historical context.

    It was quite a shock the first time I went to a Norooz celebration and saw not just the men dressed up as Haji Firooz, but the dolls and even puppets of him they had for sale.

  8. 8
    Petar says:

    I see very little that the two characters have in common.

    The Bulgarian character is a chimney sweep, who is definitely not black skinned. Washing off the sooth is something he does when the need arises. He may have originated as a slave, but the only time there was institutionalized slavery in Bulgaria, the slaves were ethnically white children, collected as part of the Muslim occupiers’ blood tax on Christians. He is not a fool, but a trickster, and part of his shtick, in the tales and games, is being able to assume any role or occupation, very quickly.

    The Iranian character seems to be a black servant, if not serf or even outright slave. That’s part of his traditional rhymes, even on the Wikipedia page. He does not seem to engage in anything but singing, dancing, and cheering up his social betters.

    The only commonalities are the blackface and the association with the New Year celebration.


    There is something that Americans, and even many Europeans seem not to understand.

    The stereotype of the Black slave and his White master is (at best, if at all) a very, very, VERY recent part of Slavic culture.

    The traditional stereotype is the swarthy horsewarrior/blond viking carrying off Slavic youths, with the approval, and more recently, under the protection, of his Western allies.

    Serbia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria experienced slavery as recently as about a century ago, due to the Western Powers propping up the moribund Ottoman Empire all the way into the 20th Century. Armenians and Greeks are not Slavs, so I will not talk about their, even more recent feelings.

    As for Russia? Forget the depredations of Vikings and Mongols. During World War II, the Germans used millions of Slavs as slave labor. Hundreds of thousands of Slavic women were shipped into Germany, practically all of childbearing age were raped and impregnated, and 90% of the children died of post-natal euthanasia, exposure, and malnutrition. Even that shinning beacon of humanity, Goering, was upset by the chaotic way the babies were handled, and wrote that a policy needs to be adopted, to either eliminate the half-human spawn without any waste of resources, or collect them so that they can be used effectively.

    So, think twice before you make a parallel between Black Petar and Hadjy Pirus (Hajji Firooz)

  9. I didn’t mean that there was a parallel between the two characters, though I see how the way I worded my comment could be read they way. I just wanted to give an example of blackface in another culture. Sorry for the confusion.

  10. 10
    Gracchus says:

    @Petar: Do you consider western powers – by which I assume you mean the UK and France – complicit in Ottoman slavery in the Balkans?

  11. 11
    Petar says:

    Do you consider western powers – by which I assume you mean the UK and France – complicit in Ottoman slavery in the Balkans?

    Not in the beginning, our last Emperor handled that fine himself, by splitting the 2nd Bulgarian Empire in three, just in time for the Ottoman invasion. According to the German traveler Johann Schiltberger: “I was in three regions, and all three were called Bulgaria. The first Bulgaria extends there, where you pass from Hungary through the Iron Gate. Its capital is called Vidin. The other Bulgaria lies opposite Wallachia, and its capital is called Tarnovo. The third Bulgaria is there, where the Danube flows into the sea. Its capital is called Kaliakra”

    But for the last few decades of the Ottoman rule? You tell me.

    After the victory of the combined Russian army, Romanian army, and Bulgarian Voluntary Corps, in 1878, the defeated Ottoman Empire agreed to the San Stefano Treaty, which would have left Bulgaria as an independent principality with the right to maintain an army. Its territories would have comprised all Bulgarian speaking population.

    Under the threat of military action from France and Great Britain, which cherished the Ottoman presence in the (then Christian majority) lands of the Balkans, terms were revised under the treaty of Berlin, to which, of course, Bulgaria was not invited. As a result, 15% of the Bulgarian speaking territories were given to Romania, 40% were returned to the Ottoman Empire outright, 25% were given to the Ottoman Empire to govern with ‘international supervision’ and about 20% percent were left as the vassal principality of Bulgaria, technically under Ottoman control.

    You can guess what happened in most the lands which remained under unsupervised Ottoman control. A hint: nowadays the Christian population there has decreased by a couple of orders of magnitude, much like the Christian population in Constantinople, Turkish Armenia, Egypt, Libya, etc.

    As for the vassal principality, it combined a military coup with a rebellion, a generation after the latest previous rebellion (right on schedule) and liberated the Eastern Rumelia province of the Ottoman Empire. What was the Western Powers and Russia’s answer? Two months later, the Serbian Kingdom invaded brand new Bulgaria with the stated goal of implementing the Austro-Hungarian plan for division of the Balkans. Russia withdrew all of its military advisers from the Bulgarian army. All military deliveries, which had already been paid in gold, were embargoed (except for the ones from Germany).

    To everyone’s surprise, Bulgaria actually won that war. To no one’s surprise, most of the Balkans (except for Bulgaria) are still a mess of ethnic and religious conflicts. As for us, we just chose virulent xenophobia over religious or ethnic intolerance, so instead of each other, we fought our neighbors. All of them, all at once (they learned to dog-pile on us, after the first few wars), with the expected results.

    So some Bulgarians react to the punchline of Monty Python’s sketch “The treaty of Westphalia” quite similarly to the way Greeks appreciate the “Istanbul, not Constantinople” song. Dirty savages as we are, expecting civilized people to be aware of their countries’ history with us.


    Fun fact: At the beginning of World War II, Bulgaria fought on the side of the Nazi. What comes as a surprise to outsiders is that the State prosecuted persecutions of Bulgarian Jews, obviously did not send a single one to concentration camps, and expected them to serve in the army. I knew a Jewish veteran who had fought both for and against the Nazi (we switched sides overnight, and our armies did just as well against the Axis as they did against the Allies) He later immigrated to Israel, but kept visiting his kids and grand kids in Bulgaria, and was often talking that it was quite surreal, the way foreigners cared about nonsense like religion and ethnicity, instead of language and nationality.

  12. 12
    Gracchus says:

    Hey Petar

    I was actually looking for a Yes/No answer, not a summary of Bulgarian history. Believe it or not I am actually passingly familiar with the history of the Ottoman Empire’s European possessions and their post-Ottoman history. It wasnt the facts I was trying to get – even if I hadn’t studied it at University, I have Wikipedia. But Wikipedia can’t tell me your opinion, so…?

  13. 13
    Petar says:

    My personal opinion?

    Yes, the meddling of the France, Great Britain, and Austro-Hungarian Empire definitely changed the lives of the Slavs and Hellenes in the Balkans, almost certainly for the worse.

    Without the propping up, the Ottoman Empire and later Turkey would not have been able to pull off some of the genocides and ethnic cleansings that they did. But hey, why go this far back. Didn’t Turkey get implicit British permission before the 1974 invasion of Cyprus? Didn’t our glorious leader, in his great and unmatched wisdom, very recently greenlight a Turkish invasion of Kurdish held Syrian territory?

    As to whether the results of Russian (Empire’s) influence, or even a hypothetical Serbian, Bulgarian or Greek hegemony would have been any better? For Syria, we will, unfortunately, learn, because if you watch Putin’s recent interviews, he can barely conceal his gloating smirk. That particular despot may or may not have a heart or a soul, but seems to at least have a brain.

    What could have happened on the Balkans, if the borders had not been redrawn by the wise British (just like the ones around Kashmir, or the ones around Iraq) we will never know.

    What I do know is that some colleges in the US offer some very pro-Turkish classes on the Ottoman Empire, and that even here, on Alas, there have been feature posts praising the authors of some very Anti-Slavic works. There was one celebrating the architect of the 20th Century Japanese racial supremacy movement, another extolling the virtue of a fantasy book that depicts Slavs as subhuman scum… and in many open topics, people praise media where Slavic people are treated like faceless, disposable villains.

    So, no, you did not ask for a history lesson. But if you knew the history, how can you ask whether Balkan population resents Western meddling?

    Were you taught the protections for the Armenian millet included in the San Stefano Treaty? Did you know which country strongly objected to any restrictions on the Ottomans in that region, and had them stroked out? Do you know how it turned out for the Armenians there?

    Do you think that Bulgarians enjoyed the extra generation under Ottoman control? How do you think they’d have fared if they had remained there for long enough to benefit from the attention the Armenians got?

    But it is all water under the bridge. Bulgaria is dying. When I left, its population was edging on 10 millions. It must be under 7 millions now. 30% in 30 years. My daughter’s Spanish is overtaking her Bulgarian. I doubt she will be able to speak a word by the time she’s 10.

  14. 14
    Gracchus says:

    “Didn’t our glorious leader”…

    I know this is a quibble, but I assume you are talking about Trump? I am not American, so he my leader, glorious or otherwise.

    I am sorry to bring this up but I really dislike online spaces where the implicit assumption is that everybody is an American unless explicitly stated otherwise.

  15. 15
    Petar says:

    I am sorry to bring this up but I really dislike online spaces where the implicit assumption is that everybody is an American unless explicitly stated otherwise.

    I think that the leader in question is about as glorious, or possessed of as much great and unmatched wisdom, as he is the leader of the world. i.e. the leader of all of us, unless there’s any extra-terrestrials reading this blog.

    I was being sarcastic. But according to him, he is the most powerful man of Earth, possessing great and unmatched wisdom, and the leader of all thinking men. Lucky women!


    But seriously, you may a point. I should know better, as my wife constantly corrects my use of ‘our’, ‘us’. etc.

    In Bulgarian and Russian, at the very least, you can use first person, plural, even if your interlocutor is not part of the group your referring to. I.e. I would be perfectly justified in using ‘our leader’. Of course, in such languages, I could choose between ‘ours, but not yours’ and ‘ours, yours and mine’ while I do not think that there are single words in English which express the difference.

    This is not ‘me and you’, nor the royal ‘we’. This is ‘me and mine’.

    Any native speakers who can confirm whether I really implicitly included the interlocutor when I used ‘we’ in above post? In English, I mean.

    In Bulgarian, ‘нашите’ and ‘своите” are distinct, and leave no room for confusion.

    You would say “Нашите цели съвпадат!” (Our goals coincide!) using the first one, to include whoever you’re speaking to.

    You would say “За своите милеем!” (We care about our people!) using the second one, to exclude the person you’re talking to.

  16. 16
    David Simon says:

    Petar, I think the “our” in e.g. your use of “our glorious leader” leans towards the interpretation that the listener is included, because even if you don’t intend to assume the listener is American, you are still requiring that the listener assumes that you are American.

    I’m not sure how to work around this without awkward phrasing though; the best I can think of is “the US’s glorious leader”, which lands with a thud.

    (Lojban has a bunch of words to clear this up, as usual:
    mi’o includes only the speaker and the listener but no one else;
    mi’a includes the speaker and others but excludes the listener;
    do’o includes the listener and others but excludes the speaker;
    ma’a includes all three: speaker, listener, others.)

  17. 17
    Petar says:

    Petar, I think the “our” in e.g. your use of “our glorious leader” leans towards the interpretation that the listener is included, because even if you don’t intend to assume the listener is American, you are still requiring that the listener assumes that you are American.

    Oh, I understand that the speaker is included if he is using the first person, there’s no ambiguity there.

    My wife says that she has noticed that my friends also use ‘our’ in places where Americans would use ‘my’. Our country, our street, our kids, our car, etc. She jokes it’s because we grew up Communist… For all I know, she may be right – it feels wrong to say ‘my’ for something I share with other people.

  18. 18
    Grace Annam says:


    Any native speakers who can confirm whether I really implicitly included the interlocutor when I used ‘we’ in above post? In English, I mean.

    It’s ambiguous. “We” can mean “you and I”, and it can also mean “they and I”. It’s a reasonably solid default that it does include the person you’re speaking with (so, “you and I”), but context can change the meaning. Probably the clearest way to do that is to provide explicit contrast.

    “On this point, you may be in some doubt, but we are quite certain.” In that case, “we” is “I myself, and whomever else I’m including in my in-group”, but explicitly excluding “you”.

    In general, however, if you don’t mark it, it’s well to understand that people will tend to take “we” to mean “you and I”.

    As ever, every language contains ambiguities, and different sets of ambiguities in each language, and ambiguities are both useful and pernicious.


  19. 19
    Mandolin says:

    Grammatically, it’s ambiguous.

    Context will usually push a native speaker toward assuming one or the other is meant, and usually they’ll be right. But sometimes the context gives the wrong cues, the listener is paying attention to different cues, or one of the interlocutors is a non-native speaker.

    I find that use of “our/we” is one of the ways in which my writing can become more difficult to understand if I’m writing quickly. I often refer to things I do as things “we did” because I am thinking of my husband, but if there are no other cues to that, it can seem odd or inappropriate. And I often fluidly move between categories designated by “our” without correctly signaling, if I’m going fast.

    Anyway, it’s ambiguous, it’s one of those “somehow native speakers know a zillion unwritten rules” things, and it still ends up periodically confusing.