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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.
TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON
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.
LARGE CAPTION: TODAY
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.
LARGE CAPTION: 2002
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.
LARGE CAPTION: The 1980s.
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!”
LARGE CAPTION: 1848
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.