By Clarence Bayne
I would like to comment on the le Page SLAV show and its cancellation.
It is true that we can all be accused of appropriating something. So one has to be very careful about the instances in which one makes these claims. But we do have significant agreement in most human societies on what is theft, intellectual rights, and what is social space and when that space is invaded.
We have reasonable agreement on what is public space and the individual rights to the use of that space and the sharing of that space. There are laws in some countries as to the rights to the scenic artifacts of the City.
I learned by experience that I as a visitor or even resident of that country must have a permit to professionally take photographs of the scenery and other artifacts of the City of London. That partly translates into the following: to use a tripod to take picture in Trafalgar Square I must have a permit. In fact, this is what I was told by an office of the law on duty at Trafalgar Square when I attempted to use a tripod to shoot scenes of artifacts in the area. International laws have emerged as to the ownership of the art and artifacts of the citizens and country from which works of art were acquired under colonization and war conditions.
It is indeed true that no one may own a culture in the commercial sense of ownership and property, but one may own the artifact of that culture under specific conditions. And, admittedly, those conditions tend to be fuzzy in certain circumstances.
The transcendental nature of aspects of human behaviour and interactions may be an imperfect guide to what is right and what is wrong, but it is often the best guide when we have no other experience to define the situation. The problem here is not appropriation it is the insensitivity and the colonial arrogance of Bonafassi and the self–righteous royal authority exuded by Le Page. But these are different times and it is great to hear the challenges of yesterday continued by our children/offspring.
I am entitled to life and a liberty sufficient to me. If I am denied that then I become a slave of any and whatever person or situation.
The painting of a Swastika on a canvas in the Museum may be appropriately considered part of the art history collection of the City, but if it is painted in red blood in the dark of the night on my front door it is a terrifying thing and the invasion of my sense of, and right to, being accepted and made to feel secure in the neighbourhood.
There may be nothing that the courts can do about it, but it may properly arouse collective social action based on the transcendental right that I have to personal security and the right to exist as a free person and secure in my identity. Hence the outrage against SLAV expressed by some empathetic citizens in Montreal is understandable and democratic.
The imitation of “other identities” and the rituals and mythology that underlie those identities have been and continue to be a situation of considerable conflict, anger and offensive action and counter actions.
In North America, “Black Face” as part of the Minstrelsy arts comes out of the Arthur de Gobineau depiction of Blacks as “coons” and at best “poor imitators “of the virtues and creative activities of being “White.”
In this scaled depiction of Blacks and Indigenous peoples of North America as savages incapable of having a soul, the French of France and Quebecois French are not alone. It is a Eurocentric thing. But here in Canada it is Franco Quebecers that seem most insensitive to their negative attitudes toward, and depiction of, Blacks and other peoples. Unfortunately, they are supported by the constitutional arrangements that keep Quebec in the union of Canada: the Notwithstanding Clause, Bill 101, the limitations of the Official Language Act, the Immigration Accord.
Franco Quebecers may in a radical moment have described their condition and relationship with White English Speaking Canadians as that of “Nègres Blancs d’Amérique.” But we must understand that to mean that they were complaining to their British “White equals” about their treatment of them, not as equals, but as those “niggers in America.”
It did not take long before this translated into our being blamed of being among those immigrants ganging up with “Maudit Anglais” money to defeat Franco Quebecers aspirations through a referendum to separate from Canada. Franco Quebec (both radical and right wing leaders) have never accepted blame for Black slavery in Quebec and the New World.
They continue to deny the existence of Black slavery among the French in Quebec. They choose to forget that at the Capitulation of Montreal to the British in 1760 that the French were allowed to keep their slaves and chattel.
Robin Winks (The Blacks in Canada. 1970), Afua Cooper (The Hanging of Angelique, 2006), Trudel (L’Esclavage au Canada Francais. Histoire et conditions de l’esclavage, 1960); and Micheline Bail, (l’esclave, 1999) all paint a different story to Valliere’s apology.
There are those in Franco Quebec that, like Vallière, identify with and support the struggle of the working classes against the owners of capital in a Marxist socio-political context free of sex and race classification and identities. As a result they are blind to the atrocities that their kinship group has, and continues to inflict, on us through exclusion and systemic discrimination. In fact, they practice the worse type of racism, in the sense that they use their power to transform us into their image and likeness: we must speak like them, act like them, and abandon any likeness to ourselves. We must be “de-hijabbed” and tested for “Values similarity” and face the possibility of being shipped out of Quebec to English Canada and other places.
We are forbidden to complain of our pain, because that is considered to be judging them. To them that is not acceptable because, as Vallière said, they are without blame. They are among the oppressed working classes, hence they are on the side of right. Thus, they declared the investigation into the practice of systemic discrimination and racism in Quebec, to be not valid, and consequently terminated it.
This absurdity is underlined by the Census data that show that today in Quebec the English speaking peoples are at the lower end of the income scale, and that Blacks and indigenous peoples continue to lag, notwithstanding the equal or better performance of education acquisition by Blacks compared to all other Quebecers.
Given this background, it is not surprising that in Quebec students on the campus at HEC (2011) could claim they were paying a tribute to the greatness of Usain Bolt by a parade done in the Black Face tradition and with the White performers wearing the typical “noble savage” grass skirts associated with Africa; nor in modern cosmopolitan Montreal a theatrical performance by a distinguished French director staged PK Subban, using a white actor with painted Black face. Moreover, she was annoyed that anyone should object to this.
Le Page is behaving no differently to these other Franco Quebecers; they seem to have adopted the victim syndrome. They reserve the right to justice and the benefits of justice being done. Except they seem to believe that this is a right they have above and beyond the rights of anyone else, and especially if you speak English.
Unfortunately, the Constitutional Acts of the Parliament of Canada seem to support that belief even if in a limited way through the Notwithstanding Clause and Bill 101.
In the White mythologies about the nature of Blacks and Indigenous people these are considered savages that benefit from White slavery, colonialism and assimilations, for they are believed to be incapable of creative innovation and hence advancing themselves in the face of change.
According to this thinking, rooted in the unconscious self and definition of White civilizations, it would seem that the “others” own nothing that they did not derive from “White civilizations,” even the way they express pain. I guess in this sense Le Page’s supporters arrogantly argue that he validates our art and our very identity. The implication is that we should be grateful for this. Well, we say we have no problem sharing our art, culture and style with you. In fact, we are flattered by, and proud of, the obvious influence of Black music, culture, dance and literary styles on world culture and North American artists.
But we insist that diversity is not my voice, my creative spirit captured and ritualized by your artists in “Black Face” and justified on the greatness ascribed to them by your kinship group, at the exclusion of my very existence. I exist in spite of your systemic exclusion of all my acts from your formal histories, and I say to you “hell no! You do not define or validate me.”
We have no problem standing on the same stage together with you telling a story of our relationships over time, but certainly not me sitting in the audience watching you with Blackened face turn me into entertainment and a manifestation of your talent for imitating me.
Why did Le Page not approach Black Theatre Workshop with respect to a possible collaboration? The Neptune Theatre has, Centaur has, National Theatre School has, the National Arts Center has, and Stratford has hired Black Directors that write and work with BTW.
That being said, the Blacks and other persons that stood on the streets outside the Jazz Festival halls and protested should be decent enough to turn up to the shows and cultural presentations by the Black Theatre Workshop and by other professional and cultural diversity performance spaces and directors in the City.
It is not good enough just to protest. This is not a game. Asking for an apology is too easy. You must also support us Black writers, poets, directors, designers, actors, artists. We will be looking for your faces among the sea of White supporters.