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Creative Industries Professor's study sheds light on the largely unknown history of blackface in Canada

The SSHRC-Insight Development Grant will help discover what performance as resistance looked like in the past, and how it connects to the present
August 20, 2019

TORONTO, August 20 -- Assistant Professor Cheryl Thompson receives a two-year SSHRC-Insight Development Grant to further her research on Canada’s history of blackface.

Thompson’s goal is to create a digital, open access inventory--texts and visuals--of choral performance, blackface minstrelsy, and Toronto’s theatre houses. This living document will function as a research tool and creative database. As well, the Professor aims to write a book manuscript proposal on the history of blackface minstrelsy and black performance in Canada - there is currently no such book in the marketplace. The third goal will take the form of a workshop and Q&A at Ryerson upon completion of the study.

Blackface minstrelsy began as a theatrical form of entertainment in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia in the 1830s and 1840s. Though many see minstrel shows —musical comedy performances where white actors painted their faces black to caricature black people — as strictly an American tradition, these shows were popular in Canada from the late 19th century into the 1950s.

 American minstrel companies began coming to Canada in the 1840s. By the 1890s through to the 1960s, local, amateur blackface minstrelsy could be seen at athletic clubs, rotary clubs, high schools, and churches across the country. Over the last 15 years, the media has reported on incidents of blackface in Canada at universities, high schools, police stations, social clubs, and the theatre. There has been little connection made between these incidents and the centuries-long history of blackface in Canada.

October 19, 1880. The Globe - Jubilee Singers
Flyer: Toronto Canoe Club Minstrels, New Princess Theatre, 1919
Grand Opera House Toronto, 1924

This study will fill in a gap in the existing research on blackface. It will also connect these histories to African Canadian performance, which is also connected to histories of African American performance. Beginning in the 1870s, choral (oratory) performance (also known as Jubilee singing) appeared at the same time, and at the same theatres, as blackface minstrelsy. This means that audiences were exposed to both white men and women performing in blackface caricature, and authentic African Canadian and African American men and women all at once.

Thompson’s project “Newspapers, Minstrelsy and Black Performance at the Theatre: Mapping the Spaces of Nation-Building in Toronto, 1870s to 1930s,” builds upon research conducted during her Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship (2016-18), as well as FCAD SRC Seed Grant (2018-19), which was used as proof of concept for the project.

People often ask Thompson how this research is relevant today. “Given that incidents of blackface still occur in the contemporary, this interdisciplinary, mixed methods study will contribute to a wider understanding of the competing cultural claims performance can make on the past and the present,” she says. “By bringing the history of Jubilee singing into plain sight, it will also help shed light on what performance as resistance looked like in the past, and how it connects to the present.”

Cheryl Thompson is an Assistant Professor at FCAD’s School of Creative Industries, external link, a member of The Yeates School of Graduate Studies, and is also affiliated with the Graduate Program in Communication & Culture, where she earned her MA in 2007. She also holds a PhD in Communication Studies from McGill University, external link. Thompson’s first book, Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture, external link, was published with Wilfrid Laurier Press in 2019. Her next book, Uncle: Race, Nostalgia, and the Politics of Loyalty, will be published in 2020 with Coach House Books, external link. Thompson is currently working on a SSHRC-Insight Development Grant funded project, “Newspapers, Minstrelsy and Black Performance at the Theatre: Mapping the Spaces of Nation-Building in Toronto, 1870s to 1930s.”

ABOUT FCAD: The Faculty of Communication and Design is the cultural and creative hub at Ryerson University. With its nine prestigious schools in media and creative industries, FCAD’s interdisciplinary innovation and education are shaping the future of the creative industries.


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