History in black and white

Phillip Adams | The Australian | October 24, 2009

Red-faced Red Faces judge Red Symons runs the line that "we've no particular history in regard to minstrel shows" and that "we didn't have slavery".

Wrong on both counts. Not only does history record our three variations on the theme of slavery but "Nigger Minstrel Shows" were hugely influential. Indeed, they marked the beginning of the American domination of Australian popular culture.

VIDEO CLIP OF PERFORMANCE and News Story

No slavery? What else was the forced labour of convicts on the Fatal Shore? And what of "blackbirding", the ruthless conscription of Pacific Islanders for hard labour in Queensland's tropics? Most significantly of all, what of the brutal exploitation of Aboriginal stockmen across the Top End? Long after America's Civil War and its freeing of slaves, the white "owners" of vast tracts of land in Western Australia would list Aborigines as property. Their bills of sale would boast the acreage, the stock numbers, the miles of fencing - and the number of "niggers". Rounded up like slaves in Africa, our indigenous people were essential to our cattle industry. Driven from their ancestral lands, Aborigines had no choice but to work for tea, sugar and blankets. So don't tell indigenous Australia we didn't have slavery here.

This we know. Clearly we're unaware of our involvement with the Nigger Minstrel Shows after the US Civil War. The spectacle of white men in black-face - and it was a great spectacle involving as many as 200 performers on stage - became the principal form of public entertainment in the north of America as well as the Deep South, with let's-pretend "darkies" singing pastiche "nigger" songs. Freed slaves looked for employment far from the cotton fields, with some deciding to form their own minstrel shows - to dress up as white men dressed up as "niggers". The response? The "nigger" Nigger Minstrels were run out of town after town by the white companies.

A few companies sought refuge in Australia, where they entertained Melbourne and Sydney audiences, and the miners on the gold fields. So popular were they that they drove English music hall from the theatres. Australians began singing Stephen Foster medleys; thus began the domination of American culture.

Historian Richard Waterhouse told me the story decades ago when I was campaigning for a local film industry as a buff er zone against Hollywood. How the African-Americans weren't treated with the bigotry they'd known back home - they were too novel, too exciting for that. How they distanced themselves from the despised Aborigines by making disparaging jokes about "the lubras at La Perouse" part of the act. Many of the minstrels stayed on, some marrying white women. There's a story that one was elected to the NSW Parliament.

Thus what occurred on Hey Hey It's Saturday was an innocent, ignorant replay of a heyday in colonial Australia. A tragic-comic comment on the racism of the day. This bizarre episode had its echoes when a '70s Australian TV series, based on the stories of Arthur Upfield, had a white actor blacken his face to play the starring role of an Aboriginal detective, christened of all things Napoleon Bonaparte. And it goes on.

Perhaps you recall the notorious images of white cops in black-face waving nooses at the camera as they conducted a mock lynching at a drunken party. Or the fact that Australia now has branches of the Ku Klux Klan. Ask Professor Marcia Langton about her amusing experiences in Darwin.


Harry Connick Jr blasts Hey Hey It's Saturday 'racist' Red Faces Jackson 5 skit

Gareth Trickey, Chris Scott | The Australian | October 08, 2009

Article from: Herald Sun

Hey Hey It's Saturday's second reunion special has been marred by scathing criticism over a "racist" Red Faces performance.

The final act by a singing group called the Jackson Jive left guest judge Harry Connick Jr visibly upset and later prompted host Daryl Somers to issue a formal on-air apology, the Herald Sun Reports.

The international crooner looked uncomfortable during the performance by the group of singers who dressed in suits with painted black faces.

Connick Jr gave the troupe a score of zero and said the act wouldn't have gone down well in the United States.

After an on-air apology to him by Somers, Connick Jr said he needed to "speak up as an American".

"If I knew that was going to be part of the show I definitely wouldn't have done it," Connick Jr.

Connick Jr was raised in New Orleans and learned to play alongside African-American jazz musicians.

Jackson Jive members later told the Herald Sun they had flagged potential issues with the performance with producers before the show.

Dr Anand Deva, who played Michael Jackson in the skit, said the act was meant to be a tribute to Michael Jackson.

"It certainly was not meant to be racist in any way at all," Dr Deva said.

"I think he (Connick Jr) is taking it the wrong way."

To read the full story go to the Herald Sun website