BLACKFACE: ON THE SHOULDERS OF A GIANT

It’s not often I bury my head in my hands with exasperation but earlier this year I just had too after reading an opinion piece penned by a self-styled ‘street poet and Buddhist philosopher’ named Rashaad Thomas for The Arizona Republic newspaper based in Phoenix.

 Mr. Thomas had eaten at a small restaurant in the city when his sensibilities had been stung by a photograph on the wall showing a group of eight white men with blackened faces. The photograph was, he objected, ‘offensive blackface.’

Rashaad did not care when it was explained this was an image of eight miners covered in coal dust at the end of a long shift underground, tearing coal from the bowels of the earth. That didn’t matter at all Rashaad Thomas proclaimed because ‘context isn’t relevant.’

Here’s some of what he wrote, “Fact: the photograph shows coal miners’ faces covered in soot. The context of the photograph is not the issue. Phoenix restaurant says this is a photo of coal miners. But I see offensive blackface. My concern that the photograph of men in blackface was a threat to me and my face and voice were ignored. A business’ photograph of men with blackened faces culturally says to me, ‘Whites Only.’ It says people like me are not welcome.”

Oh dear, Rashaad finding offence where none was ever meant and none exists is a particular skill, which you seem to have finely honed. Rashaad’s piece has already attracted a flood of objections and hostility some of it personal. I won’t rehearse the many ways in which the piece can be criticized and I certainly don’t offer any personal insults to Rashaad Thomas. I’d prefer to focus on the issue of context.

Context doesn’t matter says Rashaad? Well, I beg to differ. In my experience denying context is the lazy abdication of critical thinking to the rule of ignorance. It is to deny natural justice and to award oneself a licence to find offence wherever one pleases. In short it is a dangerous form of intellectual incontinence.  

At the risk of outraging Rashaad once again I am indeed going to look into the context of this photograph. He may not want to hear it but others might care to know and come to their own conclusions. Because the truth is that what lies behind this interesting image is an unexpected and very direct and positive link to Black Rights activism in the USA.

I’ve read many of the attacks on Rashaad’s stance but while they target its lack of rationale they have not been aware of the true relevance of the photograph.

However as a Welshman with direct links to the coal mining traditions of the Valleys of my homeland I am acutely aware of the legendary role that men just like those in the photograph played in inspiring one of the giants of the Black Rights movement in the USA in the years between the two World Wars.

That famous black man’s testimony from the grave shames Rashaad Thomas’ casual lynching of good men’s reputations and I say this completely understanding the emotive power of the word ‘lynching’ in this context. Reputations are indeed lynched by accusing these men of Blackface.

Before I introduce the hero of the piece let me first describe the men in the photograph. It was taken in 1910 outside a pub in the village of Cwmbach, South Wales and they were quite obviously coal miners.

Ironically Rashaad saw it on the wall of a restaurant offering traditional Cornish pasty meals, the owners believing them to be Cornish tin miners. That was the first mistake in relation to the context of the photograph and for the record Cornish tin miners were covered in a thick layer of white, not black, dust at the end of their shifts.

This image of the coal miners was captured at a significant moment as they were photographed having a beer at the end of the last shift they’d be working for some time. They’d just joined the Great Coal Strike that was to last for a year and put them and their families through great hardship.

These men were not slaves, there is no comparison, however they were members of an economically oppressed people earning small wages, with terrible illness, injury and potential death as part of their job description.

Their families ate poorly and education for their children was a lottery and during that strike for a living wage the government, hand in glove with the mine owners, sent mounted police to baton them and troops to fire on them. The South Wales miners were to strike again a couple more times over the next two decades; never an easy matter.

It was at the end of another strike, one night in 1929, that fate was to bind the mining community of South Wales to the story of that great American singer and activist Paul Robeson and give the photograph on the wall of a Phoenix pasty restaurant its true context.

A physically imposing man, Robeson was the son of an escaped slave. He was a truly remarkable person possessed of a beautiful voice and he could sing in more than twenty languages. He could act too and he had a law degree, he held prizes for oratory. Oh, let’s not forget he was also one of the finest American footballers of his day. Those impressive, stellar credentials also came with a social conscience and in the 1930’s he was to emerge as the Martin Luther King or Malcolm X of his day.

He’d fled to Britain to escape the crushing racism he experienced in his home country and that’s when his political views were crystallised and hardened. It was then in 1929, from the sitting room of his London home, Robeson heard singing in the street outside and was drawn out by the wonderful harmony of those voices.

He found a group of Welsh miners singing as they marched homewards from the Houses of Parliament where their cause had been defeated. Robeson was moved to join them and sang with them as they marched and then paid for them to ride home on a train rather than walk one hundred and fifty miles with little food.   

That was the start of his lifetime affiliation with the Welsh people and the coal mining community of the Valleys. He grew to love that community and found common cause with them in shared oppressions. Not the same oppressions of course but all the same shared. Meetings, debates and singing tours of the mining valleys followed. On one engagement news came of colliery fire, which had killed 266 miners that day. No hesitation Robeson donated the fees from his tour to the relief fund for their families.

Then in 1940 Robeson made a movie called The Proud Valley. In it he played a black seaman adopted by a mining community and given work in the colliery. You might not like this Rashaad but Robeson wrote scenes at the coalface where a proud black man is talking to proud Welsh miners whose faces are covered in coal dust, just like the men on the wall in Phoenix.

As they sit together at the coalface the dialogue, written by Robeson himself, includes a line where one of the miners expresses their common humanity saying,  “Aren’t we all black down that pit?”  

Later Robeson was to explain, “It’s from the miners in Wales I first understood the struggle of Negro (his word) and white together.”

He often told how he learnt the power of organisation and the strength of solidarity from the leaders of the Miners Union in Wales and he took this knowledge of working class militancy back to the US where he used it in his fight for Black civil rights. 

Eventually his passport was withdrawn, by the US government and he was a virtual prisoner in his own country banned from performing, vilified by the media and left despairing and at a personal low. The miners of South Wales knew this and they reached out to Robeson arranging for a Trans Atlantic call linking him to their annual singing festival. It’s called an Eisteddfod in Wales where choral singing is woven into tradition.   

Robeson’s ‘appearance’ was technically illegal but the wonderful man with the fantastic bass voice spoke, his voice filled with emotion, on a crackling line to the thousands of men and women listening in the concert hall.

Paul Robeson world famous Negro baritone“My warmest greetings to the people of my beloved Wales, and a special hello to the miners of South Wales at your great festival. It is a privilege to be participating in this historic festival.”

Then from a studio in New York he sang some of his repertoire and dedicated those songs to “a world where we can live abundant and dignified lives”.

What a wonderful sentiment. What a wonderful man. To this day his name echoes around the Valleys of South Wales and in 2011 and 2015 exhibitions honouring his life and celebrating the mutual love between Robeson and the Welsh Valleys have been held. I’m sure more will follow down the years.

My own father and grandfather revered him like countless thousands of other miners and they would have been red-faced with embarrassment if they’d thought for a moment their Coalface had offended a black person. That’s because they were in truth wearing Coalface not Blackface.

So Rashaad Thomas I believe your dismissal of context is sad and skin deep. If you’d scratched to find the context of the photograph that offended you then you would have found riches indeed. You made your choice. I make mine and choose the love of a great black man beloved of my country against the complaints of someone who found himself to weak to look a photograph in the eye or listen to its context.

We live in a time where communities and countries are polarised by a failure to listen to the context of what others believe and move some way toward understanding. Context is drowned out by shrill voices but beware. It was by ignoring the context of our shared humanity that men once gave themselves the shameful licence to enslave others and by ignoring context we risk enslaving ourselves to the tyrant of ignorance.    

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Image credit:

Paul Robeson (news.rutgers.edu)

In the 1940 film The Proud Valley, about a Welsh community that takes in a black unemployed seaman. Photograph: Getty Images