Being Black in Germany includes experiencing white (and sometimes non-Black people of colour) representations of anti-Blackness. We are, however still foreign to the practice of blackface. To be foreign is to be other than one’s own; my own characteristics are made unheimlich (uncanny) in the practice of blackface. The representations of kinky hair and plentiful melanin are hyperbolized and devoid of the beauty I know them to bear. In this way, blackface is strange to the Black body. We recognize it in the way a relative identifies the corpse of a loved-one in a morgue. It is a surreal addition to what Christina Sharpe calls the “wake work”: “living while knowing there are those who see you as already dead”.1 I am not the impetus for the practice, but have situated myself here to study the blackface movement and its culture, and ask how the performance of it can motivate affective reparations for Black people. Blackface is the superimposition of a grotesque, distorted representation of a human over (predominantly) white skin. It is an illusion of the “Other” performed to satiate the need to justify systematic inequality. When entire ethnic groups are reduced to a single caricature, it is easier to justify the unbalanced distribution of privilege between the people who are racially marked as “different” and those racially read as “white”.
When I screened my short, experimental film DIE UMZÜGE (English title, CRUDE PROCESSIONS, 2013) at the Trinidad and Tobago film festival in 2014, the predominantly Black audience asked me why I did not interview the people I documented donning blackface.2 I explained that I was interested in the affects associated with the filmic representation of the experience, the non-cognitive feelings that exist in Black spectatorship of white minstrelsy. Let me explain.
Spectatorship is an encounter. We meet a film and form a relationship with the images, sounds and stories on screen. Feelings are part of this encounter. In February 2009, I attended the Cologne carnival in Germany with a camera in hand. I had heard that visitors dress up in costumes and was warned that this might include blackface.3 It took me four years to edit the material into the seven minute experimental film that would be screened in Trinidad and Tobago. Each time I tried to log the footage, I felt a surge of emotions that gave me pause. Eventually, with the help of editor Richard Lange and a soundtrack composed by the then Berlin-based duo Church Car (Ian Douglas-Moore and Big Daddy Mugglestone), I created the short film DIE UMZÜGE. The script I gave to my editor and composers was a list of four feelings: fear, confusion, anger and compassion. The experimental film is auto-ethnographic and the methodology for the film and research was reflexive; rather than striving for impartiality or objectivity, DIE UMZÜGE portrays informants practicing a ritual. Out of the torrent of emotions that surge through the turbulent waters of an encounter with blackface, I choose these four feelings to frame the encounter on film. Looking back on this work, I see it as an argument that the practice of blackface is evidence that affective reparations are owed to people of African descent.
Sara Ahmed asserts that affective archives circulate between bodies and signs like hands exchanging money.4 Just as economies strive to be in motion, emotions do not like to stay in one place. Feelings are not stored inside us, but are exchanged and earned with our emotional labour. Ahmed contends that affects are not housed in the body, but instead ricochet between bodies.5 The affects of blackface in my film do not puncture the flesh; they gain velocity and momentum as they bounce between the screen and Black spectators watching. Ahmed points out that some affects become “stuck” to certain signs.6 The affects of confusion, fear, anger and compassion adhere to the signs of blackface.
The use of brown or black make up to perform a degrading representation of a racialized “Other” (broadly, those of African, but also African American or Caribbean decent) is a phenomenon that has seen a resurgence in Germany.7 In her article, “Race, Guilt and Innocence: Facing Blackfacing in Contemporary German Theatre”, Katrin Sieg discusses the controversial 2012 production of Unschuld (Innocence) at Deutsches Theatre, where actors appeared on stage in blackface. She posits that the ideological goal of not “seeing” race and Germany’s reluctance to look beyond the atrocities of the Second World War, contributed to the director’s decision to cast two white actors to portray Black Muslim asylum seekers.8 Regarding the choice to add ape-like movements to the scenes with blackface, Sieg says:
While it is doubtful that spectators today would believe that such movements and sounds come naturally to black people, such theatrical choices contribute to the performance of blackness as a dehistoricized spectacle of otherness. Black, Muslim bodies may catalyze Germans’ movement into a cosmopolitan future, but they remain external to its affective economy, since it is a future in which differences can actually not be understood in relation to the German colonial past or neocolonial present. If the parts of Fadoul and Elisio were played by Afro German actors, it would not be as easy for German audiences to see through race, or to erase the historic and contemporary meanings of racial oppression and ostracization.9
Sieg suggests that blackface on the German stage not only excludes Black actors from the theatre, but their absence from the stage removes Black (and Black Muslim) bodies from the affective economies of Germans’ and Germany’s vision of itself. Blackface interrupts the affective flow between Black and white German encounters. These missing affects are present outside of the German circulations of feelings, because in that space “differences can actually not be understood in relation.” The relation, vital to the economy of affects, is foreclosed when Blackness is absent from Black stories.
If, as explained by Sieg, Black people “remain external” to the German affective economy, in what economy do their affects circulate? Are they participating in an affective black market, an illegal space designed to traffic their feelings alone? What are the implications of situating Black affects in an underground, shadow economy? Sieg‘s assertion that Black Muslim bodies are outside of Germany‘s affective economy suggests they are inside a type of affective underground. An underground economy supplies rare, illegal and hard to acquire goods in demand to a specific customer. A black market for Black affects would suggest that these commodities are scarce. A scarcity of Black affects implies that the demand for the feelings surrounding this group exceeds the supply. In order for the black market of Black affects to enter the main market of affects, we must assume that all other aspects of the product remain equal; that is, that Black affects are of similar quality to the affects within the German affective economy. The demand for Black affects would increase if supply is short and the cost for this commodity is low. A limited supply of Black affects could result in an increase in price if the desire for them is in a favourable relationship to the demand.
It is my contention that Black affects are not scarce, but are abundant. They participate in the affective archive of Germany; Black affects are traded, exchanged, invested and borrowed.
Blackface deals in the counterfeit currency of Black affects. It produces an abundance of fake Black emotions through performance. These are bogus affects because they are cognitive. A good example is “animatedness” - the affect of minstrelsy identified in Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings.10 This is an affect of forced performance, of hyperbole and degradation. White bodies in blackface withhold their own feelings by hiding behind a mask. In the encounter between Blackness and blackface, what is scarce are the affects of whiteness. These feelings are not in circulation. The affects are saved, hoarded and hidden behind the cognitive choices of costume. Affects cannot discriminate. Any bodies or signs in a relationship share affects.
The Trinidadian audience wanted to hear the people in blackface on film speak in order to ascertain what was being withheld. What were the people behind that face-paint feeling? If one body or group of bodies refuses to acknowledge or respond to the affects of others, a debt of affects accumulates. These are the affects that have been withheld from Black people and need to be repaid.
If affects work in circulation to create and mediate experiences as Ahmed suggests, in what ways do the affects in circulation and accumulation during blackface rituals in an specific “affective economy” move? Currency can be invested. Currency can be exchanged. Currency can be wagered. Currency can be owed. If emotions are a type of currency, they too can be seen as capital. Just as money exists in our lives in different forms (inheritance, stocks, wages), can we think of each emotion that the film registers and conveys as having specific possibilities within an economy of affects? In order to contemplate the (im)possibilites of each of these emotions scripted primarily for a Black spectatorship, let me navigate – with words – the emotional script of the film: confusion, fear, anger and compassion.
DIE UMZÜGE starts with the flickering of Super 8 film catching light and a shot of the Atlantic ocean. Film images of Salvador de Bahia at dusk are paired with the sound of an ominous, low hum. A deep bass drum starts slowly to find a rhythm. A woman walks down a lonely street carrying her baby and a plastic bag. She stops and looks down an ally. The scene cuts to a glimpse of the water and the moon between two stone buildings. The woman continues walking down the sloped street. The flickering Super 8 motif signals a transition to a new space and time. The image (now video) of snow-covered trees moving rapidly past a window. Cut to a man in a clown hat on the train. The drums have found a steady beat - a voice exclaims “Next stop: Köln central station.” An abrupt cut to a handheld tracking shot walking through a crowd of people in costumes. A woman in a clown outfit waves cheerfully. The greyness, the drum and the contrast to the warm images in Brazil give the spectator a feeling of melancholy and foreboding.
Ahmed describes fear as committing to a situation with undefined borders.11 In the context of DIE UMZÜGE, fear is an affect spent similar to an investment. Fear is an affect that can grow exponentially with interest. The contrast of sound and image in the film create a feeling of unease. The gradual escalation of the droning hum to the slow beat of the drum construct an eerie soundtrack in juxtaposition to the tranquil images of a Black Brazilian town at daybreak. The switch in tone from warm analogue film to cold video makes the change in space from South America to Europe an unwelcome one for the spectator. These sound and image choices anticipate the anxiety around the representation of the distorted signs of black paint on skin. The feeling of fear in the film builds and subsides the same way a stock accrues and loses value. The factors that control the increase and decrease of fear are both internal and external to the spectator.
From the parade scene, DIE UMZÜGE cuts to a series of shots in Super 8: a shot of a calm port on the water; a clothes line hanging from a house made of corrugated metal from old shipping containers; people in the street watching musicians play. These scenes were shot in another South American city: Buenos Aires. The high-pitched cymbals accent the deep bass drum whose rhythm has accelerated. Women dance to the non-diegetic music; electric guitar joins the drums. The film flicker motif is repeated in the next scene. A medium shot of a man leaning into the camera saying “Hello”, in heavily accented English. Behind him women wear huge, black Afro wigs. What follows is a montage of white people in Afro wigs: a man dressed in blue scrubs and a short, nappy Afro wig; a man smoking in the crowd in a medium Afro wig; a man with a marijuana-leaf necklace in another oversized Afro wig. Cut to a green float passing in front of a man in a modest Afro wig, whose face is covered in brown paint. He catches a rose, smells it and smiles.
Confusion is similar to an unequal exchange. Bewilderment is bartered within the frame of convocation between the signs of the image space within the profanity of blackface. The process of performing blackface involves many deliberate decisions about the image space. Dreadlock or Afro wig? Shoe-polish black or chocolate brown face-paint? Grass skirt, bone-necklace or both? The confusion comes from a mash-up of signs, which in turn reproduces more confusion. Why then the Afro wig with the Hawaiian grass skirt? It is culture diversity diluted to one signifier: Black. This signifier is attached to a sign: what Sylvia Wynter calls our present “bio-descriptive statement” of man.12 However, the bio-descriptive signs of blackness in the film - bananas, enlarged blood-red lips, exaggerated movements - spell out an ideology of white supremacy and re-create encounters with pre-conceived, coded symbols. It is a means to an end.
That end is one of delusive self-preservation. Wynter outlines in her “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom” how “Blackness” became a stand-in for culpability. Before colonialism and the humanist revolution of the concept of Man, the prevailing idea in Europe was that all humans were “enslaved” to sin and the divide was between heaven/earth, clergy/commoner, spirit/flesh, God/Human.13 Privilege was attributed to one side, damnation to the other. After the colonial project, Europeans projected the lower end of these dichotomies onto the colonized subjects and away from themselves. The European colonizer freed himself from damnation by projecting condemnation onto the colonized. The “Black body” came to signify this past lower station in the hierarchy of Being. In this perspective, performing blackface is to travel to the perceived lower strata of Human. Like the flâneur intoxicated by the streets of Paris, the practitioner of blackface visits their imagined Hades for a limited space and time. Each detail of the costume is a step down a make-believe staircase from heaven to earth, spirit to flesh. The addition of fake melanin is the passport to this imagined Netherworld; a washcloth is all that is needed to return to the perceived upper echelons of rationality.
Anger is like a bet. It is a risk that promises large pay-offs and rewards or huge losses. Anger is wagered in the next section of DIE UMZÜGE. The motif of water once again awaits us as a transition to the South. Cut to two men dragging a barrier to block off a street and a montage of people dancing in the road and playing drums. This scene cuts to the drums in Cologne. The pace of the editing quickens. A man sticks his tongue out at the camera. Another man takes a picture of something off screen while a man in coal-black face-paint stands behind him. Medium and wide shots of people painted pitch-black, donning Afros, dressed in fake leopard-print and feathers, holding makeshift spears, followed by a series of shots of people, are edited in quick succession. One wears a sign that reads “Afrika grüßt Köln” (“Africa greets Cologne”). They walk towards the left side of the frame in procession. One man turns to look at the camera. Medium shots of someone dressed as Santa head-banging in a dark place are cut and placed in between the scenes of blackface. The music is faster, heavy, metallic. The screeching guitar fades out and the familiar drums are more audible. The pace of the music slows. Cut to Santa dancing slowly in the daylight with a beer in hand. By changing the pitch of the music and the pace of the editing, the wager of anger in DIE UMZÜGE breaks even.
The scenes shot in South America take place in harbour cities. The final section of DIE UMZÜGE starts with another shot of the Atlantic from the shore of Montevideo, Uruguay. Wide shots of the shipping containers along the water are followed by a medium shot of large, rusty chains in a heap. The images allude to the human cargo, my ancestors, who were trafficked to and in these places. One final film flicker motif suggests another moment of time travel. A wide shot of a Black family at the carnival awaits us. The following medium shot allows the spectator to observe their faces - neutral to not amused. Cut to a group of young people dressed as angels in mint green satin with white wigs and halos. A medium shot reveals two Black angels amongst the sea of white. A smiling police officer walks in front of the camera. The sequence of Black families is interrupted with a shot of a white woman dancing with a beer in her hand. She wears a relatively modest, five-inch Afro wig. Around her neck, a lei of plastic flowers and under her coat a grass skirt. Her pale face is painted brown. She moves towards my static, handheld camera. As she comes closer, we see the make up peeling at her neck. She puts her finger to her ear to showcase and dangle her palm tree earrings.14 In the background we see police officers, families and intoxicated onlookers. The frame is static, although the hand holding the camera - my hand - is shaking.
Compassion is charity, but it is also a debt. We can take out emotional loans whose interest accumulate with time. When, like Ahmed suggests, affects operate like currency, a transaction plots the bodies of encounter on opposite sides of wealth. We feel compassion for those in want. The particular poverty of the performer of blackface is affective. How is the performer of blackface in want? The wanting is exposed through the counterfeit affects, the fake feeling mediated by blackface. Rather than truly trying to understand what it means to be Black, the performers try on their own fear of Blackness and mock the experience. The bad investment of white supremacy (the manifest destiny of fear) results in an affective debt. Practitioners of blackface and the cultures that justify them have wagered their house and lost the bet, and the compassion we feel for them is in direct relation to the settlement of their enormous dues. The aesthetic injury mimics a historical assault. If the poverty for which we feel compassion is a debt unpaid, the redress that comes from the performance of blackface is affective reparation.
Blackface is the “embodiment of fantasy”15 or as Manthia Diawara puts it in his introductory essay to Blackface, a book of David Levinthal’s photography of minstrel figurines: the “dream of White”.16 As Diawara points out, Levinthal’s book critically engages with the stereotypes reinforced in the collectables by photographing them against a black background - a choice that diffuses the skin colour and augments the racist depictions of exaggerated red lips and white teeth (read: cannibal) and white apron (read: servitude). Blackface against a black background has a very different feeling than experiencing it enveloped in white. The black background of the film DIE UMZÜGE is its author and each context of the film’s presentation. DIE UMZÜGE was created for a Black audience. This is not to say that white or non-Black people of colour audiences cannot watch, interpret, enjoy and feel their own affects associated with the film. It is instead to say that the emotional script for the film (confusion, fear, anger and compassion) is coded for a Black spectator. The ways in which these affects encounter the Black bodies that come into contact with them through the film are infinitely varied and diverse, since Black people are infinitely varied and diverse. However, similar to “the nod” exchanged between Black strangers who pass each other on the street, the affects of blackface in this film are coded signs that arrive at their intended destination in and on Black bodies. These spectators identify with the Black people in the film and share proximity to anti-Blackness in the frame.
I am interested in Black authorship in German cinema and the affects shared by Black spectators when viewing Black-authored representations of European experiences. It is my contention that these shared affects create spaces of belonging. The space is a product of a common sense of being. In this way, we can understand the four affects of blackface as shared conduits that facilitate different types of encounters between Black spectators and the Black-authored images. The film itself is a nod to Black spectators, a reminder that the debt of affects to Blackness needs to be repaid. Like the black background to photographs of blackface figurines, the presence of Black people in the face of blackface takes the fun out of the practice. When I stood at Cologne carnival and locked eyes through my camera with a women performing her dream of me, our encounter interrupted the myth of blackface. That encounter exists as a counter-aesthetic and political work, documented in a frame of video. This type of “oppositional gaze“ disrupts white supremacy by tallying up the balances in the traffic of affects. As bell hooks tells us, looking into the political and unblinking eye of the camera can cast a calculating gaze.17
There is no black market for Black affects; what Sieg perhaps was eluding to is the bankruptcy of Germany’s affective economy. The interest on affective debt accrues with time and the affective accounts of the countries where blackface prevails are in the red. The first step towards the indemnification of Europe’s affective debt is the cognizance of an affective IOU (“I owe you”) and the acceptance that the debt of feeling, like the debt of finance, needs to be repaid.
Preview Image Credit: @Karina Griffith
Karina Griffith’s artistic practice explores the themes of fear and fantasy, often focusing on how they relate to belonging. Her interests include exploring the intricacies of identity and the immigrant perspective while acting as a record of her family’s unique way of Caribbean patois storytelling. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute where her research on Black authorship in German cinema interacts with theories of affect theory, intersectionality and creolization. Griffith holds a lecturer position at the Institute for Art in Context at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK). For more information about Griffith’s work, check her website.