Blackface was already a practice in 18th Century Dutch plays

The Faculty of Arts and Philosophy of Ghent University (Belgium) reports that Sarah J. Adams has successfully defended her PhD dissertation called Repertoires of Slavery: Dutch Theater between Abolitionism and Colonial Subjection, 1770-1810. Here is a translation of the official announcement (in Dutch) at https://www.ugent.be/lw/nl/actueel/nieuws/sarahadams-1.htm. [Translation by Peter Jordens.]

Every year around the time of Sinterklaas [the Dutch feast of Saint Nic], the discussion [in the Netherlands] flares up again about Zwarte Piet [Black Pete] and the use of blackface. Research by Sarah Adams shows that blackface characters representing enslaved persons already appeared in 18th-century plays and that plays with an emancipatory intention often reproduced racial stereotypes.

For her PhD, Sarah Adams (Department of Literary Studies) studied the representation of enslaved people in Dutch-language plays in the 18th century. She examined nine anti-slavery plays and reached some striking conclusions. Her analysis shows that Dutch anti-slavery plays both criticized and reinforced European imperial hegemony. Blackface characters representing enslaved persons appeared quite regularly in 18th-century theater and the fact that anti-slavery plays actually reaffirmed racial stereotypes is noteworthy.

Adams’ dissertation charts the thorny ideological terrain of abolitionism by zooming in on white, Dutch-language plays during a period of fierce debate about national identity, profitability, race, and human rights. “On one hand we see that anti-slavery plays questioned the status quo and promoted reforms; on the other hand, they perpetuated and dispersed symbolic forms of violence and helped to anchor the policies and aesthetics of colonialism. The principle of blackface is an example of that aesthetic,” Sarah Adams states. “In 18th-century plays, blackface characters representing enslaved persons often protested against the colonial system, but at the same time they were part and parcel of a white entertainment culture centered around plays.”

Adams shows how these plays constructed a “reservoir” of memories, knowledge, characters, affects, and beliefs that to this day are crucial for the production and maintenance of white dominance in the Low Countries.

The following article contains a summary in Dutch of Adams’ dissertation: Sarah Adams promoveerde op slavernijkritisch theater, Caraïbisch Uitzicht, December 10, 2020, https://werkgroepcaraibischeletteren.nl/sarah-adams-promoveerde-op-slavernijkritisch-theater.

According to this audio interview of Adams (also in Dutch), https://www.nporadio1.nl/ovt/onderwerpen/68864-2020-12-06-sarah-adams-over-abolitionistisch-blackfacen, her dissertation is expected to be published at a later time by Amsterdam University Press.

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