Embedded Racism: we’ve been here before

In 1997 I wrote an article titled, The Showboat Carousel: the Whitewash of the Blacks which was published in National Outlook, April 1998.  It was really an extended book review of Canadian writer, poet and novelist M. NourbeSe Philip’s,  Showing Grit, written in 1993, with reference to what was occurring in Australia at the time.  Although twenty three years later some comments may be dated and in other places I may express myself differently or choose different vocabulary, I thought I would republish the original article here, as it and indeed M. NourbSe Philip’s writing, maintains relevance.


In the second half of 1996 I had the fortune to be introduced to M. Nourbese Philip, Canadian writer, lawyer and scholar after reading her book Showing Grit. [1]

Showing Grit was written during the furore surrounding the 1993 opening of Show Boat in Toronto.  It was Nourbese’s hope at the time of writing that her book would assist “those in the front line of the effort to stop this production”, for when Show Boat came to Toronto it caused an outcry in the African-Canadian community.

To understand why is to be African-Canadian, or African-American, or any other non-white person who is living under white domination at the end of the twentieth century.

In Showing Grit, Nourbese explores the issues, conditions and attitudes that still support racism today, and how the emergence of musicals such as Miss Saigon and the re-emergence of Show Boat is a concrete and very public indication that racist and sexist attitudes still exist, are supported by large numbers of people, and are funded and promoted by large corporations for whom profit is the only morality.

The issues involved are complicated and reflect very much on us as a society.  Nourbese explores these in some detail and although hers is a Canadian analysis of an American musical, the issues are still relevant to Australians.

The central objection to Show Boat is that it is a racist musical based on a racist book (Show Boat by Edna Ferber).  Its portrayal of the Blacks is historically inaccurate, stereotyped and outdated.  The underlying themes in the story are:

  • intermarriage is dangerous and only ends in disaster
  • to be Black or thought of as Black is shameful
  • to be Black is to be uneducated, ones only value being to serve and support .  the white boss – “happy cotton-picking darkies” – providing local colour and entertainment
  • Blacks accept their condition with resignation and Christian forgiveness
  • the best thing that could happen is for the Blacks to disappear so that the whites can get on with their lives.

The dislike of the ‘Nigger’ shines through.

As a white Australian, does that make you feel uncomfortable, angry…or more secure, relieved, secretly pleased?

As an indigenous Australian, haven’t you heard this all before…too many times?

So why again…and why now?

Nourbese’s research into the history of the book, films and musical productions of Show Boat reveal that its revival came during periods of great financial unease, or when African-Americans had taken significant steps forward in their struggle for equality.  So she surmises that at these times the white (moneyed and middle class) are needing reassurance because there may be a hidden fear that if things continue the way they are going then “we may end up like ‘them’”(poor, underprivileged) or even worse, like them as people – perish the thought!  How better to silence the thought and instead demean the ‘other’…put them in their place…disempower them.

Financial security is not a given any more in Australian society.  The number of job losses over the last two years is an indication that all is not well and that the politicians promises are coming to nothing.  As well, since the 1960’s indigenous Australians have made some progress in their fight for equality and respect.  At the moment in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics Aboriginal artists are receiving a lot of support and publicity.  On the world stage it is a politically correct thing to do.  Yet behind the scenes the Prime Minister seems to be sidestepping the more controversial issues and backstepping on others, especially when it interferes with corporate agendas, so that marginal groups (indigenous Australians as well as women, the elderly, gays and lesbians) are losing ground.

Is this why the Show Boat carousel has arrived in Sydney?  If not, why is a musical which supports the stereotypical Black man and woman of the 1880/90’s white mind reproduced in these enlightened times?  Moreover why is an outdated, revamped American musical still being presented rather than one of our own?

A full-page advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday 23rd August calls it ‘The Great American Musical’ and the ‘Winner of 5 Tony Awards in 1995’.  So?  The producers in Canada claimed it had historical significance as the highlight of the work of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II.  It’s historical significance is that, apart from a few well known songs, it was Kern’s only highlight and one in which he borrowed (stole and profited from) the traditional music of the African American.  No compensation or royalties were or have ever been offered.

It was also lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II’s first critical success in which (in the words of his son) he “expressed things that nobody had expressed before”…well, no white person.  The ‘nobody’ was the Black.  Once more the Black has disappeared.

The producers claim it is historically accurate.  Maybe, but from whose perspective?  Better that the biased, racist versions of history remain in libraries, museums and video stores for the purpose of study and discussion than be presented as a contemporary version of white ‘truth’.

The producers also insisted that the musical version shows racial harmony and understanding.  They presented a television show narrated by a Black actor on the making of the musical to prove how sensitive the show is.  They prepared a schoolboard approved anti-racist educational package for schools and offered subsidised performances for students.  If they were telling the truth why the overkill?  Especially as the extensive media coverage (including advertising disguised as news items, special articles and television programs) excluded all opposing views.  Apart from being another example of the increasing intrusion of the corporate sector into school life and ‘news’ (which is also happening in this country) and the fact that The Toronto Star newspaper was one of the sponsors for the show, who really stood to gain from all this effort?  Who could afford the tickets?

Certainly not the African-Canadian community who were aghast that ‘once more with feeling’ they were being portrayed singing soul songs and happy with their lot – their ‘lot’ being inevitable, just like “ol’ man river rollin’ along” – less than the reality.

The real story was, and is, one of continued rebellion by the African-Americans from the beginning of slavery to the present.  It is also the story of holocaust – their genocide and separation from family – as well as their persistence and ‘showing grit’.  But this story is silent and silenced.  Where is the musical with the real story?  Where is the money to fund such a production?

In that case where are the musicals with the real story of indigenous Australians?  There was Bran’ Nue Day.  It trod carefully and the anger was well hidden under smiling faces, yet it was there.

Our Prime Minister is encouraging us all to leave the past behind and move forward.  But to move forward without turning, acknowledging and apologising for past mistakes is to ignore the wrongs and maintain the silence, in the hope ‘it’ will disappear (who will disappear?).

In 1992 Pope John Paul II was the first person in an official capacity to ask for forgiveness for the sins done to the Africans in the name of slavery.  It made 3-4 lines in a side-bar in the Toronto Star.  Galileo’s pardon by the Pope at the same time warranted an entire article.  If this is how we gauge what is important you can see where our loyalties lie.  So, our Prime Minister is not alone in refusing to acknowledge that Christian white oppressors are accountable and need to face their victims and apologise.  But it does not excuse him.

Another Prime Minister Gough Whitlam wanted to maintain the rage over the injustices done to him.  How can we do less for those for whom injustice is still a daily experience?

Prior to the October 17, 1993 opening of Show Boat in Canada the producers had made six million dollars in advanced ticket sales and their corporation’s share prices rose on the stock exchange.

This is the reality.  Money makes money.  You give the people what they want and they’ll pay.  Who is guilty here?  Who is being served?  Who are the servers?

As Nourbese says, the “blond head has greedily sucked African blood from the wound it created but has taken no responsibility and made no reparation, yet it is still continuing…..We may not be able to stop them, but we shall not bless them….It is my hope others will stand with us”.

What Show Boat is presenting may be about 1880’s America but its presence in Australia at this time is saying more.  It is saying that Australian whites still want to keep those of colour in their place, that they are still not ready for change, for true equality and sharing of resources.  The wealthy white corporate mind mirrors itself in the rest of those who will attend this production.  Where do you stand?

Show Boat is due to open early next year.  The ShowBoat carousel has just begun – prepare for the publicity whitewash.

c. 1997

[1]  M. Nourbese Philip, Showing Grit.  Toronto:  Poui Publications, 1993