My initial assumption:
“Wow, blackface. This is so racist, and out of line in today’s world, right?”
My context for blackface is US American history where it is so beyond “not ok”. It’s offensive, it’s demeaning, it’s born of white people painting their faces black for entertainment, creating a caricature of a black person.
I had a powerful emotional reaction to the hundreds of black kids running around dressed like this. It must be sign of a backward culture, of a respect for the other that has not yet caught up with the US, which is ahead in these matters of respecting black history and not being offensive, right?
Colombia’s black history has similarities, but also diverges from the US. The similarity is a history of slavery (what is today the main square in Cartagena with the famous yellow clock tower was one of the largest slave markets in the world).
There’s a fascinating (and romanticized) history of how the diversity of music that exists only in Colombia is due to slaves being brought from many regions of Africa, with no common languages, and music filling the void.
The dance and character at Carnaval (referred to as Son de Negro) was created by the Afro-Caribbean community as an example of defiance of the Spanish. This costume, with the black face paint commemorates the greatest rebellion where the black enslaved community fought for their freedom. The grimaces on the faces of the men (now more often boys) are mocking the Spanish conquerors, after their escape.
So is blackface in Carnaval racist? If it is, then it’s institutionalized racism because Son de Negro is one of the official costumes of the Barranquilla Carnaval and one of the most popular. The carnaval website describes the costume as a cultural celebration of Afro-Caribbean identity and history and the teens running around at Carnaval wear it with pride.
This is a great example of what Anthony Bourdain taught us about humility and respect for the other. It’s not my job, as a white Brit-American with a different historical context, to bring my perspective and my history to the question. When something like this make me feel uncomfortable, that’s my challenge to overcome, not Colombia’s.
Thank you Mr Bourdain, for helping me understand that often the situations that fire up our discomfort circuits are the most valuable, if we can find the humility, curiosity and empathy that to ask the right questions.
If you’re interested to read more about the gray line on blackface and Carnaval this is a well thought-out article. This article talks of how, of the 10-16 million Africans who survived the slave voyage, 60-70% ended up initially in the Caribbean and Brazil.
Also – currently the Afro-Colombian population is far from having equal rights and opportunities. FEM in Cartagena is an organization that is fighting to right that inequality.