Adenike Akande

Blackface in Nigeria

Adenike Akande

Adenike Akande

Adenike Akande is a Nigerian, living and moving through the West. She is from Osun, lives in Lagos and is finishing a Law Degree at a university in Ogun. She embraces her Africanness as the inevitable fact of external perception. Twitter: @PhilipOnwubiko.

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Artwork By Sanya Awe

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Narrated by Adenike Akande


Blackface in Nigeria

Narrated by Adenike Akande

Between Stepin Fetchit and Baba Suwe

The first time I hear the name Stepin Fetchit is out of Lecrae’s mouth: ‘told me keep my mouth shut, told me be a Stepin Fetchit/ I will not oblige to your colonized way of faith/ my Messiah died for the world, not just USA’. ‘Facts’, the song these lyrics appear in, is Lecrae Devaughn Moore’s response to (White) Evangelical discomfort about his insistence that civil rights advocacy is a part of Christianity— he would not be sacrificing justice for his community to remain popular in (White) Christian circles.

Lincoln Perry was a comedian, vaudevillian and actor, considered by many as the first black movie star. His pseudonym, ‘Stepin Fetchit’ (contracted ‘step and fetch it’) is a character he reprised time and again, described by National Public Radio as a ‘befuddled, mumbling, shiftless fool’, and more popularly, the ‘laziest man in the world’ — a portrait that would persist for much of his career. The name has become synonymous to sycophancy and subservience, typically in the context of furthering notions of Black inferiority to White supremacy, with a ring similar to ‘Uncle Tom’.

The second time I see the name injected in discourse about racial dynamics is in Black-ish, the television series. In Season 3, Episode 19, Dre gets some flak from Bow over his casting choices in an advert that implied the desirability of a White woman over a Black one who is made to seem loud, and nagging. Rainbow, in weighing the implications of his actions, compares him to Stepin Fetchit, emphasizing the deleterious implications of his role in cementing the coon stereotype, a representation of black people as lazy, timid and incoherent. Andre presents an alternative view, one which canonizes Perry for his contribution to Black inclusion in Hollywood: being the first black actor to earn a million, and the first to get role credits (as Stepin Fetchit though, not Lincoln Perry, his proper name).

Dre’s and Bow’s antithetical views reflect the controversy of the question of how Perry’s legacy should be interpreted. Is he saviour or accomplice? Praiseworthy or blameworthy?

It is unlikely that most Nigerians know who Lincoln Perry is, know about this debate or would care if initiated into its specifics. Who they know, if only the Yoruba, is Babatunde Omidina but probably not by that name. Describe the popular actor who in the zenith of his career put his name in people’s mouths through his portrayal of the rag-wearing, lazy, womanizing jester, with a face a black so unnatural — for its starkness to the rest of him —  that it could not be real and sometimes suspiciously red lips; they will call him Baba Suwe, and thank you for the welcome nostalgia. 

It could have been watching the United States brew with racial tension; or, corporate rebranding from racist origins; or, the ‘Karens’ multiplying. It was not something happening in Nigeria. In my mind, the image of Baba Suwe began to invoke thoughts of the Jim Crow minstrel act—and even at first it was obvious to me that there was something false about the equivalence.

Curious if anyone else had made the connection, I googled the key words ‘Baba Suwe’ and ‘blackface’— the results are more Baba Suwe than blackface, saying something by itself. Especially when compared to what you find when you google ‘Stepin Fetchit’ and ‘coon’. For Baba Suwe, those results which have anything to say about his participation in minstrel culture are one odd tweet and two articles. There is one long essay, by a Nigerian, which mentions Baba Suwe’s career and discusses blackface but never juxtaposes them. 

One site is Minstrel Movies, which categorizes him as a ‘black faced star’. Two snippets are hosted as justification of this characterization. The first is his performance in ‘Kadara Afri T’, a 2002 film featuring celebrated musician Queen Salawa Abeni. In the scene, Baba Suwe feigns hurt at mistreatment from Salawa Abeni’s character but dries his tears as soon as she offers him food. Through half-hearted whimpers, he is elaborate in his requests for what food he would like. Minstrel Movies tags this a use of blackface stereotypes, which includes trickery, to deprecate the African man. The second clip, hard to locate on the page, is supposed to depict Baba Suwe discovering an ebo, a sacrificial meal offered in the process of divination. It is common knowledge that this is not to be eaten by passers-by, yet he eats it, an act, his wife is certain, will only upturn their lives. In response, Baba Suwe calls the appearance of food an ‘act of God’, an answered prayer not to be overlooked. This is described as the ‘zip coon’ stereotype where men consider themselves smarter than they are. The Zip Coon trope was a jab at free Black people; well-dressed but incapable of the conventional use of language, and so, arrogantly blinded to their own inferiority, clearly intended to deride the equal claim to dignity, a way of saying ‘you are not equal even if you look it’.

The tweet accuses Baba Suwe of building a career entertaining Black people with blackface. The reactions, which are few, are a mix of ignorance on the subject, curiosity, and most firmly, stringent denial. For the deniers, the context is misplaced, what does Baba Suwe in Nigeria have to do with an ‘old’ American device? The audience is different too; it is hard to say that anyone watching Baba Suwe, surrounded only with Nigerian conceptions of culture and entertainment, would make any connection to minstrel shows. Beyond denial, the confusion is apparent. 

Cultural appropriation as an analogy of division

‘Cultural appropriation’, old-timer of academia, is today heavily used in popular culture. It suggests inappropriate use of items, symbols or ideas, egregious for its illegitimacy. The proper use is as by members of the group to whom it belongs, or with their ‘permission’, or, perhaps in a special understanding of the significance of the object. Appropriation carries imperialist and colonial overtones.

The category of objects appropriable is not closed: hairstyles (braids, cornrows, bantu knots), jewelry (earrings), clothing (hijabs, bindis), food (jerk chicken), slang ('bae', 'ratchet'), dance (twerking, breakdancing), music (rock and roll, hip hop), etc.

Certain elements are discernible from the ongoing conversation about what the word means; a dominant culture; a minority or foreign culture; a use or taking or borrowing of articles, ideas or language by the dominant culture; failure to credit the original owners of the culture so that cultural appropriation is comparable to plagiarism or intellectual property theft, a profiting off and taking credit without due reference. But it is clear that when we speak of cultural appropriation today, it is hardly about credit or profit, it is the doing; much in the same way that wearing blackface is not about intent, motive or whether you will make caricature; it is the doing. Adele was wearing a Jamaican flag, and ostensibly participating in the Notting Hill Carnival, when she was said to be appropriating Jamaican culture. That was the problem— why was a White woman wearing a hairstyle and participating in a festival so triumphantly Black in their history?

The problem was lost on Jamaicans. Many found it amusing, and enjoyed Adele’s enjoyment of it – the homage, the compliment– even joking that patois and Jamaican culture would inform the tone of her new album.

So began what is the often repeated charge against (Black) Americans, an imposition of their experiences on others, a centering of themselves in similar narratives to the point of disrespect and insensitivity. The same was said of the peddling of the #EndSars protests as an offshoot of Black Lives Matter protests.

Cultural appropriation is hardly Nigerian-speak either. Nigerian history is pockmarked with offensive imperialist interruption. The fetishization of traditional religions and the establishment of a Christianity-Islam normativity, South and North, feels all the testimony needed. 

Yet the language of cultural appropriation, the concept underlying it, is something alien to Nigerian thinking. Culture and history make it hard to be otherwise.

‘Race’ is a construct of nebulous interpretation to Nigerians. Nigerians grow up around Nigerians and often among the same ethnicity. The average Nigerian has only ever interacted with other Nigerians, and so the nuances of interracial interaction are colours too hard to see in the Nigerian sun. The first realization of one’s blackness often comes as the rude shock of racism on the first trip abroad, the portrayals (in movies and TV series it is doubtful most Nigerians see) don’t seem adequate preparation. Talk of tribalism and xenophobia, which happen often among other Black people, is better understood. A good example is seen in the way racial slurs (including those not referring to Black people) are so casually said among Nigerians. No one stops to contemplate the implications of the use— the appropriateness, who can say it, if anyone?

It is famously difficult how hard it is to speak to Africans about race. Zimbabwean writer Panashe Chigumadzi (in 'Why I'm No Longer Talking to Nigerians About Race' for Africa is a Country) has sworn off the topic with Nigerians after noting the difficulty of communicating the problem to citizens of countries without a past of 'settler colonialism'. There is a difficulty in understanding 'global and historical  links of black people within the context of colonialism'. 

Beyond obtuseness and insensitivy, there is a difficulty inevitably engineered by the difference between how slavery and colonialism operated. Colonialism brought a few White people to Nigeria; Nigerians remained the majority. Indirect rule meant that much of traditional government remained in place although corrupted. When colonialism was legally over, Nigerians did not have to come to terms with themselves in a foreign country or battle a supervening outward perception of who they were. That Black American experience is missing and with it that specific kind of racial tension.

Furthermore, culture is understood to be of a different character in Nigeria, than in America, it would seem. It remains yours, but others are encouraged to share and experience. A person's use of another's culture is typically read as affirmation and appreciation, and even unavoidable  given the closeness in which we live with each other. An example can be seen in the acceptance of White people into traditional religions. Ifa accepts foreign initiates. Fashion styles, cloth materials, traditional dishes move between people.

Nigerians often incorporate ideas from other cultures, many times because they enter the mainstream and it is hard to say where they originated. ‘Bomboclaat’ (a Jamaican expletive) went from being a phrase often randomly shouted in Nigerian reggae, and otherwise, to a trend on Twitter used to ask ‘what’s on your mind?’. Ankara is often sewn in the style of a kimono. Nigerians who watch Korean drama series pick up phrases and expressions and use them, and confer on themselves Korean titles, names, and self-identify with Korean identity markers, whether they mean it or not.

The point is not to build more walls between Africans and African Americans, or to elevate some understandings over others, it is to say that there is a difference that will cause to differ. Acknowledging this is helpful in shaping the discussion we have correctly. Cultural appropriation is not Blackface, but its inconsequentiality for many Nigerians in Nigeria shows the way that race is understood and viewed-- a secondary question of doubtful importance.

Is Baba Suwe a ‘blackfaced star’?

 Baba Suwe's character and Blackface performance are similar enough that some inspiration would not be surprising.

The question of Baba Suwe and Blackface has made brief appearances on Twitter, Nigeria. A few ask why Baba Suwe is excluded from the accountability and scrutiny directed at performers who have participated in okaying stereotypes. The louder voice deems it non sequitur, it makes zero sense to associate Baba Suwe with American minstrelsy. One person argued that blackface is not offensive to Nigerians given the respect and affection that trails Omidina's legacy.

Another thought that it was of different import, a different kind of fever, referencing Fela Kuti's ‘Yellow Fever’, which might suggest that it remains problematic but for different reasons. Yet another considered it outrage of no importance given that there is no significance to Nigerians. For many, the question lingers.

It is fair inquiry: ‘what does this act mean to the people affected or to whom it is directed?’ Effect and audience are indispensable.

In the Black-ish episode earlier referenced, Ruby, Andre's mother, says Stepin Fetchit is the reason she is ‘[un] comfortable napping in front of White folk’. Rainbow reads an excerpt that says he, ‘set the template for the coon archetype and perpetuated an abysmal representation of the African American post-reconstruction’. Other actors, Willie Best (‘Sleep n Eat’) and Mantan Moreland , took a cue and invented Fetchit imitators.

It is hard to find parallels to this in Nollywood. There seem to be no spiralling effects from the Suwe character, no diminished view of any of the group(s) Omidina represented. Nigerians are at home among their own people, it is hard to see how we would decide that Nigerians as a whole, and black people as well, are foolish because of Baba Suwe. It may be that somewhere in the East or North or South, Yoruba people are viewed negatively, but it is still hard to see how this would work given that there is no stark juxtaposition of tribe; he is among other Yoruba people so it would read that his asininity is a personal trait.

This is why  (Black) American outrage needs to be tempered with understanding. However, given the way (Black) Americans approach interracial interaction, it seems certain that Baba Suwe will be categorized as a minstrel act.

 None of this is to invalidate the anger of Black people or sanctify the actions of Omidina. For African Americans, there is a history that cannot be escaped and must be acknowledged. This forms the context of their justified anger. There is an accumulation of meaning borne of the past that characterizes specific behaviour as flagrant, disrespectful, and certainly racially motivated; or at least reckless or negligent which is still culpable.

What Omidina did is technically blackface, yet the difference is that it means something else. And this is important because his actions are not untainted by the trappings of discrimination. What did a darker skin tone have to do with the silly, lazy, lecherous character being played?

What I am proposing is that the conversation be distilled to accommodate complexities; that intention (sometimes) matters; that there should be language other than ‘appropriation’, ‘violence’, ‘colonialism’ with which to speak of the way foreigners interact with other cultures.

In the third relevant article Google shows when you link Baba Suwe with blackface, Dr Louis Chude-Sokei, in a column for The Gleaner entitled ‘Blackface? Whose Voices?’, discusses the difference between how Black Americans understand race and how Jamaicans do. Responding to the anger inspired by a 2013 Volkswagen advert where a White person imitates ‘speaking in Jamaican’, Dr Chude Sokei writes

In America, any form of cross-racial or cross-cultural impersonation is greeted with suspicion…What might surprise Americans is that Jamaicans - the assumed butt of the joke - not only take the ad in stride, but also see in it a wry cultural affirmation… African-American pundit Charles Blow from The New York Times (who) described the ad as "blackface with voices"…In so naming it, he put a familiar mask on the discomfort many Americans have with the commercial… The very difference between a Caribbean view and an African-American view of minstrelsy was actually staged in the interaction where the ad was labelled racist. If you recall, the panel included Jamaica-born Christopher John Farley of The Wall Street Journal. He wasn't offended, perhaps because he'd seen white Jamaicans before or any number of diehard reggae fans, but his opinion was silenced by the word 'blackface'… when Blow alludes to "blackface with voices", he is only thinking of the first part of this history - the racist part. Most people in America usually do and find it hard to imagine that race and its meanings vary from country to country, just as cross-racial impersonation varies from context to context. This view of cross-cultural imitation, though, is as narrow as it is ethnocentric. It merely uses a history of trauma to silence a more complex present. In the rush to take racial offence at the ad, Americans are ignoring what Jamaicans have responded so strongly to. It is a cultural affirmation of a language that has achieved global significance, even though still often derided in its own land. What Americans should realise is that Jamaicans, instead of being the butt of the joke, are, in fact, in on it.

Ironically, earlier in the article he cites Andrea ‘Delcita’ Wright's, a Jamaican actress associated with a similarly polarising use of blackface, and Baba Suwe's acts as a 'homage to the globalisation of minstrelsy'. Yet, my point is Chude-Sokei’s point: we must resist the simplicity of a formula and ask the right and relevant questions. Calling Baba Suwe a blackface act, would be self-defeating, for African Americans, who will find themselves doing the very thing they denounce in imposing culture, and for Nigerians, who would be adopting meanings we can hardly make sense of, and ignoring the issues peculiar to our experience. Blackface is disgraceful and harmful, it must be denounced and acknowledged. But if anyone ever chooses to call Baba Suwe a ‘black faced star’ they must know why, and be able to justify it.