Silvia Moreno-Garcia | Black Like Me
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Black Like Me

I was amused this week when I read a story that indicated people were upset because a black actor was playing one of the Three Musketeers. You know, the characters created by a certain dude who wasn’t 100% white: Dumas père. Here is an image of Dumas himself.

Nadar_-_Alexander_Dumas_père_(1802-1870)_-_Google_Art_Project_2

Why, then, would people be upset if one of his character was black?

One commenter in the piece I link to said a black character in the future was no issue, but a character in the past was not acceptable.

I don;t mind black casting in this or anything more modern, or futuristic. I have a problem with anything earlier. And yes, I’d have a problem with a white Shaka Zulu or a an Black Geronimo as well.

It’s not about race as about keeping up my suspension of disbelief.

We have this strange idea that POCs can only exist in a certain context. They certainly don’t belong in Europe prior to a certain time. This despite the fact that they…um…kind of do.

Okay…maybe they were in Europe, but surely not in France! And not one who was a swordsman! Wait, who is that? The Chevalier de Saint-George? Why, he looks…not very white. What is he holding?!

300px-Portrait_of_Chevalier_de_Saint-George

Okay, but he was ONE guy.

Oh, this is Dumas’s dad. On a horse. With a sword.

781px-Alexandre_Dumas_(1762-1806)

We like to imagine that in the past (in general, a blanket past) in any region of the world where there was a big white population (Canada, the US, England) there couldn’t possibly have been POCs. If they were, they wouldn’t have been ‘cool’ ones, anyway. They’d amount to servants, the kind of people we don’t want to know about because it’s BORING.

Another commenter on the BBC story said:

If we are to believe that a black musketeer went unnoticed then I think it fails. It would be nice if we were all colour blind, but we’re not and historical works need to either make use of the colour / race issue or avoid it altogether.

Yes, SURELY if a black person showed up in the past, in a society that had many white people, it would be noted and noticed, documented as an anomaly. And surely we must assume that characters are white by default.

This week I had the pleasure of hearing Jacalyn Mary Duffin speak at UBC. She is a doctor and also a medical historian. She talked about some of her research. One of the topics Duffin looked at were black medical students at Queen’s University. She first stumbled onto these students when she examined photographs of medical grads. Her researcher led her to discover that “negros,” whose numbers had been going up, were banned from medical studies at Queen’s in 1924. The ban lasted until 1970.

Duffin also looked at female medical students. Her research shows that between 1945 and 1967 there were strict limits on the number of female students allowed into Queen’s. A quota was at work. The quota meant the percentage of female medical students quickly went down from 25% to 6%.

This is of course relevant because of the fictitious history we paint in our heads. If we were setting a novel in 1920’s Canada the likelihood of finding a black or female medical student at a university would be much higher than if it was 1956. Yet we view the more distant past as unlikely to harbour any POCs or women.

Look at these men, graduates of the Leonard Medical Center in the late 19th century.

Leonard_Medical_School

Look at these women, University of British Columbia chemistry students.

John_Allardyce_and_others_in_chemistry_group_photograph

Look at these women, the first women medical students admitted in 1887 to Melbourne University.

Med Hist Museum 10

 

Look at the class of 1876, Syracuse University College of Medicine. What do you see?

syracusse

Does this mean the things were peachy more than a hundred years ago for black students? For women? Clearly not. But clearly we also have a skewed picture of the past, eliminating certain people even when they were present.

Update. Some other Africans in Europe:

EquianoExeterpainting

In the 1920’s: Fay M. Jackson, female African American foreign correspondent in Europe reporting on politics.

In the 19th century: José White Lafitte, Afro-Cuban musician, pursued violin studies in Paris. Died there in 1918.

Olaudah Equiano, “black” Londoneer and aboliotionist who in 1789 published his autobiography.

Jean Amilcar, an African boy adopted by Marie Antoinette, who lived at court in the 18th century

Julien Raimond, mixed race plantation owner who spent time in France campaigning against racially discriminatory laws.