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Blackface in the Kodak Archive, Ryerson’s Special Collections: Context for Reading ‘Racist’ Images

Article by: Cheryl Thompson and Emilie Jabouin

In 2019, I exhibited my SSHRC-Insight Development Grant-funded research, “Newspapers, Minstrelsy and Black Performance at the Theatre: Mapping the Spaces of Nation­Building in Toronto, 1870s to 1930s,” as part of RUBIX, a showcase celebration of the Scholarly Research and Creative (SRC) activity within the Faculty of Communication and Design. At this event, I met Alison Skyrme, Special Collections librarian at Ryerson who suggested that I drop by Special Collections to examine images of blackface in the Kodak Canada Archive. 

I was struck by her invitation because it happens so rarely. Despite the fact that blackface was a popular theatrical form of entertainment from the 1830s through 1960s, performed not only in the professional theatre and in Hollywood films, but also in communities at high schools, athletic clubs, hospitals, at retail, and even summer camps, most people want to hide their blackface artefacts, they do not invite Black researchers to interrogate them. And so, one afternoon in the fall of 2019, I and my graduate student, Emilie Jabouin, scoured through the Kodak Archive’s blackface repertoire. While the images were new to me, I had prior knowledge of the important role that Kodak played in the development of photography.

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