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Last year, for Black History Month, Franck Sylvestre was canceled for racial stereotypes even though he’s black. Now he’s suing the Red Coalition which claims to fight “systemic racism”.
Sylvestre was born in France to parents from the French West Indies, he moved to Montreal and began putting on his own productions which combined music, slam poetry, dance and, this is where he got into trouble, puppetry.
While Sylvestre’s previous black history month shows had gone without a hitch, he began presenting ‘L’incroyable secret de Barbe Noire’ or ‘The Incredible Secret of Blackbeard’, meant for children, in which he acts out the part of a boy from his island home who on hearing a story from his grandfather discovers a treasure chest with gold from Cortez, of the famed pirate himself (while wearing a pink mask and wielding a wooden pirate sword), and a puppet.
The puppet is black.
Sylvestre’s family had originated from Martinique, once the haunt of Blackbeard, and his shows had incorporated stories and legends from the West Indies. The puppet, named Max, is supposed to be a caricature of himself who steps into the story. Making lookalike and caricature puppets is common enough in puppetry, but the rules are different for Sylvestre and his face.
After a decade of performing the award-winning play for kids, suddenly there were complaints and demands that the Blackbeard show be canceled.
The Red Coalition, an “anti-racism group”, held a press conference attacking a Montreal city for its “tolerance of a clearly racist children’s play featuring a grotesque blackface puppet.”
“I hope that the artist knows that in North America, the climate that we are in now, a blackface puppet, is totally not acceptable,” another professional anti-racist declared. “It’s not about being censored … it’s time for a change.”
Allison Saunders, a BLM rally organizer and school commissioner, claimed that she felt “disrespected” when she saw the puppet.
Can a man’s face be racist? According to professional anti-racists, it can and it is.
“I have the face I have. I have big lips and a big nose. The puppet is bald, however,” Sylvestre protested that the puppet is actually him. “It’s a precedent in terms of freedom of speech and artistic liberty.”
But it did no good.
A local city in Montreal canceled the show and a year later, Sylvestre is suing the anti-racists.
Black History Month has come around again and this time Sylvestre decided to head off trouble by taking Alain Babineau, the head of the Red Coalition’s racial profiling department, to court for defamation.
The Red Coalition describes itself as a “registered lobbyist in the fight to eliminate racism and discrimination in Canada”. It has recently accused Canadian hockey of racism, attacked the police and promoted claims of ‘Islamophobia’.
Now it may be headed to court.
Sylvestre’s lawsuit mentions that Babineau had smeared him by derisively calling him a “bon noir” or “good black” and suggesting that he enables white supremacy.
The Red Coalition, which claims to be the number one organization fighting racism in Canada, has announced that it refuses to be “intimidated by Mr. Sylvestre’s actions and the Red Coalition’s legal team is prepared to vigorously defend against the lawsuit.”
A coalition with a sizable budget is heroically refusing to be intimidated by a black puppeteer.
Sylvestre sees this as an issue of artistic freedom, but it’s also a question of who decides what’s racist. We used to associate racism with unthinking prejudice, but the response of Canada’s professional anti-racism class was filled with unthinking prejudice. On seeing Sylvestre’s caricature puppet of himself they immediately reacted with some very racist prejudices.
Allison Saunders, the school commissioner and BLM rally organizer, described the puppet as “a scary ‘sauvage’ from the jungle.”
The anti-racist crowd often claims that the black people they don’t like are suffering from “internalized racism”, but when a BLM activist looks at a black man’s caricature and sees a jungle savage, who’s really suffering from internalized racism here?
Applying the Rorschach test to racism has never been any clearer than it is here.
Sylvestre has spent a lot of time trying to explain himself and to defend his art. He has invited the cancelers to come and see the show for themselves, but they seem to have little interest in that. Much like Justice Potter Stewart, they know what offends them when they see it and that’s all there is to it. But should the personal tastes of activists be used to censor a man’s art?
“It’s the principle of children’s shows.Things are big, colors are strong, things are not refined,” Sylvestre has argued. “Is it that because the character has black skin that we can’t do children’s theater with it?”
That is exactly what many of the activists he’s pitted against have in mind. Instead of a system in which artists are selected based on their art, the activists want to decide who gets to appear. And while they clearly don’t want to see Sylvestre and Max on stage, they’ve used the campaign to seize control of artistic productions that will then have to pass a political test.
And the only thing standing in the way of turning art into their puppet may be one single puppet.
Accusing someone of racism is much easier than disproving the accusation. And if a black artist can’t disprove the slur that he’s promoting racism against black people, how can anyone else?
That may be why Sylvestre has no choice but to go to court to stop cancel culture from claiming a beloved children’s show and Max the puppet.
A Canadian court may now be forced to adjudicate the question of whether a puppet is offensive or is just an externalization of an artist. And there lies the difference between fighting racism, which was about ending discrimination, and anti-racism which imposes discrimination.
Racism was as easy to spot as segregated water fountains, but anti-racism exists in the imaginations of the anti-racists who see racism everywhere that they look. The more that racism inhabits their imagination, the more they are driven to destroy everything around them.
Just ask Max.