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White writer stirs controversy by donning ‘journalistic blackface’ for book on race

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A white Canadian writer who travelled the US in blackface and published what he has described as “the most important book on American race relations that has ever been written” has been met with swift backlash.

“Last summer, I disguised myself as a Black man and traveled throughout the United States to document how racism persists in American society,” journalist Sam Forster, who has written for The National Post and The Spectator, posted on X on Tuesday.

He also shared a link to his self-published book, Seven Shoulders. A blurb for the book on Amazon called it “the most important book on American race relations that has ever been written.”

In a copy of the book sent to The Independent, the author describes donning a blackface disguise in September 2023 that included a “synthetic Afro wig, colored contact lenses” and copious amounts of Maybelline foundation in the “Mocha” shade.

Seven Shoulders documents his experiences hitchhiking across Nashville, Birmingham, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, and Detroit. The work consists largely of first-person descriptions, where most drivers pass him by while he’s in disguise, as well as commentary on the history of race and politics in the US.

Prominent Black writers and journalists reacted to the project with a mix of criticism and bemusement.

The Nation’s legal correspondent Elie Mystal ridiculed the book’s methods and compared it to Tropic Thunder, a 2008 Hollywood satire in which Robert Downey, Jr, plays a white Australian actor who dons blackface to portray a Black Vietnam War soldier in the hopes of winning an Oscar.

“Option A: Talk to actual Black people,” Mr Mystal wrote on X. “Option B: [whatever in the Tropic Thunder F*** this is].”

The book features interviews with Black leaders, including a “sitting US congressman” and the “mayor of a major American city,” though their names are redacted in the work, and Mr Forster says he didn’t tell them about the blackface aspect of the project.

Nikole Hannah Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter behind the 1619 Project, which argues for a reframing of American history beginning with the arrival of the first enslaved African people to the land that later became the US, appeared perplexed in her brief response to the news of the book.

“No comment,” she wrote on X.

New York Times political reporter Astead Herndon called on Mr Forster to release a picture of him in disguise. “Drop the pic, Samuel,” he wrote on X. “I’m trying to see something.”

Some noted the book’s resemblance to the 1961 book Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin, in which a white writer donned blackface to describe the racism of the Jim Crow South.

Mr Forster told The Independent via email he was hoping to carry on in the tradition of Griffin with the goal to “dramatically improve our collective understanding of race.”

“As the public is beginning to realize, I didn’t force myself to supplicate at the feet of sensitivity readers, consultants, and Midtown executives like most authors do,” he said. “I simply wrote what I saw.”

“I recognize that my independence bothers people, but I think it produced a tremendously important and historic book,” he added.

He argued people should read the book before criticizing it, and declined to share a photo of the disguise he used during the writing process.

“As I mention in the book, the point of this project is to foster serious, productive dialogue,” he said. “If people are looking for a minstrel show, they should look somewhere else.”

He added that people on social media seeking to see the image showed the “crude and corrupting impulses of the masses” and suggests “more about the masses than it says about me.”

The “seven shoulders” of the book’s title refers to highway shoulders where the Canadian journalist hitchhiked both with and without his disguise. (Mr Forster has another book, Americosis: A Nation’s Dysfunction Observed from Public Transit, based on his observations riding the Dallas public transit system.)

The Canadian writer argues in the book that his method offers a unique perspective on race because most people have only experienced life within one societally defined racial category, while in his case, “for a short window, I became Black. I experienced the world as a Black man.”

“Nobody has an experiential barometer with respect to race, for that matter,” he writes. “Nobody except for me.. My barometer is better than anyone else’s.”

The book contains other claims sure to prompt fierce debate and backlash, such as his claim that present-day examples of institutional racism are “extremely” — Mr Forster repeats the word for two straight pages — “difficult to identify” — despite ongoing racial disparities in institutions including the criminal justice system.

The writer also argues that the people most passionate about the issue of race are the most ill-informed and “out of touch,” and suggests most writing about the history of racism in the US is moralizing disguised as scholarship.

“With few exceptions, the stuff that’s out there doesn’t serve the function of saying what previously was or what currently is, but rather, what should have been, or what ought to be,” he writes.

He describes his own writing in Seven Shoulders as atremendous literary achievement” and a “tremendous achievement in the realm of civic progress.”

The Canadian journalist argues his work is separate from the historically racist function of blackface and instead is “journalistic blackface” with a purpose.

Seven Shoulders is set to be published on Thursday, 30 May, via the author’s Slaughterhouse Media company.

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