Buying and Selling Blackface: Theatrical Anti-Blackness in Pahlavi Era Iran, 1930-1965

By Beeta Baghoolizadeh
Submitted to Session P4915 (Blackness in the Middle East: a Comparative Perspective, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
1929 marked the end of legal slavery in Iran, guaranteeing the manumission of all slaves on Iranian soil. Most slaves in Iran at the time had been of African ancestry, and their enslavement had fostered a rigid racialization that equated slaves as black and vice versa. In the years following abolition, public references or lingering footprints of Iranian slavery were erased in the name of modernization. The dismantling of the slavery as a legal institution, however, failed to undo the decades that crystallized racial hierarchies, and the legacy of slavery vividly thrived in blackface theaters. As a result, blackface theater served as the conduit between the slaving past and “Westernizing” present. Blackface theater, or “playing black,” (siyah-bazi), liberally drew upon Qajar court references in a detached manner, decontextualizing a distinct history of late nineteenth-century slavery into a timeless comedy. Peddling stereotypical imagery used to mock black eunuchs in the Qajar court, blackface theater played a significant role in conveying racial stereotypes in the absence of slavery. On stage and on film, blackface actors assumed the role of a court eunuch who served as a close confidant to the king or other members of nobility. Eunuch’s bodies became synonymous with blackface theater, drawing laughter with their pidgin Persian, goofy posture, and licentious jokes. As time passed, their roles as slaves grew more vague, their castrations ignored, but their blackness exaggerated. This paper investigates blackness as a commercialized commodity in the absence of slavery.

This presentation considers the visuality of racial hierarchies that survived abolition in 1929. Focusing on the period between 1930-1965, this paper analyzes theater, political caricatures, literature, and poetry that incorporated crude representations of African slaves in the absence of slavery. Legible and palatable to Iranian audiences, blackface theater created a vernacular memory of slavery that replaced the trauma with grotesque comedy.