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That time Virginia Woolf wore blackface to pull off an elaborate hoax

Virginia Woolf, left, and the Bloomsbury hoaxers.
Virginia Woolf, left, and the Bloomsbury hoaxers.
(Antonio Zazueta Olmos for the Observer Antonio Zazueta Olmos/Observer)

Every year, some people come up with deeply troubling, racially insensitive Halloween costumes. This year, we're seeing white people wear blackface to impersonate former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was cut from the NFL after video footage of him hitting his then-fiancee (now wife) Janay Palmer surfaced. Gawker compiled a list of several examples of Halloween celebrants dressed as Rice, including this image of a white child.

Last year, too, blackface made headlines when actress Julianne Hough donned the makeup for her Halloween getup as Orange is the New Black's character Crazy Eyes, played by Uzo Adbua. People who wear blackface today almost always inspire outrage. (Hough apologized for the costume, and Aduba suggested that everyone "move on.") But there was a time when these kinds of costumes weren't controversial — they were celebrated.

An example of this happened more than a century ago, when Virginia Woolf — yes, the Virginia Woolf who wrote A Room of One's Own — wore blackface. Woolf donned the makeup for what The Guardian calls one of the most famous practical jokes in British military history. A letter written by Horace de Vere Cole, one of the six members of the Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists in on the joke, explains the prank in detail. Here's what happened.

The six wanted to gain entry to the HMS Dreadnought, so they impersonated foreign nationals: four went as Ethiopians (known then as Abyssinians), with two as their official guides, who pretended to translate the group's fake Swahili into English. The impersonations were so convincing that the crew treated their "foreign" guests like royalty, greeting them with a band, and even hoisting African flags upon the masthead.

Cole later described how much of a hoot the prank was:

It was glorious! Shriekingly funny — I nearly howled when introducing the four princes to the admiral and then to the captain, for I made their names up in the train, but I forgot which was which, and introduced them under various names, but it did not matter!

They were tremendously polite and nice — couldn't have been nicer: one almost regretted the outrage on their hospitality.

According to The Guardian, though, it was the Navy that got the last laugh. "Three sailors abducted [painter Duncan] Grant and took him to Hampstead Heath, where they were reported to have caned him."

At the time Woolf's participation in the Dreadnought Hoax might have been seen as immature and possibly even a security scandal — the prank "provoked questions in parliament that led to a tightening of regulations," notes The Guardian. But it's unlikely that many would've seen the painted face as racial commentary.

For an explanation of why blackface is inextricably linked to racism, read this piece by my colleague Jenée Desmond-Harris.

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