A History of Blackface — Mistakes Were Made

Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used predominantly by nonblack performers to represent a caricature of a black person. The blackface tradition began in American theatres around 1830. Early white performers in Blackface used burnt cork and later greasepaint or shoe polish to darken their skin and exaggerate their lips. Actors also wore wooly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, and ragged clothes to complete the look. John Strausbaugh, a journalist, and cultural commentator stated that Blackface dates back to 1441 when captive West Africans were displayed in Portugal. Strausbaugh also noted that the origins of Blackface were “to display blackness for the enjoyment and edification of white viewers.”

In America, it was the actor Thomas D. White who made Blackface famous in the states. Rice introduced a song and dance to his stage act in 1828 called “Jump Jim Crow.” The routine took off in 1832. Rice traveled around the U.S. under the stage name “Daddy Jim Crow.” For those of you who are students of history, you know “Jim Crow” became the nickname for laws and statues that legalized segregation and discrimination after the reconstruction era of American history.

In the 1830s and early blackface performers mixed skits with comic songs and dances. Initially, the blackface actors only performed in low-class venues. As Blackface took off in popularity, they started playing in higher class venues. It was during this era when blackface performers started enacting the racist black stereotypes of; buffoonery, laziness, superstitious, cowardly, and hypersexual. The actors also portrayed blacks as thieves, habitual liars, and unable to speak proper English. During this period, all the performers were also male, so they cross-dressed and portrayed black women as unattractive, highly mannish, and also hypersexual. This portrayal is where the “Mammy’ caricature originates.

In the 1830s, blackface performers were solo or duo acts with the occasional trios. The acts changed in 1843 when Dan Emmett and his Virginia Minstrels introduced the first Minstrel show to the world. The Minstrel show was an evening of entertainment composed entirely of Blackface. The act consisted of musicians sitting in a semi-circle, with a tambourine player on one end and a bones player on the other end. The show consisted of three acts, with the last act being a solo act. As Blackface declined in the theatre, its spirit continued on radio and later tv and film.

Amos n Andy was a radio and television sitcom that was set in Harlem. The radio show ran from 1928–1960 and was created, written, and voiced by two white actors, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. The show portrayed extreme black stereotypes during its run.

In the early years of the film industry, many well-known actors performed in Blackface. Some of the actors who performed in Blackface were; Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Buster Keaton, Joan Crawford, Doris Day, Milton Berle, Betty Grable, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Micky Rooney, Shirley Temple, and Judy Garland. Blackface portrayal in films went into the late 1940s with such films as “This is the Army” and “Saratoga Trunk.” In the first Uncle Tom’s Cabin film, all of the major black roles were white actors in Blackface. In “Birth of a Nation,” the same thing was done. Ironically, the overt racism of the “Birth of a Nation” movie, mainly put an end to Blackface in Hollywood movies. The act of made up whites playing Native Americans, Asians, Arabs, etc…. continued for decades, however.

Public opinion on Blackface started to change in the 1940s. Blackface began to be associated with racism and bigotry (finally!!). Blackface didn’t disappear. However, as mentioned above, Amos and Andy reigned on the radio as “Oral Blackface,” and animated cartoons picked up the mantle of Blackface. Many cartoons in the ’40s contained Blackface, coons, or mammy characters. Bugs Bunny appeared in Blackface in 1953 in the cartoon Southern Fried Rabbit.

Ballets even got in on the Blackface act in the early 20th century. Blackface is still performed today in individual ballots like Petrushka, La Bayadere, and Othello in the United States and Europe.

Another lesser-known fact is that there were black minstrel shows made up of black actors performing In Blackface. The shows started taking off in the 1860s and were proclaimed as “Authentic” and “the real thing.” The actors claimed to be recently freed slaves; some probably were while others were not. The shows gave off an animal in the Zoo vibe, rather than art performed by skill performers. In 1866, Baker and Clayton’s Georgia Minstrels was the most popular show. Black minstrel shows focused more on plantation material than social commentary like the white minstrel shows. The black shows used no instruments, just their hands and feet, and the slapping and clapping of their bodies and shuffling and stomping their feet. Sadly black minstrel shows also contained buffoonery as a way of self-parody. Despite reinforcing black stereotypes, these black performers became stars in the black community. Though the black bourgeoise class shunned them, black minstrel show actors carved out lucrative careers compared to the menial labor most blacks had to perform.

It was blackface performances by white and black that they joy and richness of African American music, dance, and comedy first reached mainstream white culture in the United States. It was also through minstrel performances that African Americans entered mainstream show business.

In the 1980s, several musical artists such as Grace Jones, Taco, UB40, and Culture Club performed in Blackface during their music videos. Joni Mitchell has donned Blackface numerous times in her career, even appearing in it on her album cover in 1977. In the Movie Trading Places (1983), Dan Aykroyd’s character put on full blackface makeup, a dreadlocked wig, and a Jamaican accent for a scene. After rewatching the film, there was no need for that scene. Aykroyd could have just put on a disguise as a white person, and it still would have advanced the plot, but hey, I guess that was comedy in the early 1980s. The film has received very little if any criticism for that portrayal.

In 1986 a film called “Soul Man” was released. The premise of the movie is a rich, white male uses “tanning pills” to obtain a scholarship to Harvard law school that is only available to African American students. The hijinks of the main character trying to perform black stereotypes like being “good” at basketball are sprinkled throughout the film. The lead character eventually meets and falls in love with the original candidate for the scholarship. She’s a single mom who works as a waitress to support her education. The lead character comes out as white and drops the infamous line “ Can you blame him for the color of his skin?” The film was heavily criticized (rightfully so) for having a white man don a black face to humanize white ignorance at the expense of African American viewers.

In 1993, Ted Danson appeared at a New York friars club comedy roast in Blackface. I guess because he was dating Whoopi Goldberg at the time, he thought he would get a pass (wrong!).

In the film Bamboozled, Spike Lee explores the world of blackface and minstrel shows. The theme of the movie is that a disgruntled black television executive introduces a minstrel show tv concept in the hopes of being fired. What happens instead is that the show is a huge success, which leads to even more complications. A lot of concepts in Bamboozled are still in play today, sadly. Some black performers are still playing the “coon” and “mammy” roles for the enjoyment of white people (i.e., Soul Plane).

Commodities bearing iconic “darky” images, from tableware, soap, toy marbles, home accessories, and t-shirts continue to be manufactured and marketed. There is a thriving niche market for such items in the U.S. There have been numerous incidents of white college students donning Blackface. The events usually take place around Halloween like clockwork. They think because its Halloween, they get a free pass to dress up as a racial stereotype. In 2016, Snapchat got in trouble for its Bob Marley filter. The filter allowed users to superimpose dark skin, dreadlocks, and a knit cap over their pictures. More recently, the current Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, got caught in the blackface web. An image from his medical school yearbook (who knew med schools had yearbooks?) showed a person in Blackface and another in Klu Klux Klan hood on his page in the yearbook. Northam apologized for the pic but didn’t resign.

Mistakes Were Made:

Though blackface and Minstrel show portrayal helped bring African American culture to the mainstream, and even worldwide, it had a dark, sinister side. Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrels not only played a significant role in cementing and projecting racists images, attitudes, and perceptions worldwide, but also in popularizing black culture. In present times the caricatures that were the legacies of Blackface are a constant cause of ongoing controversy (i.e., Criminals, lazy, irresponsible, and a single-track mind for sex for both genders). The influence of Blackface on branding and advertising, as well as on perceptions and portrayal of blacks can be found on a global scale (i.e., Aunt Jimemas, Uncle Ben’s, etc…)

I had two incidents in law school that were based of the remnants of Blackface and minstrel show culture. I remember watching the trailer of “Soul Plane” in the movies and being appalled; I couldn’t believe they were releasing a film like that in the theatres. When I got to school the next day, I was even more shocked that some of my classmates (nonblack, of course) not only loved the trailer of Soul Plane but wanted to know if I wanted to see it with them. I told them I would never see that movie because it portrays a lot of negative stereotypes about black people. My friends not only looked at me puzzled and confused by that answer, but they still went to see that movie and enjoyed it.

The next incident was around Halloween. I asked one of my white classmate what he did for Halloween. He regaled me with this story of how some friends of his went as “Katrina refugees,” aka they dressed up in Blackface and wore raggedy clothes. Needless to say, our friendship was never the same after that. In both incidents, neither of my friends could understand why I was appalled by the movie or the behavior. It was like I was from a different planet from them. No, I didn’t go to school with Ralph Northam, and I went to school in “liberal” California. However, those beliefs and that style of humor are still appealing to non-blacks.

The minstrel show has moved on to Hip-hop. Hip-hop has become a worldwide culture, and some of the stereotypes it portrays has become worldwide as well. There are a lot of hip hop artists representing a positive image of African Americans, but that is drowned out by all the negative images portrayed. Blackface and Minstrel show culture was a gift and curse for African Americans. On the one hand, it helped popularize our culture. Still, it also left the world with a lot of racist and harmful stereotypes about African Americans. We are still trying to live these down today.

Originally published at https://mwmblog.com on November 18, 2019.

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