Blackface Follow-up: Why it really is That Bad: a history of blackface.


TW, as per usual for these things, for discussion of present and past racism.

This post is responding to comments on my earlier post Hey, Ireland! Let’s talk about racism. Here. NOW. This post goes into the historical context of blackface.

First, a disclaimer. I am not an expert on this stuff by any means. I am simply a person with a reasonable background in things like social science and intersectionality, who does her best to be an ally and have a fair idea of this stuff. I haven’t- until this past few days- spent a huge amount of time reading up on the history of minstrels and representation of POC. I just had the usual level of background awareness of this stuff that you get from being a person interacting with people. When it comes to the historical specifics, though, I’m just learning. Which is important, because everything I know is stuff that you can find out if, as I advised in my last post, you just google it.

Right. Let’s get started. We’ve got a lot to get through. I’m going to be talking a lot about context, symbolism and history. I’m also going to be linking to a lot of other places. Because this is such a big, complicated issue I’d encourage you strongly to read them. I know that this is the internet and we’re stuck on tl;dr. But this is important. If you really, really can’t stand to spend 10-15 minutes reading a few posts, though, scroll down and you’ll find a tl;dr.

I’ve been hearing a lot over the past few days from people wondering what’s the harm in dressing up as a POC and painting/colouring your face to match that person’s skin tone. Especially at Halloween, when we dress up as all sorts of things. It seems bizarre that something that’s so obviously just a bit of fun could get people so upset and angry. It seems unfair that someone should be vehemently attacked when there was almost certainly no malicious intent behind what they did.

So what, precisely, is going on here? Let’s start with a quick history lesson.

A short history of blackface

I hate to say it, but this is one of those times when American history is biting everyone else in the ass. Because, as I’ve said, I’m not expert in this, I’m going to pass you over to the brilliant anedumacation:

Blackface was invented by minstrel performers in the nineteenth century, and soon became the trademark of the artform. Minstrel shows were a form of entertainment that was devoted to re-packaging blackness in a way that was sufficiently degrading enough to be palatable to white audiences. Its about taking the richness of black art, music, dancing, and humor — turning it into a degrading stereotype, and then disseminating this bastardized vision of a people as far and wide as possible. Minstrelsy wasn’t just about exploiting racism, minstrel performers were on the front lines of white supremacy, they established an image in the mind of white America of who black people were — simple fools, mindless entertainers, creatures ruled by instinct and lower brain function, not by art, not by ideas, not by ideals of honor or duty. Finally, you cannot understand the legal and political system of apartheid established by Jim Crow, without understanding minstrelsy. Because its easy, very easy, to deny full legal personhood to someone that you don’t believe to be fully human. What better way to spread the message of black inferiority than to propagandize with humor? To teach children to laugh at someone is to forever infantalize them, to forever deny the object of derision the opportunity to be seen as a complex, fully realized person — equal to themselves.

Minstrel performance was one of the main ways in which America experienced blackness, and it became the way that the rest of the world experienced Black America, because we exported blackface and minstrelsy everywhere we went.

So on the one hand, we have blackface as a means for white people to portray black people on a large scale. This is problematic enough as it is- if you want to portray a black person, then why not just get a black person to do it? The idea that only white people should be on stage, giving not just some but practically all the black roles to white people is discriminatory just by itself. Blackface went so far that, until well into the 20th Century, it was almost impossible for even POC to perform without it. The idea of a real black person on stage in their own skin was unacceptable.

And it’s not just that. Blackface wasn’t just about getting white people to play black roles. It was also about stereotyping and caricature. Black-face.com has an excellent run-down of the caricatures protrayed. More from them:

White audiences in the 19th Century wouldn’t accept real black entertainers on stage unless they performed in blackface makeup. One of the first Blacks to perform in blackface for White audiences was the man who invented tap dancing, William Henry Lane, aka Master Juba. Lane’s talent and skill were extraordinary and eventually he became famous enough that he was able to perform in his own skin.

The American minstrel show was effectively dead by WW1, yet some old-timers continued to peddle the same blackface stereotypes later in vaudeville, films and television. It’s one of the interesting twists of history that in the first half of the twentieth century, the main purveyors of the old-fashioned blackface minstrel tradition were Black performers, who’d began in show business wearing the blackface mask — either literally or figuratively — and were reluctant to give it up.

But they also had little choice in the roles they were offered. Until well into the 1950s, Black male actors were limited to stereotypical roles: Coons, for example, Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland, and Willie Best; and Toms, the most famous were Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Likewise, the only film roles for Black women were maids and mammys, and the most famous mammy of all was Hattie McDaniel, best known for her Oscar-winning role as “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind.

And it wasn’t just about mocking and stereotyping POCs. One of the original blackface characters was called Jim Crow. It’s no coincidence that the system of laws segregating black and white people in the US was named after this character. From the Jim Crow Museum:

[Original 'Jim Crow' performer Thomas "Daddy"] Rice and his imitators, by their stereotypical depictions of blacks, helped to popularize the belief that blacks were lazy, stupid, inherently less human, and unworthy of integration. During the years that blacks were being victimized by lynch mobs, they were also victimized by the racist caricatures propagated through novels, sheet music, theatrical plays, and minstrel shows. Ironically, years later when blacks replaced white minstrels, the blacks also “blackened” their faces, thereby pretending to be whites pretending to be blacks. They, too, performed the Coon Shows which dehumanized blacks and helped establish the desirability of racial segregation.

Pretty disturbing, huh? Blackface is about so much more than a white person painting their skin darker. It echoes back as a tool used to enforce and maintain white supremacy, in a context where POC lived with brutal, dehumanising oppression. It served to mock the victims of institutional and physical violence and intimidation, making figures of fun out of POC at the same time as their human rights were being crushed. It’s, quite frankly, utterly horrible.

TL;DR:

  • Blackface was/is a way in which white actors portrayed POC characters
  • Blackface was the only way that POC characters could be portrayed. Even POC actors had to blacken their faces in order to be acceptable to audiences.
  • Blackface used caricatures of POC. These caricatures became immensely popular and created seriously damaging stereotypes of POC which worked to intensify other kinds of racism.
  • Blackface was associated with the Jim Crow laws of racial segregation.
  • Blackface caricatures worked to intensify, and to justify in the minds of white Americans, racial violence and lynchings.

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14 thoughts on “Blackface Follow-up: Why it really is That Bad: a history of blackface.

  1. Pingback: Hey, Ireland! Let’s talk about racism. Here. NOW. | Consider the Tea Cosy

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  5. Is blackface different to say, Jerry Lewis portraying an idiotic man/child ? Nobody shouted that it was an insult to idiots and was greviously offensive to them and should be banned simply because we were laughing at such a portrayal. Nobody complains about a whitefaced mime because they have the palor of someone who has been institutionalised all their life, so why should black people be a special case ? People should be less uptight and enjoy is as a vehicle for singing and dancing entertainment rather than look upon it as intentionally nasty racism.

  6. I understand the history and the emotion behind peoples beliefs on this subject. If someone paints their face a darker color to portray a darker skin toned character (whether its cos-play, at Halloween, or your kid wants to be his/her favorite character on tv) I still don’t see a problem with that. I don’t think that painting ones body or face to portray someone of different skin tone is directly connected to nor should it be tarnished by the “black face” that was. I think there is a difference and a distinction should be made from someone portraying “black face” and someone with lighter skin trying to portray their favorite character from TV.

    I also want to add that if you know you will offend a friend or people by dressing up as such, I think it would be tactful to refrain from dressing up like that. But the action in itself is not wrong IMO.

    • The problem with that, though, is that history isn’t actually gone away. We don’t live in a magical era, disconnected from a racist past. Racism, white supremacy, all of it- it’s still here. We can’t act as if there’s no racist overtones to acts which POC find hurtful and humiliating, when we haven’t actually managed to deal with the racism everywhere else.

      • You’re right. That’s a huge problem. I can look past a practice that started in the 1830’s. We’re riding in cars now and reading under light bulbs but if blackface is still offensive, then it’s still offensive.

        • Yes, it is still offensive.

          People wore shoes in the 1830s. They still wear shoes now. People were damaged by racism in the 1830s. They’re still being damaged by racism now.

  7. I think this critique could be extended to golliwog dolls as well. I’ve had a tough time as a US expat in New Zealand trying to explain to well-meaning folk why these things are offensive.

  8. If I were to continue with your same logic, don’t you think Drag Queens are meant to portray women as a whole in the same way as black face? Women have been abused, segregated, had their rights infringed long before black people and it still continues today. Just like black people, women were not allowed to perform so there were men that portrayed their roles ie castrati. Women whether their skin color is white, black, brown, pink, whatever have all been discriminated against in the social world as well as professionally. Drag queens just like Blackface show a depiction of women which is a caricature of womens stereotypes portraying a blown up image of what is considered sexy for women in America.

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  10. Pingback: Julie Burchill and trans women.

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