A brief history of blackface

theGRIO REPORT - The history of blackface minstrelsy isn’t talked about regularly today, but its cultural residue is all around us...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

It’s Halloween again and, evidently, it’s the season for people around the world to put on blackface.

Blackface first made the news this holiday season when a former Dancing with the Stars participant darkened her skin to “honor” her favorite actor from Orange is the New Black. News recently broke of a group of Italian fashion executives including designer Alessandro Dell’Acqua donning blackface, complete with jet-black skin, and distended whitened mouths and white gloves at a “Disco Africa” party.

And let’s not forget the Florida man who blackened up to portray a mortally wounded Trayvon Martin. Perhaps folks need a refresher course on why blackface is not a great idea for their next costume party.

Blackface minstrelsy first became nationally popular in the late 1820s when white male performers portrayed African-American characters using burnt cork to blacken their skin. Wearing tattered clothes, the performances mocked black behavior, playing racial stereotypes for laughs. Although Jim Crow was probably born in the folklore of the enslaved in the Georgia Sea Islands, one of the most famous minstrel performers, a white man named Thomas “Daddy” Rice brought the character to the stage for the first time. Rice said that on a trip through the South he met a runaway slave, who performed a signature song and dance called jump Jim Crow. Rice’s performances, with skin blackened and drawn on distended blood red lips surrounded by white paint, were said to be just Rice’s attempt to depict the realities of black life.

Jim Crow grew to be minstrelsy’s most famous character, in the hands of Rice and other performers Jim Crow was depicted as a runaway: “the wheeling stranger” and “traveling intruder.” The gag in Jim Crow performances was that Crow would show up and disturb white passengers in otherwise peaceful first class rail cars, hotels, restaurants, and steamships. Jim Crow performances served as an object lesson about the dangers of free black people, so much so that the segregated spaces first created in northern states in the 1850s were popularly called Jim Crow cars.  Jim Crow became synonymous with white desires to keep black people out of white, middle-class spaces.

Minstrel shows became hugely popular in the 1840s exposing white audiences in the North with their first exposure to any depiction of black life. They would often feature a broad cast of characters; from Zip Coon, the educated free black man who pronounced everything incorrectly, to Mammy, a fat, black faithful slave who was really just obviously played by a man in a dress. Black children were depicted as unkempt and ill raised pickaninnies. The running joke about pickaninnies was that they were disposable; they were easily killed because of their stupidity and the lack of parental supervision.

Minstrelsy desensitized Americans to horrors of chattel slavery. These performances were object lessons about the harmlessness of southern slavery. By encouraging audiences to laugh, they showed bondage as an appropriate answer for the lazy, ignorant slave. Why worry about the abolition of slavery when black life looked so fun, silly, and carefree? Even the violence of enslavement just became part of the joke.

These erroneous portrayals of black life were seen by thousands of Americans in the decades before the Civil War. Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln attended and enjoyed minstrel shows. President Lincoln had the Union band play Dixie at Lee’s surrender; the comic dialogues in Huckleberry Finn are reminiscent of minstrel performances.  Minstrelsy became America’s first national popular culture.

Minstrelsy lived on long after the Civil War, with African-American performers donning blackface to perform as minstrels on stage. In horrifying irony, white audiences would reject black performers not wearing blackface as not appearing to be black enough. The preeminent African-American vaudeville performer Bert Williams donned blackface for his stage performances.  Audiences refused to allow him to perform without blackening up.

Blackface was used to push products from cigarettes to pancakes while minstrel songs were turned into sheet music, sold and sung around the world. Classic American songs such as “Jimmy Crack Corn,” “Camptown Races” and “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah” all began as minstrel songs. Children’s rhymes and games also are drawn from our minstrel past. “Eeny Meeny, Miny, Moe,” initially commanded that the listener to “catch a ni**er by his toe.” “Do Your Ears Hang Low” was originally the 1829 song entitled “Zip Coon.” The story of the children’s book Ten Little Monkeys was first published as Ten Little Ni**er Boys where each boy was killed as the story progressed.

Blackface became a mainstay of stage and later film performance in the twentieth century. Most often blackface was used as a comic device that played on the stereotypes of black laziness, ignorance, or crass behavior for laughs. Sometimes blackface was used simply to portray black characters. The 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, the first feature film to be shown in the White House, used blackface to portray Reconstruction era black legislators as incompetent and to paint all black men as threatening to rape white women.  The first talking picture, 1927’s The Jazz Singer starred Al Jolson, one of the most famous American performers of his day, in blackface. Even America’s sweetheart, Shirley Temple, donned blackface in 1935 film The Littlest Rebel. While none of the black actors in The Littlest Rebel film wore blackface, they performed in a style first created on the minstrel stage one hundred years earlier.

The history of blackface minstrelsy isn’t talked about regularly today, but its cultural residue is all around us. Its painful to note that as one of the most unflinching portraits of American slavery hits the screens in 12 Years a Slave, people still continue to blacken up for laughs. Until we actively remember the ugliness of this history, people will continue to blacken their faces without recognizing the horror hidden beneath the paint.

Blair L. M. Kelley is an associate professor at North Carolina State University. Follow her on Twitter at@ProfBLMKelley