Background and Summary
“Blackface” is a style of theatrical makeup that originated in the United States, and is used to make an actor look like a Black person, but in a very exaggerated way. It is the countenance of an iconic, racist American archetype—that of the “darky,” as Blacks were often called in the past. Blackface also refers to a genre of musical and comedic theatrical presentation in which blackface makeup is worn. White blackface performers in the past used burnt cork, and later greasepaint or shoe polish, to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips. They’d often wear woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation. Later, Black artists also performed in blackface.
Blackface was an important performance tradition in the American theater for over 100 years and was also popular overseas. Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrelsy played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide. In some areas, the caricatures that were the legacy of blackface persist to the present day and are a cause of ongoing controversy.
By the mid-20th century, changing attitudes about race and racism effectively ended the prominence of blackface performance in the U.S. and elsewhere. However, it remains in relatively limited use as a theatrical device, mostly outside the U.S., and is more commonly used today as edgy social commentary or satire. But, perhaps the most enduring effect of blackface is the precedent it established in the introduction of Black culture to an international audience, albeit through a distorted lens. Blackface minstrelsy's gross misappropriation, exploitation and imitation of Black culture—as well as the inter-ethnic artistic collaborations that stemmed from it—were but a prologue to the lucrative packaging, marketing and dissemination of Black cultural expression and its myriad derivative forms in today's world popular culture.
Beginnings of Blackface
Lewis Hallam Jr., a White comedic actor, brought blackface to prominence as a theatrical device when playing the role of an inebriated Black man onstage in 1789. The play attracted notice, and other performers adopted the style. White comedian Thomas D. Rice later popularized blackface, introducing the song "Jump Jim Crow" that was accompanied by a dance in his stage act in 1828. The song had a syncopated rhythm and purportedly recreated the dancing of a crippled, Black stable hand named Jim Cuff, or "Jim Crow," whom Rice had seen in Cincinnati, Ohio. Rice traveled the nation performing under the pseudonym "Daddy Jim Crow." The name later became attached to statutes that further encoded the reinstitution of segregation and discrimination after the Reconstruction era.
Initially, blackface performers were part of traveling troupes who performed in minstrel shows. In addition to music and dance, minstrel shows featured comical skits in which performers portrayed buffoonish, lazy, superstitious Black characters who were cowardly and/or lascivious. These characters stole, lied pathologically and mangled the English language. Such troupes in the early days of minstrelsy were all male, so cross-dressing White men also played Black women making these characters often look either unappealingly and grotesquely mannish, in the matronly, “mammy” mold, or portrayed them as highly sexually provocative. At the time, the stage also featured comic stereotypes of conniving, Jewish, cheap Scotsmen, drunken Irishmen, gullible rural folk, ignorant White southerners and the like.
Minstrel shows were a very popular show business phenomenon in the U.S. from 1828 through the 1930s. It also enjoyed some popularity in the UK and in other parts of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a result, the genre played an important role in shaping perceptions of and prejudices about Blacks in particular. Some social commentators have stated that blackface provided an outlet for Whites' fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar, and was a socially acceptable way of expressing their feelings and fears about race and control. Writes Eric Lott in Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, "The Black mask offered a way to play with the collective fears of a degraded and threatening—and male—Other while at the same time maintaining some symbolic control over them."
White minstrel shows featured White performers pretending to be Blacks, playing their versions of Black music and speaking Black dialects. American humorist and author Mark Twain reminisced near the end of his life about the shows he had seen in his youth: the real n**r-show—the genuine n**r-show, the extravagant n**r-show—the show which to me had no peer and whose peer has not yet arrived, in my experience.... if I could have the n**r-show back again, in its pristine purity and perfection, I should have but little further use for opera. It seems to me that to the elevated mind and the sensitive spirit the hand-organ and the n**r-show are a standard and a summit to whose rarefied altitude the other forms of musical art may not hope to reach.
The songs of northern composer Stephen Foster figured prominently in blackface minstrel shows of the period. Though written in dialect and certainly politically incorrect by today's standards, his later songs were free of the ridicule and blatantly racist caricatures that typified other songs of the genre. Foster's works treated slaves and the South in general with an often cloying sentimentality that appealed to audiences of the day.
Blacks Barred from Blackface
Surprisingly, by 1840, Black performers also were performing in blackface makeup. Frederick Douglass wrote in 1849 about one such troupe, Gavitt's Original Ethiopian Serenaders: "It is something to be gained when the colored man in any form can appear before a White audience." Nonetheless, Douglass generally abhorred blackface and was one of the first people to write against the institution of blackface minstrelsy, condemning it as racist in nature, with inauthentic, northern, White origins.
When all-Black minstrel shows began to proliferate in the 1860s, however, they in turn often were billed as "authentic" and "the real thing." Despite often smaller budgets and smaller venues, their public appeal sometimes rivaled that of White minstrel troupes. In the execution of authentic Black music and the percussive, polyrhythmic tradition of "pattin' Juba," when the only instruments performers used were their hands and feet, clapping and slapping their bodies and shuffling and stomping their feet, Black troupes particularly excelled. One of the most successful Black minstrel companies was Sam Hague's Slave Troupe of Georgia Minstrels, managed by Charles Hicks. This company eventually was taken over by Charles Callendar. The Georgia Minstrels toured the United States and abroad and later became Haverly's Colored Minstrels.
Black versions of blackface productions also contained buffoonery and comedy, by way of self-parody. In the early days of Black involvement in theatrical performance, Black people could not perform without blackface makeup, regardless of how dark-skinned they were, but blackface minstrelsy was a practical and often relatively lucrative livelihood when compared to the menial labor to which most Blacks were relegated. Owing to the discrimination of the day, "corking” or "blacking up" provided an often singular opportunity for Black musicians, actors, and dancers to practice their crafts. Some minstrel shows, particularly when performing outside the South, also managed subtly to poke fun at the racist attitudes and double standards of White society or champion the abolitionist cause. It was through blackface performers, White and Black, that the richness and exuberance of Black music, humor and dance first reached mainstream, White audiences in the U.S. and abroad.
Blackface remained a popular theatrical device well into the 20th century, crossing over from the minstrel troupe touring circuit to vaudeville, to motion pictures and then to television. In the Theater Owners Booking Association, an all-Black vaudeville circuit organized in 1909, blackface acts were a popular staple. Called "Toby" for short, performers also nicknamed it "Tough on Black Actors," because earnings were so meager. Still, TOBA headliners like Tim Moore and Johnny Hudgins could make a very good living, and even for lesser players, TOBA provided fairly steady, more desirable work than generally was available elsewhere. Blackface served as a springboard for hundreds of artists and entertainers—Black and White—many of whom later would go on to find work in other performance traditions. In fact, one of the most famous stars of Haverly's European Minstrels was Sam Lucas, who became known as the "Grand Old Man of the Negro Theatre". It was Lucas who later played the title role in the first cinematic production of Harriet Beecher Stowe's book, Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Many well-known entertainers of stage and screen also performed in blackface, including Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, as well as actor and comedian Bert Williams, who was the first Black performer in vaudeville and on Broadway. But apart from cultural references such as those seen in theatrical cartoons, onstage blackface essentially was eliminated in the U.S. post-vaudeville, when public sensibilities regarding race began to change and blackface became increasingly associated with racism and bigotry.
Origins of the Stereotype
The “darky” icon itself—a stereotypical notion created by White society of a Black person as having googly-eyes, dark brown skin, exaggerated white, pink or red lips and bright, white teeth—became a common motif first in the U.S., then worldwide, in entertainment, children's literature, mechanical banks and other toys and games of all sorts. It could be found in cartoons and comic strips, advertisements, jewelry, textiles, postcards, sheet music, food branding and packaging and other consumer goods.
In 1895, the “Golliwogg” surfaced in Great Britain, the product of American-born children's book illustrator, Florence Kate Upton, who modeled her rag-doll character “Golliwogg” after a minstrel doll she had in the U.S. as a child. "Golly," as he later affectionately came to be called, had a jet-black face, wild, woolly hair, bright red lips and sported formal minstrel attire. The generic British golliwog later made its way back across the Atlantic as dolls, toy tea sets, ladies' perfume and in a myriad of other forms. Lexicographers consider it likely that the word golliwog was the origin of the ethnic slur, “wog,” which is a racist name for a Black person used in Great Britain.
American “darky” images and Upton's minstrel doll Golliwogg had a profound influence on the way Blacks were depicted worldwide. Black and White minstrel troupes toured Europe and were somewhat successful for a time. As in the U.S., there was a history of involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and an ongoing European colonial presence in Africa and the Caribbean, as well. Shared notions of White supremacy likely contributed to the popularity of “darky” iconography, which proliferated on both sides of the Atlantic. Unlike in the United States, however, in Europe and Asia, scant resident populations of people of African descent likely posed little challenge to the racist attitudes of the day. As a result, blackface and “darky” iconography and the stereotypes they perpetuated prompted no notable objections and, consequently, sensibilities regarding them often have been very different from those in America. For Europeans and Asians, many of whom had never seen a Black person in the flesh before World War II, so the iconography of blackface as in the States, became commonly accepted and widely used to depict Blacks. Internationally, blackface icons multiplied far beyond the minstrel stage and, for many non-Blacks, became reified in the human beings they caricatured. The grinning, pop-eyed distortions acquired a life of their own. By the 1920s and '30s, for example, even respected performers such as Josephine Baker and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson were routinely pictured in the “darky” mold in French posters advertising their performances. After the WWII, Asian countries flooded the U.S. with “darky” and “mammy” kitchenware, ashtrays, toys and ceramics.
U.S. cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s often featured characters in blackface gags as well as other racial and ethnic caricatures. Blackface was actually one of the influences in the development of characters like Mickey Mouse. The 1933 United Artists release, "Mickey's Mellerdrammer" — the name a corruption of "melodrama" thought to harken back to the earliest minstrel shows — was a film short based on a production of Uncle Tom's Cabin by the Disney characters. Mickey, of course, was already Black, but the advertising poster for the film shows Mickey with exaggerated, orange lips, bushy white side-whiskers and his now-trademark white gloves.
In the U.S., by the 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had begun calling attention to such portrayals of Blacks and mounted a campaign to put an end to blackface performances and depictions. For decades, “darky” images had been seen in the branding of everyday products and commodities, such as Picaninny Freeze. With the eventual successes of the modern day Civil Rights Movement, such blatantly racist branding practices ended in the U.S., and blackface became taboo.
Over time, blackface and “darky” iconography became artistic and stylistic devices associated with art deco and the Jazz Age. By the 1950s and '60s, particularly in Europe, where it was more widely tolerated, blackface became a kind of outré, camp convention in some artistic circles. The Black and White Minstrel Show was a popular British musical variety show that featured blackface performers and remained on British television until 1978. Actors and dancers in blackface appeared in music videos such as Taco's "Puttin' on the Ritz," and Grace Jones' "Slave to the Rhythm," which aired regularly on MTV during the 1980s.
The Zwarte Piet Custom
Blackface iconography, while considered taboo in the U.S., still persists around the world. When trade and tourism produce a confluence of cultures, bringing differing sensibilities regarding blackface into contact with one another, the results can be jarring. “Darky” iconography is still popular in Japan today, but when Japanese toymaker Sanrio Corporation exported a “darky” character doll in the 1990s, the ensuing controversy prompted Sanrio to halt production. Foreigners visiting the Netherlands in November and December are often shocked at the sight of Whites in classic blackface as a character known as Zwarte Piet, whom many Dutch nationals love as a holiday symbol. Travelers to Spain have expressed dismay at seeing "Conguito," a tubby, little brown character with full, red lips, as the trademark for Conguitos, a confection manufactured by the LACASA Group. In Britain, "Golly," a golliwog character, finally fell out of favor in 2001 after almost a century as the trademark of jelly producer James Robertson and Sons; but the debate still continues whether the golliwog should be banished in all forms from further commercial production and display, or preserved as a treasured childhood figure. The influence of blackface on branding and advertising, as well as on perceptions and portrayals of Blacks, generally, can be found worldwide. Black and brown products, particularly, such as licorice and chocolate, remain commodities most frequently paired with “darky” iconography.
Zwarte Piet, or "Black Peter," is a Dutch or Flemish character during Christmas time or “Sinterklaas lore,” described as a slave of St. Nicholas, “Sinterklaas” in their country, whose feast, which is mainly targeted at children, is celebrated on December 5th. Some sources indicate that Zwarte Piet originally was an enslaved devil, rather than a Black person. Once portrayed realistically, Zwarte Piet became a classic blackface icon in the 19th century, contemporaneous with the spread of “darky” iconography. To this day, holiday revelers in the Netherlands blacken their faces, wear afro wigs and bright red lipstick, and they walk the streets throwing candy to passersby. Some of those celebrating behave dim-wittedly or like buffoons, and/or speak mangled Dutch as embodiments of Zwarte Piet.
Accepted in the past without controversy in a once largely ethnically homogeneous nation, today Zwarte Piet is controversial and greeted with mixed reactions. Some see him as a cherished tradition and look forward to his annual appearance. Others detest him—perhaps most notably, some of the country's people of color. The lyrics of traditional Sinterklaas songs and some parents warn that Zwarte Piet will leave well-behaved children presents, but punish those who have been naughty. Zwarte Piet will kidnap bad children and carry them off in his sack to his homeland of Spain, where, legend has it, he and Sinterklaas dwell. Consequently, while many Dutch children love and are fascinated by him, some are fearful of encounters with Zwarte Piet impersonators.
Writing in Essence magazine of her experiences living in the Netherlands, expatriate Pamela Armstrong-De Vreeze observed that the "annual pageant introduces a troubling minstrel-show stereotype to young Dutch children, whose exposure to Blacks is often limited to the Zwarte Piet character. As a result, many can't tell the difference between a made-up Zwarte Piet and a real person of African descent."
Blackfaced, googly-eyed, red-lipped Zwarte Piet dolls, die cuts and displays adorn store windows alongside brightly packaged holiday merchandise. Foreign tourists, particularly Americans, are often bewildered and mortified. As a result of the allegations of racism, some have replaced Zwarte Piet's blackface makeup with face paint in alternative colors such as green or purple. This practice, however, has not caught on. So, at least once a year in the Netherlands, the debate over the harmlessness, or racism, of Zwarte Piet resurfaces—along with the usual smiling golliwog dolls, strolling Zwarte Pieten tossing sweets and the sometimes startling storefront-“darky” images.
The darky archetype that blackface played such a profound role in creating remains a persistent thread in American culture. It continues to resurface. Animation utilizing such iconography aired on U.S. television routinely as late as the mid-1990s, and still can be seen in specialty time slots on such networks as TCM. In 1993, actor Ted Danson ignited a firestorm of controversy when he appeared at a Friars Club roast in blackface, delivering a risqué shtick written by his then love interest, comedienne Whoopi Goldberg. Recently, performer Chuck Knipp has used drag, blackface and broad racial caricature while portraying a character named "Shirley Q. Liquor" in his cabaret act that is generally performed for all-White audiences. Knipp's outrageously stereotypical character has drawn criticism and prompted demonstrations from Black gay and transgender activists.
In New Orleans in the early 1900s, a group of Black laborers began a marching club in the annual Mardi Gras parade, dressed as hobos and called themselves "The Tramps." Wanting a flashier look, they later renamed themselves "Zulus" and copied their costumes from a blackface vaudeville skit performed at a local Black jazz club and cabaret. The result is one of the best known and most striking skits during Mardi Gras, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Dressed in grass skirts, top hats and exaggerated blackface, the Zulus of New Orleans are controversial but popular.
Former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-IL) caused a minor stir in the early 1990s, when he fondly recalled minstrel shows in which he had participated as a young man and expressed his regret that they had fallen out of fashion. Blackface and minstrelsy also serve as the theme of Spike Lee's film Bamboozled from 2000. It tells of a Black television executive who reintroduces the old blackface style and is horrified by its success.
In recent years, there have been an increasing number of inflammatory blackface "incidents" where White college students have donned blackface in various settings as part of possibly innocent, but insensitive, gag or for a costume party.
In November of 2005, controversy erupted when journalist Steve Gilliard posted a photograph on his blog. The image was of the Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, Michael S. Steele, who is Black, then a candidate for U.S. Senate. It had been doctored to include bushy, white eyebrows and big, red lips. The caption read, "I's simple Sambo and I's running for the big house." Gilliard defended the image, commenting that the politically conservative Steele has "refused to stand up for his people."
Further, commodities bearing “darky” images, from tableware, soap and toy marbles to home accessories and T-shirts, continue to be manufactured and marketed in the U.S. and elsewhere. Some are reproductions of historical artifacts, while others are so-called "fantasy" items, newly designed and manufactured for the marketplace. There is a thriving niche market for such items in the U.S., particularly, as well as for original artifacts of darky iconography. The value of many vintage pieces has skyrocketed since the 1970s.
Despite its racist portrayals, blackface minstrelsy was the conduit through which Blacks and Black-influenced music, comedy and dance first reached the American mainstream. It played a seminal role in the introduction of Black culture to world audiences. Wrote jazz historian Gary Giddings in Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903–1940: “Virtually every major, new genre of popular music in the United States from the twilight of the 19th century to the dawn of the 21st century—from the tight harmonies of barbershop quartets to ragtime, to blues, to jazz and swing, to blues, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, to funk and classic rock, to hip hop and country— is a product or byproduct of African-American innovation.” Indeed, the broad spectrum of popular music as it exists today would be unrecognizable absent the influence of Black culture. Standard early jazz tunes included numbers such as "The Darktown Strutters Ball," a song about the slave cakewalk tradition and "The Birth of the Blues." Even into the '50s, R&B artists from Louis Jordan to the Dominoes harkened back to minstrelsy. A lot of vaudeville lingo, and its earliest comedians, musicians and actors as well, were transplants from the blackface minstrel tradition. The radio antics of Amos 'n' Andy, which featured White actors impersonating Blacks, were straight from the minstrel stage. The popular radio show lasted more than a decade and then moved to television, utilizing Black actors, in 1951. Under fire from critics as being demeaning to Blacks, it ran only two years.
Minstrelsy in Music
While not commonly associated today with country and bluegrass music, genres not dominated by Black performers, Blacks exerted a strong, early influence on the development of both through the introduction of the banjo, as well as through the innovation of musical techniques in the playing of both the banjo and fiddle. Many traditional hillbilly fiddle tunes, including "Turkey in the Straw" and "Old Dan Tucker" came from minstrelsy. Further, in format and content, the still running Grand Ole Opry radio show mirrors blackface minstrel shows, and, notes Cockrell, Hee Haw "in structure, humor, characterization, and, in many ways, music, was a minstrel show in 'rube face.'" And as with jazz, many of country’s earliest stars, such as Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, were veterans of blackface performance.
The immense popularity and profitability of blackface were testaments to the power, appeal, and commercial viability of not only Black music and dance, but also of Black style. This led to cross-cultural collaborations, as Giddings writes; but, particularly in times past, to the often ruthless exploitation and outright theft of Black artistic genius, as well— by other, White performers and composers; agents; promoters; publishers; and record company executives. The precedent set by blackface, of aggressive White exploitation and appropriation of Black culture, is alive today in, for example, the anointed, White, so-called "royalty" of essentially Black music forms: Benny Goodman, widely known as the "King of Swing," Paul Whiteman, who called himself the "King of Jazz," Elvis Presley, known as the "King of Rock and Roll," and Janis Joplin, crowned by some as the "Queen of the Blues."
For more than a century, when White performers have wanted to appear sexy, like Elvis, or streetwise, like Eminem, or hip, like Mezz Mezzrow, or cool, like actor James Dean and, more recently, John Travolta, they often have turned to indigenously Black performance styles, stage presence and personas. Sometimes this has been done out of genuine admiration, as in the case of blues revivalists. Sometimes it is done with a good deal of calculation by, for example, the many White lead performers, such as Amy Winehouse, who use Black backup singers or musicians. Pop culture referencing and cultural appropriation of Black performance and stylistic traditions—often resulting in tremendous profit—is a tradition with origins in blackface minstrelsy.
The international imprint of Blacks culture is pronounced in its depth and breadth, in indigenous expressions, as well as in myriad, blatantly mimetic and subtler, more attenuated forms. This "browning," à la Richard Rodriguez, of American and world popular culture began with blackface minstrelsy. It is a continuum of pervasive Black influence which has many prominent manifestations today, among them the ubiquity of the “cool” aesthetic and hip-hop culture.
Related types of performances are “yellowface,” in which performers adopt Asian identities, “brownface,” for East Indian or Latino and “redface,” for Native Americans. “Whiteface,” or “paleface,” is sometimes used for non-White actors performing White roles, for example, the film, White Chicks. Dooley Wilson, famous for the role of Sam the piano player in Casablanca, earned his stage name "Dooley" from performing in whiteface as an Irishman. In Thailand, actors darken their faces to portray the The Negrito of Thailand in a popular play by King Chulalongkorn, which has been turned into a musical and a movie.
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Tuesday, January 8th 2008 at 1:23PM