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Sat, 10.23.1441

Blackface in America, a story

*Blackface in America is affirmed on this date in 1441. Blackface is a form of theatrical or media makeup. It is used mainly by white performers to portray a caricature of a black person of African descent.

There is no agreement about a single moment that constitutes the origin of blackface. The journalist and cultural commentator John Strausbaugh places it as part of a tradition of "displaying Blackness for the enjoyment and edification of white viewers" that dates back to the middle passage when captive Africans were displayed in Portugal. Black Peter (Zwarte Piet) is a "Black Face" character of 6th-century European folklore, a companion of Saint Nicholas (Dutch "Sinterklaas").

Whites routinely portrayed black characters in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, most famously in Othello (1604). However, Othello and other plays of this era did not involve the emulation and caricature of "such supposed innate qualities of Blackness as inherent musicality, natural athleticism," etc., that critics see as crucial to blackface. In the United States, Blackface is a cultural ritual of acting out the word Nigger, structured to demean and ridicule the black community. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century. It contributed to the spread of racial stereotypes such as the "happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation" or the "dandified coon". By the mid-1800s, blackface minstrel shows had become a distinctive American art form, translating formal works such as opera into popular terms for a general audience.  

Early in the 20th century, blackface branched off from the minstrel show to cinema and became its form. During the Jim Crow era, in the early years of white film, white people routinely played black characters in blackface. In the first film adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903), all major black roles were white people in blackface. Even the 1914 Uncle Tom, starring black actor Sam Lucas in the title role, had a white male in blackface as Topsy.

D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) used white people in blackface to represent all of its central black characters, but the reaction against the film's racism ended this practice in dramatic film roles. After that, white people in blackface would appear almost exclusively in broad comedies or "ventriloquizing" blackness in the context of a vaudeville or minstrel performance within a film. This contrasts to made-up white people routinely playing Native Americans, Asians, Arabs, and so forth for several more decades. 

Through the 1930s, many white people who performed in blackface in film, including Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Buster Keaton, Joan Crawford, Doris Day, Betty Grable, Laurel and Hardy, Betty Hutton, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, and others. Blackface makeup was primarily eliminated even from live-action film comedy in the U.S. after the end of the 1930s when public sensibilities regarding race began to change, and blackface became increasingly associated with racism and bigotry. As late as the 1940s, Warner Bros. used blackface in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). 

In The Spoilers (1942), John Wayne appeared in blackface and bantered in a mock accent with a black maid who mistook him for an authentic black man. American cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s often featured characters in blackface gags and other racial and ethnic caricatures. Blackface was one of the influences in the development of characters such as Mickey Mouse. The United Artists 1933 release "Mickey's Mellerdrammer," a sleaze of "melodrama" thought to return to the earliest minstrel shows, was based on a production of Uncle Tom's Cabin by the Disney characters. Mickey 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. For decades, dark images had been seen in the branding of everyday products and commodities such as Picaninny Freeze, the Coon Chicken Inn restaurant chain, and Nigger Hair Tobacco.  

By the 1950s, the NAACP had begun calling attention to such portrayals of African Americans and mounted a campaign to end blackface performances and depictions. By the mid-20th century, indifferent attitudes about race and prejudice ended the prominence of blackface makeup used in performances in America and elsewhere. Blackface in contemporary art remains limited to theatrical devices and is used today as social commentary or satire. Perhaps the most enduring effect of blackface is its precedent in introducing African American culture internationally, though through a distorted lens. Commodities bearing iconic "darky" images, from tableware, soap, and toy marbles to home accessories and T-shirts, continue to be manufactured and marketed. There is mainly a thriving niche market for such items in the U.S. The value of the original examples of dark iconography has risen steadily since the 1970s.  

With the eventual successes of the 20th-century American Civil Rights Movement, blackface was generally considered highly offensive, disrespectful, and racist by the turn of the 21st century. However, the practice (or similar-looking ones) continues in other countries. Blackface's appropriation, exploitation, and assimilation of black culture and the inter-ethnic artistic collaborative results were but an opening to the lucrative business. The packaging, marketing, and spreading of African American cultural expression and its countless spinoffs in the 21st century's world popular culture. There have been several inflammatory incidents of white college students putting on blackface. Such incidents usually escalate around Halloween. Media 

Blackface and minstrelsy are the themes of the Spike Lee film Bamboozled (2000). It tells of a disgruntled black television executive who reintroduces the old blackface style in a series concept to get himself fired and is instead horrified by its success. In 2000, Jimmy Fallon performed in blackface on Saturday Night Live, imitating former cast member Chris Rock. Jimmy Kimmel put on black paint over his body and used an exaggerated, accented voice to portray NBA player Karl Malone on The Man Show in 2003.

In 2005, controversy erupted when black journalist Steve Gilliard posted a photograph of Michael Steele, a black politician, on his blog. It included bushy, white eyebrows and big, red lips. The caption read, "I'm simple Sambo, and I's running for the big house." In a 2006 reality television program, Black. White participants wore blackface makeup, and black participants wore whiteface makeup to better see the world through the perspective of the other race. In 2007, Sarah Silverman performed in blackface for a skit from The Sarah Silverman Program. 

A Mighty Heart is a 2007 American film featuring Angelina Jolie playing Mariane Pearl, the wife of the kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Mariane is multiracial, born from an Afro-Chinese-Cuban mother and a Dutch-Jewish father. She cast Jolie to play herself, defending the choice to have Jolie "sporting a spray tan and a corkscrew wig." Criticism of the film came mainly from the option to have Jolie portray Mariane Pearl in this manner. Defense of the casting choice was primarily due to Pearl's mixed racial heritage, with critics claiming it would have been impossible to find an Afro Latina actress with the same crowd-drawing caliber as Jolie.

Director Michael Winterbottom defended his casting choice in an interview, "To try and find a French actress who's half-Cuban, quarter-Chinese, half-Dutch who speaks great English and could do that part better – I mean if there had been some more choices, I might have thought, 'Why don't we use that person?'...I don't think there would have been anyone better." A 2008 imitation of Barack Obama by American comedian Fred Armisen (of German, Korean, and Venezuelan descent) on Saturday Night Live caused some stir; the show had only one black cast member.

In a 2010 episode, "Dee Reynolds: Shaping America's Youth," the T.V. show It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia comically explored if blackface could ever be done "right ."One of the characters, Frank Reynolds, insists that Laurence Olivier's blackface performance in his 1965 production of Othello was not offensive, while Dennis claimed it "distasteful" and "never okay." In the same episode, the gang shows their fan film, Lethal Weapon 5, in which the character Mac appears in blackface. In the season 9 episode "The Gang Make Lethal Weapon 6", Mac again dons black makeup, along with Dee, who plays his character's daughter in the film.

A 2012 Popchips commercial showing actor Ashton Kutcher with brown makeup on his face impersonating a stereotypical Indian person generated controversy and was pulled by the company after complaints of racism. In the T.V. series Mad Men, set in the 1960s in New York City, the character Roger Sterling appears in blackface in the season 3 episode "My Old Kentucky Home." Robert Downey Jr. appeared in a satirical role as a white Australian actor donning blackface in Tropic Thunder. Julianne Hough attracted controversy in October 2013 when she donned blackface as part of a Halloween costume depicting the character of "Crazy Eyes" from Orange Is the New Black. Hough later apologized on Twitter: "I realize my costume hurt and offended people, and I truly apologize."

Billy Crystal impersonated Sammy Davis Jr. in black face paint, wearing an oiled wave wig while talking to Justin Bieber in the 2012 Oscars opening montage. Victoria Foyt was accused of using blackface in the trailer for her young adult novel Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden, as well as in the book and its artwork. Gay white performer Chuck Knipp has used drag, blackface, and broad racial caricature to portray a character named "Shirley Q. Liquor" in his cabaret act, generally performed for all-white audiences.

The Metropolitan Opera, based in New York City, used blackface in productions of Otello (based on Othello) until 2015. On February 1, 2019, images from Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook were published. The photos showed an image of an unidentified person in blackface and an unidentified person in a Ku Klux Klan hood on Northam's page in the yearbook. A spokesman for Eastern Virginia Medical School confirmed that the image appeared in its 1984 yearbook. Shortly after the news broke, Northam apologized for appearing in the photo. Blackface performances are not unusual within the Latino community of Miami.

As Spanish speakers from different countries, ethnic, racial, class, and educational backgrounds settle in the United States, they grapple with being re-classified vis-a-vis other American-born and immigrant groups. Blackface performances have, for instance, tried to work through U.S. racial and ethnic classifications in conflict with national identities. A case in point is the representation of Latinos and their popular embodiment as stereotypical Dominican men. In the wake of protests over the treatment of Blacks following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, episodes of popular television programs featuring characters in blackface were removed from circulation. This includes The Golden GirlsThe Office (U.S.)30 RockCommunity, and Scrubs.

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