Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used predominantly by non-black performers to represent a black person. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the spread of racial stereotypes such as the "happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation" or the "dandified coon". In 1848, blackface minstrel shows were an American national art of the time, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience. Early in the 20th century, blackface branched off from the minstrel show and became a form in its own right, until it ended in the United States with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Blackface was an important performance tradition in the American theater for roughly 100 years beginning around 1830. It quickly became popular elsewhere, particularly so in Britain, where the tradition lasted longer than in the U.S., occurring on primetime TV, most famously in The Black and White Minstrel Show, which ended in 1978, and in Are You Being Served?'s Christmas specials in 1976 and finally in 1981. In both the United States and Britain, blackface was most commonly used in the minstrel performance tradition, which it both predated and outlasted. Early white performers in blackface used burnt cork and later greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation. Later, black artists also performed in blackface.
Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrels not only played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes, and perceptions worldwide, but also in popularizing black culture. In some quarters, the caricatures that were the legacy of blackface persist to the present day and are a cause of ongoing controversy. Another view is that "blackface is a form of cross-dressing in which one puts on the insignias of a sex, class, or race that stands in opposition to one's own."
By the mid-20th century, changing attitudes about race and racism effectively ended the prominence of blackface makeup used in performance in the U.S. and elsewhere. It remains in relatively limited use as a theatrical device and is more commonly used today as social commentary or satire. Perhaps the most enduring effect of blackface is the precedent it established in the introduction of African-American culture to an international audience, albeit through a distorted lens. Blackface's groundbreaking appropriation, exploitation, and assimilation of African-American 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 African-American cultural expression and its myriad derivative forms in today's world popular culture.
"Displaying Blackness" and the shaping of racist archetypesEdit
There is no consensus about a single moment that constitutes the origin of blackface. John Strausbaugh places it as part of a tradition of "displaying Blackness for the enjoyment and edification of white viewers" that dates back at least to 1441, when captive West Africans were displayed in Portugal. Whites routinely portrayed the black characters in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater (see English Renaissance theatre), 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 Strausbaugh sees as crucial to blackface. Lewis Hallam, Jr., a white blackface actor of American Company fame, brought blackface in this more specific sense to prominence as a theatrical device in the United States when playing the role of "Mungo", an inebriated black man in The Padlock, a British play that premiered in New York City at the John Street Theatre on May 29, 1769. The play attracted notice, and other performers adopted the style. From at least the 1810s, blackface clowns were popular in the United States. British actor Charles Mathews toured the U.S. in 1822–23, and as a result added a "black" characterization to his repertoire of British regional types for his next show, A Trip to America, which included Mathews singing "Possum up a Gum Tree", a popular slave freedom song. Edwin Forrest played a plantation black in 1823, and George Washington Dixon was already building his stage career around blackface in 1828, but it was another white comic actor, Thomas D. Rice, who truly popularized blackface. Rice introduced the song "Jump Jim Crow" accompanied by a dance in his stage act in 1828 and scored stardom with it by 1832.
First on de heel tap, den on the toe
Every time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow.
I wheel about and turn about an do just so,
And every time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow.
Rice traveled the U.S., performing under the stage name "Daddy Jim Crow". The name Jim Crow later became attached to statutes that codified the reinstitution of segregation and discrimination after Reconstruction.
In the 1830s and early 1840s, blackface performances mixed skits with comic songs and vigorous dances. Initially, Rice and his peers performed only in relatively disreputable venues, but as blackface gained popularity they gained opportunities to perform as entr'actes in theatrical venues of a higher class. Stereotyped blackface characters developed: buffoonish, lazy, superstitious, cowardly, and lascivious characters, who stole, lied pathologically, and mangled the English language. Early blackface minstrels were all male, so cross-dressing white men also played black women who were often portrayed as unappealingly and grotesquely mannish, in the matronly mammy mold, or as highly sexually provocative. The 1830s American stage, where blackface first rose to prominence, featured similarly comic stereotypes of the clever Yankee and the larger-than-life Frontiersman; the late 19th- and early 20th-century American and British stage where it last prospered featured many other, mostly ethnically-based, comic stereotypes: conniving, venal Jews; drunken brawling Irishmen with blarney at the ready; oily Italians; stodgy Germans; and gullible rural rubes.
1830s and early 1840s blackface performers performed solo or as duos, with the occasional trio; the traveling troupes that would later characterize blackface minstrelsy arose only with the minstrel show. In New York City in 1843, Dan Emmett and his Virginia Minstrels broke blackface minstrelsy loose from its novelty act and entr'acte status and performed the first full-blown minstrel show: an evening's entertainment composed entirely of blackface performance. (E. P. Christy did more or less the same, apparently independently, earlier the same year in Buffalo, New York.) Their loosely structured show with the musicians sitting in a semicircle, a tambourine player on one end and a bones player on the other, set the precedent for what would soon become the first act of a standard three-act minstrel show. By 1852, the skits that had been part of blackface performance for decades expanded to one-act farces, often used as the show's third act.
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.
White minstrel shows featured white performers pretending to be blacks, playing their versions of black music and speaking ersatz black dialects. Minstrel shows dominated popular show business in the U.S. from that time through into the 1890s, also enjoying massive popularity in the UK and in other parts of Europe. As the minstrel show went into decline, blackface returned to its novelty act roots and became part of vaudeville. Blackface featured prominently in film at least into the 1930s, and the "aural blackface" of the Amos 'n' Andy radio show lasted into the 1950s. Meanwhile, amateur blackface minstrel shows continued to be common at least into the 1950s. In the UK, one such blackface popular in the 1950s was Ricardo Warley from Alston, Cumbria who toured around the North of England with a monkey called Bilbo.
As a result, the genre played an important role in shaping perceptions of and prejudices about blacks generally and African Americans in particular. Some social commentators have stated that blackface provided an outlet for whites' fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar, and 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."
However, at least initially, blackface could also give voice to an oppositional dynamic that was prohibited by society. As early as 1832, a blacked-up Thomas D. Rice was singing, "An' I caution all white dandies not to come in my way, / For if dey insult me, dey'll in de gutter lay." It also on occasion equated lower-class white and lower-class black audiences; while parodying Shakespeare, Rice sang, "Aldough I'm a black man, de white is call'd my broder."
Through the 1930s, many well-known entertainers of stage and screen also performed in blackface. Whites who performed in blackface in film included Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Irene Dunne, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, and Chester Morris and George E. Stone in Boston Blackie's Rendezvous. As late as the 1940s, Warner Bros. used blackface in a minstrel show sketch in This is the Army (1943) and by casting Flora Robson as a Haitian maid in Saratoga Trunk (1945).
In the early years of film, black characters were routinely played by whites in blackface. In the first known film of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903) all of the major black roles were whites in blackface. Even the 1914 Uncle Tom starring African-American 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 whites in blackface to represent all of its major black characters, but reaction against the film's racism largely put an end to this practice in dramatic film roles. Thereafter, whites 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 stands in contrast to made-up whites routinely playing Native Americans, Asians, Arabs, and so forth, for several more decades.
Blackface makeup was largely eliminated even from live 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. Still, the tradition did not end all at once. The radio program Amos 'n' Andy (1928–60) constituted a type of "aural blackface", in that the black characters were portrayed by whites and conformed to stage blackface stereotypes. The conventions of blackface also lived on unmodified at least into the 1950s in animated theatrical cartoons. Strausbaugh estimates that roughly one-third of late 1940s MGM cartoons "included a blackface, coon, or mammy figure." Bugs Bunny appeared in blackface at least as late as Southern Fried Rabbit in 1953.
In 1910, the ballet Sheherazade, choreographed by Michael Fokine, premiered in Russia. The story behind the ballet was inspired by a tone poem written by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In the ballet the leading female character, Zobeide, is seduced by a Golden Slave. The dancer who portrayed the Golden Slave, the first being Vaslav Nijinsky, would have his face and body painted brown for the performance. This was done to show the audience the slave was of a darker complexion. Later in 1912, Fokine choreographed the ballet Petrushka, which was performed on stage. The ballet centers around three puppets that come to life, Petrushka, the Ballerina, and the Moor. When the ballet premiered, the part of the Moor, first danced by Aleksandr Orlov, was performed in full blackface. The Moor puppet is first seen onstage playing with a coconut, which he attempts to open with his scimitar. His movements are apelike. The Moor seduces the Ballerina and later savagely cuts off the head of the puppet Petrushka. When Petrushka is performed today, the part of the Moor is still done in full blackface, or occasionally blueface. The blackface has not been publicly criticized in the ballet community. Black and brownface appear in other ballets today, such as La Bayadère and Othello, in the United States and in Europe presently.
Black minstrel showsEdit
By 1840, black performers also were performing in blackface makeup. Frederick 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. Douglass did, however, maintain: "It is something to be gained when the colored man in any form can appear before a white audience."
When all-black minstrel shows began to proliferate in the 1860s, they often were billed as "authentic" and "the real thing". These "colored minstrels" always claimed to be recently freed slaves (doubtlessly many were, but most were not) and were widely seen as authentic. This presumption of authenticity could be a bit of a trap, with white audiences seeing them more like "animals in a zoo" than skilled performers. Despite often smaller budgets and smaller venues, their public appeal sometimes rivalled that of white minstrel troupes. In March 1866, Booker and Clayton's Georgia Minstrels may have been the country's most popular troupe, and were certainly among the most critically acclaimed.
These "colored" troupes—many using the name "Georgia Minstrels"—focused on "plantation" material, rather than the more explicit social commentary (and more nastily racist stereotyping) found in portrayals of northern blacks. 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.
From the mid-1870s, as white blackface minstrelsy became increasingly lavish and moved away from "Negro subjects", black troupes took the opposite tack. The popularity of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and other jubilee singers had demonstrated northern white interest in white religious music as sung by blacks, especially spirituals. Some jubilee troupes pitched themselves as quasi-minstrels and even incorporated minstrel songs; meanwhile, blackface troupes began to adopt first jubilee material and then a broader range of southern black religious material. Within a few years, the word "jubilee", originally used by the Fisk Jubilee Singers to set themselves apart from blackface minstrels and to emphasize the religious character of their music, became little more than a synonym for "plantation" material. Where the jubilee singers tried to "clean up" Southern black religion for white consumption, blackface performers exaggerated its more exotic aspects.
African-American blackface productions also contained buffoonery and comedy, by way of self-parody. In the early days of African-American involvement in theatrical performance, blacks could not perform without blackface makeup, regardless of how dark-skinned they were. The 1860s "colored" troupes violated this convention for a time: the comedy-oriented endmen "corked up", but the other performers "astonished" commentators by the diversity of their hues. Still, their performances were largely in accord with established blackface stereotypes.
These black performers became stars within the broad African-American community, but were largely ignored or condemned by the black bourgeoisie. James Monroe Trotter — a middle-class African American who had contempt for their "disgusting caricaturing" but admired their "highly musical culture"—wrote in 1882 that "few... who condemned black minstrels for giving 'aid and comfort to the enemy'" had ever seen them perform. Unlike white audiences, black audiences presumably always recognized blackface performance as caricature, and took pleasure in seeing their own culture observed and reflected, much as they would half a century later in the performances of Moms Mabley.
Despite reinforcing racist stereotypes, 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 African-American 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 African-American music, humor, and dance first reached mainstream, white audiences in the U.S. and abroad. It was through blackface minstrelsy that African American performers first entered the mainstream of American show business. Black performers used blackface performance to satirize white behavior. It was also a forum for the sexual double entendre gags that were frowned upon by white moralists. There was often a subtle message behind the outrageous vaudeville routines:
The laughter that cascaded out of the seats was directed parenthetically toward those in America who allowed themselves to imagine that such 'nigger' showtime was in any way respective of the way we live or thought about ourselves in the real world.:5, 92–92, 1983 ed.
In the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA), 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" (or, variously, "Artists" or "Asses"), 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. For example, 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 Stage". Lucas later played the title role in the 1914 cinematic production of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. From the early 1930s to the late 1940s, New York City's famous Apollo Theater in Harlem featured skits in which almost all black male performers wore the blackface makeup and huge white painted lips, despite protests that it was degrading from the NAACP. The comics said they felt "naked" without it.:4, 1983 ed.
The minstrel show was appropriated by the black performer from the original white shows, but only in its general form. Blacks took over the form and made it their own. The professionalism of performance came from black theater. Some argue that the black minstrels gave the shows vitality and humor that the white shows never had. As the black social critic LeRoi Jones has written:
It is essential to realize that...the idea of white men imitating, or caricaturing, what they consider certain generic characteristics of the black man's life in America is important if only because of the Negro's reaction to it. (And it is the Negro's reaction to America, first white and then black and white America, that I consider to have made him such a unique member of this society.)
The black minstrel performer was not only poking fun at himself but in a more profound way, he was poking fun at the white man. The cakewalk is caricaturing white customs, while white theater companies attempted to satirize the cakewalk as a black dance. Again, as LeRoi Jones notes:
If the cakewalk is a Negro dance caricaturing certain white customs, what is that dance when, say, a white theater company attempts to satirize it as a Negro dance? I find the idea of white minstrels in blackface satirizing a dance satirizing themselves a remarkable king of irony—which, I suppose is the whole point of minstrel shows.
Authentic or counterfeitEdit
The degree to which blackface performance drew on authentic African-American culture and traditions is controversial. Blacks, including slaves, were influenced by white culture, including white musical culture. Certainly this was the case with church music from very early times. Complicating matters further, once the blackface era began, some blackface minstrel songs unquestionably written by New York-based professionals (Stephen Foster, for example) made their way to the plantations in the South and merged into the body of African-American folk music.
It seems clear, however, that American music by the early 19th century was an interwoven mixture of many influences, and that blacks were quite aware of white musical traditions and incorporated these into their music.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, white-to-black and black-to-white musical influences were widespread, a fact documented in numerous contemporary accounts.[...] [I]t becomes clear that the prevailing musical interaction and influences in the nineteenth century American produced a black populace conversant with the music of both traditions.
Early blackface minstrels often said that their material was largely or entirely authentic to African-American culture; John Strausbaugh, author of Black Like You, said that such claims were likely to be untrue. Well into the 20th century, scholars took the stories at face value. Constance Rourke, one of the founders of what is now known as cultural studies, largely assumed this as late as 1931. In the Civil Rights era there was a strong reaction against this view, to the point of denying that blackface was anything other than a white racist counterfeit. Starting no later than Robert Toll's Blacking Up (1974), a "third wave" has systematically studied the origins of blackface, and has put forward a nuanced picture: that blackface did, indeed, draw on African-American culture, but that it transformed, stereotyped, and caricatured that culture, resulting in often racist representations of black characters.
As discussed above, this picture becomes even more complicated after the Civil War, when many African Americans became blackface performers. They drew on much material of undoubted slave origins, but they also drew on a professional performer's instincts, while working within an established genre, and with the same motivation as white performers to make exaggerated claims of the authenticity of their own material.
Author Strausbaugh summed up as follows: "Some minstrel songs started as Negro folk songs, were adapted by White minstrels, became widely popular, and were readopted by Blacks," writes Strausbaugh. "The question of whether minstrelsy was white or black music was moot. It was a mix, a mutt – that is, it was American music."
The darky icon itself—googly-eyed, with inky skin; exaggerated white, pink or red lips; and bright, white teeth—became a common motif in entertainment, children's literature, mechanical banks and other toys and games of all sorts, 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 children's book illustrator Florence Kate Upton, who modeled her rag doll character after a minstrel doll from her American childhood. "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 myriad other forms. The word "golliwog" may have given rise to the ethnic slur "wog".
U.S. cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s often featured characters in blackface gags as well as 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"—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 sidewhiskers; and his now trademark white gloves.
In the U.S., by the 1950s, the NAACP had begun calling attention to such portrayals of African Americans 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, the Coon Chicken Inn restaurant chain, Nigger Hair Tobacco, Darkie toothpaste (renamed Darlie), and Blackman mops in Thailand.
In Japan, in the early 1960s, a toy called Dakkochan became hugely popular. Dakkochan was a black child with large red lips and a grass skirt. There were boy and girl dolls, with the girls being distinguished by a bow. The black skin of the dolls was said to have been significant and in-line with the rising popularity of jazz. Novelist Tensei Kawano went as far as to state, "We of the younger generation are outcasts from politics and society. In a way we are like Negroes, who have a long record of oppression and misunderstanding, and we feel akin to them."
Over time, blackface and darky iconography became artistic and stylistic devices associated with art deco and the Jazz Age. By the 1950s and 1960s, 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. Many of the songs were from the music hall, country and western and folk traditions. Actors and dancers in blackface appeared in music videos such as Grace Jones's "Slave to the Rhythm" (1980, also part of her touring piece A One Man Show), Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" (1982) and Taco's "Puttin' On the Ritz" (1983).
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-icon character doll (the doll, Bibinba, had fat, pink lips and rings in its ears) in the 1990s, the ensuing controversy prompted Sanrio to halt production.
Trademark for Conguitos, a confection manufactured by the LACASA Group features a tubby, little brown character with full, red lips. In Britain, "Golly", a golliwog character, fell out of favor in 2001 after almost a century as the trademark of jam producer James Robertson & 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 icon. In France, the chocolate powder Banania still uses a little black boy with large red lips as its emblem.
The influence of blackface on branding and advertising, as well as on perceptions and portrayals of blacks, generally, can be found worldwide.
Digital media provide opportunities to inhabit and perform black identity without actually painting one's face. In 1999, Adam Clayton Powell III coined the term "high-tech blackface" to refer to stereotypical portrayals of black characters in video games. David Leonard writes that "The desire to 'be black' because of the stereotypical visions of strength, athleticism, power and sexual potency all play out within the virtual reality of sports games." Leonard's argument suggests that players perform a type of Identity tourism by controlling black avatars in sports games. Phillips and Reed argue that this type of blackface "is not only about whites assuming black roles, nor about exaggerated performances of blackness for the benefit of a racist audience. Rather, it is about performing a version of blackness that constrains it within the boundaries legible to white supremacy."
Social media has also facilitated the spread of blackface in culture. In 2016, a controversy emerged over Snapchat's Bob Marley filter, which allowed users to superimpose dark skin, dreadlocks, and a knitted cap over their own faces. A number of controversies have also emerged about students at American universities sharing images of themselves appearing to wear blackface makeup.
In Europe, there are a number of folk dances or folk performances in which the black face appears to represent the night, or the coming of the longer nights associated with winter. Many fall or autumn North European folk black face customs are employed ritualistically to appease the forces of the oncoming winter, utilizing characters with blackened faces, or black masks.
In Finland, a version of the Star boys' singing procession originating in the city of Oulu, a musical play known as Tiernapojat, has become established as a cherished Christmas tradition nationwide. The Tiernapojat show is a staple of Christmas festivities in schools, kindergartens, and elsewhere, and it is broadcast every Christmas on radio and television. The Finnish version contains non-biblical elements such as king Herod vanquishing the "king of the Moors", whose face in the play has traditionally been painted black. The character's color of skin is also a theme in the procession's lyrics.
In Tintin in the Congo, cartoonist Hergé uses a blackface type drawing style to depict the native Congolese. And in the Dutch comic Sjors & Sjimmie, started in 1902, Sjimmy was initially depicted in the same way, but was gradually turned into a normal, but black, Dutch boy and in 1969, when Jan Kruis took over the comic, his transformation to a normal boy was complete.
Poachers and riotersEdit
From 1723-1823, it was a criminal offence to blacken one's face in some circumstances, with a punishment of death. The Black Act was passed at a time of economic downturn that led to heightened social tensions, and in response to a series of raids by two groups of poachers who blackened their faces to prevent identification. Blackening one's face with soot, lampblack, boot polish or coal dust being a traditional form of disguise, or masking, in the UK, especially at night when poaching.
The Welsh Rebecca Rioters (1839-1843) used to blacken their faces and/or wear masks to prevent themselves being identified whilst breaking down turnpike gates, sometimes dressed as women.
South Western English traditional folk plays sometimes have a Turk Slaver character, probably from the Barbary Coast Slave raids on Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset in the early 17th Century by "Sallee Rovers" (where the English were the slaves captured and taken by force to North Africa). This character is usually played using a black face (or brownface).
Molly Dancers and Cornish Guise Dancers, both of whom are usually traditionally associated with midwinter festivals, often use blacked faces as a disguise. As the Molly dancers wished to avoid being identified by the landlords and petty nobles, who were also usually the local Magistrates, when they played tricks on those who failed to be generous enough in their gifts to the dancers. And the Guise dancers (disguised dancers) also wished to avoid any punishment for their mocking songs embarrassing the local gentry.
In Bacup, Lancashire, the Britannia Coco-nut Dancers, wear black faces. Some[who?] believe the origin of this dance can be traced back to the influx of Cornish miners to northern England, and the black face relates to the dirty blackened faces associated with mining.
In Cornwall, several Mummer's Day celebrations are held; these were sometimes known as "Darkie Day" (a corruption of the original "Darking Day", referring to the darkening or painting of the faces) and involved local residents dancing through the streets in blackface to musical accompaniment. Although the origins of blacking-up for Mummer's Day have no racial connotations – the tradition is pagan in origin and goes back to the days of the Celts – controversially, in the Padstow festival, minstrel songs, such as one song with the words "He's gone where the good niggers go", were formerly included due to the popularity of minstrel songs during the early 20th century, perhaps due to people not being aware of the pagan origins of the face painting.
The traditional wedding day chimney sweep, that is considered to be good luck, sometimes has a partially blacked up face to suggest smears of soot. This depends on the performer but it was, and still is, unusual to have a full blackening. Though the complete covered "greyface" is known.
These two traditions, of chimney sweep and folk dancing, coincide in the sometimes lost traditions of (chimney)sweepers festivals. Medway Council supports the Sweeps' Festival, revived in 1981, now claimed to be "the largest festival of Morris dance in the world". It takes place in Rochester around May Day and features a Jack in the Green character. Originally the chimney sweeps were little boys, and they used the day to beg for money, until this child labour was outlawed.
Papa Lazarou was a character in the comedy-horror TV show The League of Gentlemen in the 1990s, and a subsequent movie. His exaggerated form of gypsy-styled blackface embodied the 'local' characters' fear of outsiders. It was revealed at the end of the series that this was his actual skin colour.
A sketch in a 2003 episode of Little Britain features two characters who appear in blackface as minstrels, as regularly seen on British television until the 1980s. The same characters return for one 2005 sketch. In the sketches, the racist overtones are subverted with the characters presented as belonging to a race genuinely possessing the appearance of white men in blackface (referred to as "Minstrels") who are persecuted by the public and local government in a similar manner to European government treatment of the Romani people (gypsies).
Netherlands and BelgiumEdit
In the Netherlands and Belgium, people annually celebrate St. Nicolas Eve with Sinterklaas accompanied by multiple Zwarte Pieten in the form of adolescent boys and girls, and men and women, who use blackface or now more often in large city parades in different colors and styles while wearing Moorish page boy costumes. The Moorish Zwarte Piet character has been traced back to the middle of the 19th century when Jan Schenkman, a popular children's book author, added an African servant to the Sinterklaas story. However, the original and archetypal Zwarte Piet is believed to be a continuation of a much older custom in which people with black faces appeared in Winter Solstice rituals. In other parts of Western Europe and in Central Europe, black-faced and masked people also perform the role of companions of Saint Nicholas, who is known as Nikolo in Austria, Niklaus in Germany and Samichlaus in Switzerland. Also on Saint Martin's Eve, black-faced men go around in processions through Wörgl and the Lower Inn Valley, in Tyrol.
Zwarte Piet as a depiction of a Moorish page resembles many of the classic "darky" icons, and visitors are often shocked at the sight of white people made up in what appears to be classic blackface. Internal opposition to the practice has been present since the 1960s. Some of the stereotypical elements have been toned down in recent decades. However, a 2013 survey indicated support among the Dutch population is still strong: 89% of the 19,000 respondents were opposed to altering the character's appearance, 5% favoured change, and 6% had no firm opinion either way.
In Germany, blackface was used in several theatrical productions. Examples of theatrical productions include the many productions of the play "Unschuld" (Innocence) by the German writer Dea Loher, although in this play about two black African immigrants, the use of black-face is not part of the stage directions or instructions. German productions of Herb Gardner's "I'm Not Rappaport" almost always cast the role of Midge Carter, the black character, famously portrayed in the U.S. by Ossie Davis, with a white actor in black makeup.
The production of "I'm Not Rappaport" at the Berlin Schlosspark-Theater was subject of protest. The director, Thomas Schendel, in his response to critics, argued that the classical and common plays would not offer enough roles that would justify a repertoire position for a black actor in a German theatre company. The protest grew considerably and was followed by media reports. While advocates of the theatre indicated that in principle it should be possible for any actor to play any character and that the play itself has an anti-racist message, the critics noted that the letter unwillingly disclosed the general, unexpressed policy of German theatres, i.e., that white actors are accounted to be qualified for all roles, even black ones, while black actors were suitable only for black roles. Other authors said that this problem in Germany generally exists for citizens with an immigrant background. The debate was also in the foreign media attention. The Schlosspark-Theater has announced plans to continue the performances. And German publishing company of "Rappaport" stated it will continue to grant permits for such performances.
The staging of the play "Unschuld" (Innocence) at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin was also subject of protest. The activist group "Bühnenwatch" (stage watch) performed a stunt in one of the stagings: 42 activists, posing as spectators, left the audience without a word and later distributed leaflets to the audience. Fundamental of the criticism was that the use of black-face solidifies stereotypes regardless of any good intentions and supports racist structures. The critics were invited to a discussion with the director, actors, theatre manager and other artists of the Deutsches Theater. As a result of the discussion, Deutsches Theater changed the design of actor make-up. Ulrich Khuon, the theatre manager, later admitted to being surprised by the protest and is now in a process of reflection.
In 2012, the American dramatist Bruce Norris cancelled a German production of his play Clybourne Park when it was disclosed that a white actress would portray the African-American "Francine". A subsequent production using black German actors was successfully staged.
German dramatists commented on the debate:
Unfortunately, I do not believe that our society has come to accept a black Faust in the theatre.— Christian Tombeil, theater manager of Schauspiel Essen, 2012
We too have a problem to deal with issues of racism. We try to work it out by promoting tolerance, but tolerance is not a solution to racism. Why not? Because it does not matter whether our best friends are immigrants if, at the same time, we cannot cast a Black man for the part of Hamlet because then nobody could truly understand the "real" essence of that part. Issues of racism are primarily issues of representation, especially in the theatre.— René Pollesch, director, 2012
Up until the early 2000s, white comedians sometimes used makeup to represent a black person, most often as a parody of an actual person. For example, the Montreal-based satiric group Rock et Belles Oreilles often used that method such as when comedian Yves Pelletier disguised himself as comedian and show host Gregory Charles, making fun of his energetic personality on his television game show "Que le meilleur gagne", not of his racial background. They also did sketches where a strongly stereotypical fictitious Haitian man was easily offended. The same comedian did another parody of Gregory Charles for the New Year's Eve TV special "Le Bye Bye de RBO" in 2006, as an homage to Charles for having a particularly successful year.
In September 2011, HEC Montréal students caused a stir when using blackface to "pay tribute" to Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt during Frosh Week. The story went national, and was even covered on CNN. The university students were filmed in Jamaican flag colours, chanting "smoke weed" in a chorus. The University later apologized for the lack of consciousness of its student body.
In May 2013, a comedian named Mario Jean performed in blackface to imitate Boucar Diouf, an African immigrant-comedian. Many notable Quebec journalists and pundits defend the practice and deny the history of blackface is part of Quebec's history. Comedian and story-teller Boucar Diouf praised his fellow comedians for a sign of great open-mindedness.
In December 2014, the satirical end-of-year production by Théâtre du Rideau Vert, a mainstream theatre company, included a blackface representation of hockey player P.K. Subban by white actor Marc Saint-Martin. Despite some criticism the sketch has not been withdrawn.
An example of the fascination in American culture with racial boundaries and the color line is demonstrated in the popular duo Amos 'n' Andy, characters played by two white men who performed the show in blackface. They gradually stripped off the blackface makeup during live 1929 performances while continuing to talk in dialect. This fascination with color boundaries had been well-established since the beginning of the century, as it also had been before the Civil War.
In New Orleans in the early 20th century, a group of African-American laborers began a marching club in the annual Mardi Gras parade, dressed as hobos and calling 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 krewes of 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 as well as popular.
The wearing of blackface was once a traditional part of the annual Mummers Parade in Philadelphia. Growing dissent from civil rights groups and the offense of the black community led to a 1964 official city policy ruling out blackface. Despite the ban on blackface, brownface was still used in the parade in 2016 to depict Mexicans, causing outrage once again among civil rights groups. Also in 1964, bowing to pressure from the interracial group Concern, teenagers in Norfolk, Connecticut, reluctantly agreed to discontinue using blackface in their traditional minstrel show that was a fund-raiser for the March of Dimes.
Grace Slick, singer of Jefferson Airplane, was wearing blackface when they performed Crown of Creation and Lather at The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968. It's mentioned in 2004 documentary Fly Jefferson Airplane directed by Bob Sarles, and the performance is included as well.
Former Illinois congressman and House Republican party minority leader Bob Michel caused a minor stir in 1988, when on the USA Today television program 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.
In 1993, white actor Ted Danson ignited a firestorm of controversy when he appeared at a New York Friars' Club roast in blackface, delivering a risqué shtick written by his then love interest, African-American comedian Whoopi Goldberg. Recently, gay white performer Chuck Knipp has used drag, blackface, and broad racial caricature while portraying a character named "Shirley Q. Liquor" in his cabaret act, generally performed for all-white audiences. Knipp's outrageously stereotypical character has drawn criticism and prompted demonstrations from black, gay and transgender activists.
Blackface and minstrelsy also serve as the theme of Spike Lee's film Bamboozled (2000). It tells of a disgruntled black television executive who reintroduces the old blackface style in a series concept in an attempt to get himself fired, and is instead horrified by its success.
The Metropolitan Opera, based in New York City used blackface in productions of the opera Otello until 2015, though some have argued that the practice of using dark makeup for the character did not qualify as blackface. There have been several inflammatory incidents of white college students donning blackface. Such incidents usually escalate around Halloween, with students using often accused of perpetuating racial stereotypes.
In November 2005, controversy erupted when journalist Steve Gilliard posted a photograph on his blog. The image was of African American Michael S. Steele, a politician, 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, also African-American, defended the image, commenting that the politically conservative Steele has "refused to stand up for his people."
A 2008 imitation of Barack Obama by comedian Fred Armisen (white, of Venezuelan and Japanese descent) on the popular television program Saturday Night Live caused some stir, with The Guardian's commentator openly asking why SNL didn't hire an additional black actor to do the sketch; the show had only one black cast member at the time.
In the November 2010 episode "Dee Reynolds: Shaping America's Youth", the TV show It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia comically explored if blackface could ever be done "right". One of the characters insists that Laurence Olivier's blackface performance in his 1965 production of Othello was not offensive. In that same episode, the gang has a showing for 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 once again dons black make-up, along with Dee, who plays his character's wife in the film.
The 2012 Popchips commercial showing actor Ashton Kutcher with brown make-up on his face impersonating a stereotypical Indian person generated a storm of controversy and was eventually pulled by the company after complaints of racism.
Actress 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, stating on Twitter: "I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize."
Commodities bearing iconic "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 item in the U.S., particularly, as well as for original artifacts of darky iconography. The value of vintage "negrobilia" pieces has risen steadily since the 1970s.
Blackface performances are not unusual within the Latino community. A minstrel tradition exists throughout most of Latin America and Spain, and it has traveled to the United States. As Spanish-speakers from different countries, ethnic, racial, class, and educational blackgrounds settle in the United States, they have to 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 Latino and its popular embodiment as a stereotypical Dominican man.
In modern-day Mexico there are examples of images (usually caricatures) in blackface (e.g., Memín Pinguín). Though there is backlash from international communities, Mexican society has not protested to have these images changed to racially sensitive images. On the contrary, in the controversial Memín Pinguín cartoon there has been support publicly and politically (chancellor for Mexico, Luis Ernesto Derbez). Currently in Mexico, only 3–4% of the population are composed of Afro-Mexicans (this percentage includes Asian Mexicans).
A notorious example of blackface in Mexican media is a comedic episode based around the Civil War titled La guerra de secesión de los Estados Unidos (The U.S. Secession War) in which famous comedian Chespirito did a skit in blackface.
Portobelo's Carnival and Congo dance in Panama include a use of blackface as a form of celebration of African history, an emancipatory symbol. Black men paint their faces with charcoal representing three things. Firstly, the blackface is used as a tool to remember their African descendants. Secondly, the black face is representative of the disguise or concealment on the run slaves would have used to evade the Spanish colonizers. Lastly, the practice of blackface is used as a way to signify the code or "secret language" slaves would have used during the time of Spanish occupation. During the celebration, for example, good morning will mean good night, and wearing black, or in this case blackface, which normally denotes a time of mourning, is used as a way to represent a time of celebration instead.
Portugal and BrazilEdit
In Portugal, there is not a long history of use of actors in blackface for "serious" performances meant for realistic black character, but the use of blackface for comedy keeps being used frequently well into the 21st century. The talk-show 5 Para a Meia-Noite, examples of which are some episodes hosted by Luís Filipe Borges and Pedro Fernandes, who have both donned it, uses it almost on a weekly basis. Use of black performance in impersonations was quite frequently used in the (ongoing) song and impressions show A Tua Cara não Me É Estranha, with blackface impressions of Michael Jackson, Siedah Garrett, Tracy Chapman, Louie Armstrong, Nat King Cole, among others.
In Brazil, there has been at least some history of non-comedic use of blackface, using white actors for black characters like Uncle Tom (although the practice of "racelift", or making black/mulatto characters into mestiços/swarthy whites/caboclos, is more frequent than blackface). Use of blackface in humor has been used more rarely than in Portugal, although it also continues into this century (but unlike the Portuguese cases, it creates major uproar among the sizeable and more politically active Afro-Brazilian community).
Inspired by blackface minstrels who visited Cape Town, South Africa, in 1848, former Javanese and Malayn coolies took up the minstrel tradition, holding emancipation celebrations which consisted of music, dancing and parades. Such celebrations eventually became consolidated into an annual, year-end event called the "Coon Carnival" but now known as the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival or the Kaapse Klopse.
Today, carnival minstrels are mostly Coloured ("mixed race"), Afrikaans-speaking revelers. Often in a pared-down style of blackface which exaggerates only the lips. They parade down the streets of the city in colorful costumes, in a celebration of Creole culture. Participants also pay homage to the carnival's African-American roots, playing Negro spirituals and jazz featuring traditional Dixieland jazz instruments, including horns, banjos, and tambourines.
The South African actor and filmmaker Leon Schuster is well known for employing the blackface technique in his filming to little or no controversy. But in 2013, the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa halted the airing of an ad wherein Schuster portrayed a stereotypically dishonest African politician in blackface. The action was in response to the following submitted complaint:
- "...the commercial is offensive as it portrays a stereotype that black politicians are liars. This technique is known as blackface, and is an inherently racist form of acting. The black character is depicted with derogatory intention, speaks with a thick accent, and recalls a stereotypical black dictator. To achieve the desired result of showing a corrupt official, there was no need for the man to be made out to be black."
Vodacom South Africa has also been accused of using non-African actors in blackface in its advertising as opposed to simply using African actors. Some have denounced blackface as an artefact of apartheid, accusing broadcasters of lampooning Black people. Others continue to see it as "harmless fun". In 2014, photos of two white University of Pretoria female students donning blackface makeup in an attempt at caricaturing Black domestic workers surfaced on Facebook. The students were said to face disciplinary action for throwing the institution's name into disrepute, this despite having perpetrated the incident at a private party and later taking down the images. University of Stellenbosch students Poekie Briedenhann and a friend drew much controversy after posting a picture of themselves in what appeared be dark paint and were subsequently accused of donning "blackface" and wrongfully suspended from their residence and later reinstated. The pair claimed they had been dressed up as purple aliens for a space-themed residence party.
Hajji Firuz is character in Iranian folklore who appears in the streets by the beginning of the New Year festival of Nowruz. His face is covered in soot, which is to symbolize the dirt and dust from the previous year.
In October 2009, a talent-search skit on Australian TV's Hey Hey It's Saturday reunion show featured a tribute group for Michael Jackson, the "Jackson Jive" in blackface, with the Michael Jackson character in whiteface. American performer Harry Connick, Jr. was one of the guest judges and objected to the act, stating that he believed it was offensive to black people, and gave the troupe a score of zero. The show and the group later apologised to Connick, with the troupe leader of Indian descent stating that the skit was not intended to be offensive or racist.
In Japanese hip hop, a subculture of hip-hoppers subscribe to the burapan style, and are referred to as blackfacers. The appearance of these blackfacers is evidence of the popularity of the hip-hop movement in Japan despite what is described as racist tendencies in the culture. Some Japanese fans of hip-hop find it embarrassing and ridiculous that blackface fans do this because they feel like they shouldn't change their appearance to embrace the culture. In some instances it can be seen as a racist act, but for many of the young Japanese fans it is a way of immersing in the hip hop culture the way they see fit. The use of blackface is seen by some as a way to rebel against the culture of surface images in Japan.
Blackface also remains a contentious issue outside of hip hop. One Japanese R&B group, the Gosperats, has been known to wear blackface makeup during performances. In March 2015 a music television program produced by the Fuji TV network was scheduled to show a segment featuring two Japanese groups performing together in blackface, Rats & Star and Momoiro Clover Z. A picture was published online by one of the Rats & Star members after the segment was recorded, which led to a campaign against broadcasting of the segment. The program that aired on March 7 was edited by the network to remove the segment "after considering the overall circumstances", but the announcement did not acknowledge the campaign against the segment.
In Thailand, actors darken their faces to portray the Negrito of Thailand in a popular play by King Chulalongkorn (1868–1910), Ngo Pa (Thai: เงาะป่า), which has been turned into a musical and a movie.
Blackface minstrelsy was the conduit through which African-American and African-American-influenced music, comedy, and dance first reached the white American mainstream. It played a seminal role in the introduction of African-American culture to world audiences.
Though antebellum (minstrel) troupes were white, the form developed in a form of racial collaboration, illustrating the axiom that defined – and continues to define – American music as it developed over the next century and a half: African-American innovations metamorphose into American popular culture when white performers learn to mimic black ones.
Many of country's earliest stars, such as Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, were veterans of blackface performance. More recently, the American country music television show Hee Haw (1969–1993) had the format and much of the content of a minstrel show.
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 Giddins writes; but the often ruthless exploitation of African-American artistic genius, as well—by other, white performers and composers; agents; promoters; publishers; and record company executives.
While blackface in the literal sense has played only a minor role in entertainment in recent decades, various writers see it as epitomizing an appropriation and imitation of black culture that continues today. As noted above, Strausbaugh sees blackface as central to a longer tradition of "displaying Blackness". "To this day," he writes, "Whites admire, envy and seek to emulate such supposed innate qualities of Blackness as inherent musicality, natural athleticism, the composure known as 'cool' and superior sexual endowment," a phenomemon he views as part of the history of blackface. For more than a century, when white performers have wanted to appear sexy, (like Elvis or Mick Jagger); or streetwise, (like Eminem); or hip, (like Mezz Mezzrow); they often have turned to African-American performance styles, stage presence and personas. Pop culture referencing and cultural appropriation of African-American performance and stylistic traditions is a tradition with origins in blackface minstrelsy.
The international imprint of African-American 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 African-American influence which has many prominent manifestations today, among them the ubiquity of the cool aesthetic and hip hop culture.
- For the "darky"/"coon" distinction see, for example, note 34 on p. 167 of Edward Marx and Laura E. Franey's annotated edition of Yone Noguchi, The American Diary of a Japanese Girl, Temple University Press, 2007, ISBN 1-59213-555-2. See also Lewis A. Erenberg (1984), Steppin' Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890–1930, University of Chicago Press, p. 73, ISBN 0-226-21515-6. For more on the "darky" stereotype, see J. Ronald Green (2000), Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux, Indiana University Press, pp. 134, 206, ISBN 0-253-33753-4; p. 151 of the same work also alludes to the specific "coon" archetype.
- William J. Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture, University of Illinois Press (1998), p. 9, ISBN 0-252-06696-0.
- Frank W. Sweet, A History of the Minstrel Show, Backintyme (2000), p. 25, ISBN 0-939479-21-4
- Strausbaugh 2006, p. 62
- "The Father Christmas Affair". Are You Being Served?. Series 4. Episode 7. 1976-12-06. BBC1.
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- Rogin, Michael (University of California Press 1998) Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (p. 30)
- Lott 1993, pp. 17–18
- Watkins 1999, p. 82
- Inside the minstrel mask: Readings in nineteenth-century blackface minstrelsy by Bean, Annemarie, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara. 1996. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
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- Strausbaugh 2006, p. 214
- Strausbaugh 2006, pp. 214–15
- Strausbaugh 2006, p. 225; the televised version (1951–53) used African-American actors.
- Strausbaugh 2006, p. 240
- Strausbaugh 2006, p. 241
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- Toll 1974, pp. 179, 198
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- Strausbaugh 2006, p. 70; Toll 1974 passim.
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