Blackface was an important performance tradition in the American theater for roughly 100 years beginning around 1830. It quickly became popular overseas, particularly so in Britain, where the tradition lasted even longer than in the US. In both the United States and Britain, blackface was most commonly used in the minstrel performance tradition, but it predates that tradition, and it survived long past the heyday of the minstrel show. White blackface performers in the past 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 minstrelsy played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide. In some quarters, 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 makeup used in performance in the U.S. and elsewhere. It remains in relatively limited use as a theatrical device, mostly outside the U.S., 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.
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 either as unappealingly and grotesquely mannish; in the matronly, mammy mold; or 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 arise 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.
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.
American humorist and author Mark Twain reminisced near the end of his life about the shows he had seen in his youth:
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 (1928–1960) 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.
By 1840, African-American 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. 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, they often were billed as "authentic" and "the real thing". These "colored minstrels always claimed to be recently-freed slaves (doubtless 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 the 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:
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.
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. The black minstrels gave the shows vitality and humor that the white shows never had. As the black social critic, LeRoi Jones has written:
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:
However, it seems clear 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.
Early blackface minstrels often claimed that their material was largely or entirely authentic, but there is little reason to believe that this was anything other than hype. Still, well into the 20th century, even scholars took this 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 even 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 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 myriad other forms. This 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 and Darky toothpaste (renamed Darlie) and Blackman mops in Thailand. With the eventual successes of the modern day Civil Rights Movement, such blatantly racist branding practices ended in the U.S., and blackface became an American taboo.
Darky iconography, while generally 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-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. 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, 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. Today golliwog dolls are reappearing in toy shops throughout Britain. 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.
In Dutch and Flemish folklore, Zwarte Piet—"Black Peter"—is a servant of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas). In the past, Zwarte Piet was more identified with the chastising of bad children than the rewarding of the good, but both characters have softened since the mid-19th century, and today the 5 December feast of Saint Nicholas is mainly an occasion for giving gifts to children. Zwarte Piet inherited many of the classic darky icons, contemporaneous with the spread of darky iconography. To this day, holiday revellers in the Netherlands blacken their faces, wear afro wigs and bright red lipstick, and walk the streets throwing candy to passers-by. Accepted without question in the past within a ethnically homogeneous nation, today Zwarte Piet is controversial. Many people continue to enjoy this as a cherished tradition and look forward to his annual appearance, whilst others, especially overseas visitors, see him as a racist caricature that shapes Dutch children's perceptions of black people. As a result of the allegations of racism, some of the Dutch have tried replacing Zwarte Piet's blackface makeup with face paint in alternative colors such as green or purple. This practice, however, has not caught on.
Today, carnival minstrels are mostly Coloured ("mixed race"), Afrikaans-speaking revellers. 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.
Over time, carnival participants have appropriated the term coon and do not regard it as a pejorative. However, city officials changed the name of the celebration to the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival in 2003, so as to avoid offending tourists. Former South African president Nelson Mandela endorsed the carnival in 1986, and is a member of the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival Association, which presides over the event. Now officially more than a hundred years old, the carnival has become a major tourist attraction, vigorously promoted by the nation's tourism authority, complete with corporate sponsorship. In any case, the South African term Kaapse Klopse, meaning "Cape Town Carnival Troupes Festival", is not controversial in any means whatsoever.
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 1900s, 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.
Former Illinois congressman and House Republican party minority leader Bob Michel 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 (2000). It tells of a disgruntled black television executive who reintroduces the old blackface style and is horrified by its success.
In recent years, there have been several inflammatory blackface "incidents" where white college students donned blackface as part of possibly innocent, but insensitive, gags, or as part of an acknowledged climate of racism and intolerance on campus. Such incidents usually escalate around Halloween, with students often acting out racist stereotypes.
In November 2005, controversy erupted when African American journalist Steve Gilliard posted a photograph on his blog. The image was of black Republican Maryland lieutenant governor Michael S. Steele, 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 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.
Japanese encounters with blackface dates back to 1853 when Commodore Perry "re-opened" Japan and brought with him a troupe of minstrels. While historically whites have considered Japanese "colored" and much contact with American blacks took place in the early 1900s, after Japan's humiliating loss in World War II, identification and sense of equality with white Americans became important. An inferiority complex developed in which negative representations of blackness were depicted. In reference to the experiences of African American servicemen in Japan, Ben Hamamoto writes, “Many felt a noticeable difference being in a country that did not have a history of slavery, segregation, and white supremacy and found genuine curiosity more than prejudice colored their experiences with Japanese people.”
For many years the Japanese have appreciated African American musical styles, notably jazz, funk, rock ‘n’ roll, and hip hop. Members of ganguro subcultures, male and female, darken their skin with the intention of appearing "cool", using tanning beds rather than make-up. Groups that have incorporated blackface into their act include Rats & Star and The Gosperats. Besides the "cool" aspect, adoption of blackface also serves a way for Japanese teens to "rebel against a conformist society." Blackface in Japan has sparked interest among many hip-hop artists and fans. For example, Iona Rezeal Brown has created numerous art pieces to reflect this ganguro culture. Her pieces often intertwine images of African-American experience with traditional Japanese images. Ganguro groups are considered an embarrassment throughout much of Japan because they are considered as 'fake' or 'unauthentic'. They have also been criticized by fellow hip hop followers who believe that hip hop is about the notions of graffiti, break-dancing, and style, but that skin tone should not be an issue. Hamamoto places Japanese blackface in the context of Japan's history of racism, and finds it surprising that they have not made significant racial progress over time. In his view, Japanese blackface draws from an oppressive and racist past and is not sensitive to the cultural implications of its origins.
In Bacup, Lancashire, England, the Britannia Coco-nut Dancers wear black faces. Some 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 a specific example of this, from Ted Fox's Showtime at the Apollo
As with jazz, 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 Giddings writes; but, particularly in times past, to the often ruthless exploitation and outright theft 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-often resulting in tremendous profit-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.
In West African folk theatre and puppetry there is a tradition of satirical representation of white Europeans. Performers will wear white masks and white gloves. In the Yoruba Egungun festivals overly affectionate white couples are made fun of due to their unseemly and ridiculous behaviour. The imagery is very similar to the representation of white colonists, sometimes with a humorous undercurrent, in wood carvings from the same regions. In Thailand, actors darken their faces to portray the Negrito of Thailand in a popular play by King Chulalongkorn (1868–1910), Ngo Pa (เงาะป่า), which has been turned into a musical and a movie.