Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Blackface is a style of theatrical makeup that originated in the United States, used to affect the countenance of an iconic, racist, American archetype, that of the darky or coon. The term blackface also refers to a genre of musical and comedic theatrical presentation in which blackface makeup is worn. White blackface performers in the past used burnt cork, then later greasepaint, to affect jet-black skin and exaggerated lips, often wearing woolly wigs and ragged clothes to complete the transformation.
White comedian Thomas D. Rice invented blackface, introducing the song "Jump Jim Crow" and an accompanying dance in his act in 1828. The song had a syncopated rhythm and purportedly recreated the dancing of a crippled, black stable hand, Jim Cuff, or "Jim Crow," whom Rice had seen in Cincinnati, Ohio:
- First on de heel tap,
- Den on the toe
- Every time I wheel about
- I jump Jim Crow.
- Wheel about and turn about
- En do j's so.
- And every time I wheel about,
- I jump Jim Crow.
- -- 1823 sheet music
Rice traveled the U.S., performing under the pseudonym "Daddy Jim Crow." The name later became attached to statutes that further codified the reinstitution of segregation and discrimination after Reconstruction.
The shaping of racist archetypes
Initially, blackface performers were part of traveling troupes, or minstrel shows. In addition to music and dance, minstrel shows featured comical skits in which performers portrayed buffoonish, lazy, superstitious black characters who were cowardly and lascivious, lusted after white women, who stole, lied pathologically and slaughtered the English language. Such troupes in the early days of minstrelsy were all-male, so cross-dressing white men also played black women who often were either unappealingly and grotesquely mannish or highly sexually provocative. At the time, the stage also featured comic stereotypes of conniving, venal Jews; cheap Scotsmen; drunken Irishmen; ignorant southerners; gullible rural folk; and the like.
Minstrel shows were a fantastically popular show business phenomenon in the USA from 1828 through the 1930s, also enjoying some popularity in the UK and in parts of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. As a result, the genre played a powerful role in shaping racist perceptions of and prejudices about African-Americans in particular and blacks, generally.
By 1840, African-American performers also were performing in blackface makeup. White minstrel shows featured white performers pretending to be blacks, playing their versions of black music and speaking ersatz black dialects. All-black minstrel shows, however, often were billed as "authentic" and "the real thing," and also had tremendous public appeal. American author Mark Twain wrote in his autobiographical notes in 1846, after seeing a "genuine nigger show, the extravagant nigger show," that it was "the show which to me had no peer." For him, it was "a thoroughly delightful thing."
And though African-American blackface productions also often contained demeaning, self-mocking buffoonery and comedy, for many black artists they were a practical livelihood. Some minstrel shows also managed subtly to poke fun at the racist attitudes of whites or champion the abolitionist cause. And it was through blackface performers, white and black, that the richness and exuberance of African-American music and dance first reached mainstream audiences in the U.S. and abroad.
The songs of northern composer Stephen Foster figured prominently in blackface minstrel shows of the period. Though written in dialect, they were free of the ridicule and blatantly racist caricatures that so frequently characterized other songs of the genre. Foster's works treated slaves and the South in general with an often cloying sentimentality that appealed to white audiences of the day.
Many well-known entertainers performed in blackface, including Al Jolson; Eddie Cantor; Bob Hope; Fred Astaire; Judy Garland; Mickey Rooney; and actor and comedian Bert Williams, who was the first black performer in vaudeville and on Broadway. But apart from cultural references such as those seen in theatrical cartoons, onstage blackface essentially was eliminated, post-vaudeville, when it became increasingly associated with racism and bigotry.
Blackface and darky iconography
The darky icon itself — googly-eyed; with inky skin; exaggerated white, pink or red lips; and bright, white teeth — became a common motif first in the U.S., then worldwide, in entertainment, children's literature, mechanical banks and other toys, cartoons and comic strips, advertisements, jewelry, textiles, postcards, food branding and packaging, and other consumer goods.
In 1895, the golliwog surfaced in Great Britain, the product of American-born children's book illustrator Florence Kate Upton , who modelled her ragdoll character Golliwogg after a doll she had in the U.S. as a child. "Golly," as he later affectionately came to be called, had a typical jet-black face; wild, wooly hair; bright, red lips; and sported formal minstrel attire. The generic, British golliwog later made its way back across the Atlantic as dolls, toy tea sets, ladies' perfume and in a myriad of other forms; and, it is believed, contributed the ethnic slur wog to the English lexicon.
American darky images and Upton's minstrel doll-inspired Golliwogg had a profound influence on the way blacks were depicted worldwide. Black and white minstrel troupes toured Europe and were somewhat successful for a time. There, as in the U.S., there was a history of involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but an ongoing European colonial presence in Africa and the Caribbean, as well. Shared notions of white supremacy made darky iconography popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Unlike in the United States, however, scant resident populations in Europe of people of black African descent posed little challenge to the racist attitudes of the day.
As a result, European sensibilities regarding blackface historically have been different from those in America. For Europeans and Asians, many of whom had never seen a black person in the flesh before World War II, the racist iconography of the blackface darky -- grotesque caricatures of blacks born of whites ridiculing blacks -- became de rigueur. Darky icons proliferated far beyond the minstrel stage and, for many nonblacks, became reified in the human beings they denigrated. The grinning, pop-eyed distortions acquired a life of their own. By the 1920s and '30s, for example, French posters advertising performances by even respected and beloved performers like Josephine Baker routinely were in the darky mold. After the Second World War, Japan flooded the U.S. with darky and mammy kitchen ware, ashtrays, toys and ceramics. Darky and blackface iconography is still popular in Japan today, and an item sold by Sanrio in the 1990s created controversy when it was exported to the United States (Sanrio has since discontinued the item).
U.S. cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s often featured characters in blackface gags as well as other racial caricatures. Blackface was one of the influences in the development of characters like Mickey Mouse and Bosko. The United Artists 1933 release "The Mellerdrammer" -- the name a corruption of "melodrama" thought to harken back to the earliest minstrel shows -- was a film short based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Mickey, of course, was already black; but for this role he was depicted with exaggerated, orange lips; bushy, white sidewhiskers; and, of course, his now trademark white gloves.
Over time, blackface and darky iconography became artistic and stylistic devices associated with art deco and the Jazz Age. By the 1950s and '60s, particularly in Europe, where it was still 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. A blackface actor appeared in Dutch-German pop singer Taco Ockerse's 1982 music video "Puttin' on the Ritz," which aired in the U.S. regularly on MTV.
Zwarte Piet, or "Black Peter," is a blackamoor character in Dutch Christmas lore, described variously as a slave or servant of Sinterklaas. He is often characterized as mean, mischievous and stupid, and is sometimes associated with Satan. Once portrayed realistically, Zwarte Piet became a classic darky icon in the mid to late 19th century, contemporaneous with the spread of blackface iconography. To this day, holiday revelers in the Netherlands blacken their faces; wear afro wigs and bright, red lipstick; and walk the streets, throwing candy to passersby, some behavingly dim-wittedly and speaking mangled Dutch as embodiments of Zwarte Piet.
Accepted in the past without controversy in a once largely ethnically homogeneous nation, Zwarte Piet today is greeted with mixed reactions. Some see him as a cherished Christmas tradition and look forward to his annual appearance. Others, most notably, perhaps, many of the country's people of color, detest him. Some Dutch children fear Zwarte Piet and have been known to cling to their parents, bursting into tears when approached by Zwarte Piet impersonators. Other white Dutch children believe their black classmates will grow up to be Zwarte Piet. Still others stare and point at black people they encounter on the street, exclaiming, "Look! There's a Zwarte Piet!" Foreign tourists, particularly Americans, are often bewildered and mortified. Googly-eyed, red-lipped Zwarte Piet dolls, diecuts and displays adorn store windows alongside brightly displayed, smartly packaged holiday merchandise. At least once a year in the Netherlands, the debate over the harmlessness, or racism, of such customs resurfaces — along with the usual, smiling golliwog dolls dressed as Zwarte Piet and other yuletide, storefront-darky images.
In the U.S., by the 1950s, the NAACP had begun calling attention to such demeaning portrayals of African Americans and mounted a campaign to put an end to blackface performances and depictions. For decades, darky images had been omnipresent, particularly in the branding of everyday products and commodities: Darkie Toothpaste, Nigger Head oysters and other canned goods, Picaninny Freeze ice cream, the Coon Chicken Inn restaurant chain and the like. With the eventual successes of the modern day Civil Rights Movement, such blatantly racist branding practices ended, and blackface became an American taboo.
But the darky archetype blackface played such a profound role in creating remains a persistent thread in American culture. It continues to resurface. Animation utilizing darky iconography aired on U.S. television routinely as late as the mid 1990s, and still can be seen in specialty time slots on such networks as TCM. In 1993, white American actor Ted Danson ignited a firestorm of controversy when he appeared at a Friar's Club roast in blackface, delivering a risqué shtick written by his then love interest, African American comedienne Whoopi Goldberg.
Recently, the racist stereotypes of blackface have resurfaced in the persona of "Shirley Q. Liquor," a creation of gay, white performer Chuck Knipp, whose "cabaret act" features the controversial character "Shirley Q. Liquor." Knipp plays Liquor in both drag and blackface. Writes Nicolas Boston of a 2004 Knipp performance in the New York Gay City News:
[Shirley Q. Liquor] is described as a single mother of 19 children born out of wedlock and on welfare. When in character as Shirley Q. Liquor, Knipp, a resident of Long Beach, Mississippi, speaks in an exaggerated black Southern accent and mispronounces words. His act consists of poking fun at African American female names, holidays such as Kwanzaa, Ebonics, African American women in jail, and a host of other topics related to blacks.
Blackface and minstrelsy also serve as the theme of Spike Lee's film Bamboozled (2000). It tells of a black television executive who reintroduces the old blackface style and is horrified by its success.
In 2002 and 2003, there were several inflammatory blackface "incidents" where white college students donned blackface as part of presumably innocent, but insensitive, gags -- or as part of an acknowledged climate of racism and intolerance on campus. Further, commodities bearing darky iconic images, from tableware, soap, 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.
Blackface minstrelsy and world pop culture
Despite its racism, blackface minstrelsy played a seminal and precedent-setting role in the introduction of African-American music, dance and humor to world audiences. Wrote jazz historian Gary Giddings in Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903-1940:
Though antebellum (minstrel) troupes were white, the form developed in a form of racial collaboration, illustrating the axiom that defines -- 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.
The black folk institution of the barbershop quartet was enthusiastically adopted by whites, to the point where its black origins were virtually forgotten, to be rediscovered by musicologists in the 1990s.
White performers have continued to emulate black performers out of genuine admiration and out of recognition of the power, appeal and commercial viability of African American cultural expression. Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray, Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and his Comets, Mick Jagger, Tom Jones and many more widely are recognized as mimicking African-American performance styles in vocal techniques, musical styling, dance, stage presence and persona (see cool, hip, hipster).
Indeed, allusions to African American performance traditions are virtually standard for rock and roll and pop music, not only at their beginnings, but up to the present day. From the blue-eyed soul of the Righteous Brothers to Led Zeppelin's blues appropriations in the 1970s, which developed into heavy metal; to the vocal stylings of Hall and Oates and the careful emulation of the New Edition by the New Kids on the Block in the 1980s, which spawned the boy bands; to such white rappers as Eminem, Kid Rock, and Vanilla Ice; to vocalists like Michael McDonald, Michael Bolton and Christina Aguilera, black-influenced style is a constant presence.
Such mimickry of and borrowing from African-American culture is, in fact, internationally pervasive. This "browning," à la Richard Rodriguez , of American and world popular culture arguably began with blackface minstrelsy. The continuum of pervasive African American influence on American and world popular culture is, perhaps, most evident today in the ubiquity of hip-hop culture.
Related types of performances are yellowface, in which performers adopt Asian identities, brownface, for Latino or East Indian, and redface, for Native Americans. Whiteface is sometimes used to describe non-white actors performing white parts, although more commonly describes the clown or mime traditions of white makeup.
- Alfred Hitchcock's 1937 movie Young and Innocent
- Amos 'n' Andy
- minstrel show
- Two Black Crows
- Zwarte Piet
- "Banned Cartoons"
- The Black and White Minstrel Show
- "Man, I Don't 'Get' Zwarte Piet" in "Downwind of Amsterdam"
- "Nigger and Caricatures," Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, Ferris State University
- Zwarte Piet film from the Adwa Foundation, Rotterdam, and the Global Afrikan Congress
- "Zwarte Piet — a sinister symbol in a 'tolerant' country"
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