Blackface raises racist face
It can be traced from ‘Jim Crow’ in 1830s all the way to current Va. politicians
The racism was present the moment he took the stage.
Using something black to darken his face, Thomas Dartmouth Rice didn’t hold back in his singsong performances, which date to the 1830s. The white man danced like a buffoon and spoke with an exaggerated imitation of black slave vernacular to entertain his audiences.
His fictional character also had a name: “Jim Crow.”
David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum in Michigan, noted how Jim Crow and other performances featuring white men in blackface captivated white crowds up until the mid-20th century.
Now blackface is back in the spotlight after a photograph emerged Feb. 1 from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page. It shows one man in blackface standing next to another man in a Ku Klux Klan robe.
The governor, a Democrat, apologized for the photograph on his yearbook page that is “clearly racist and offensive.” But a flood of prominent Democrats and Republicans began calling for his resignation.
On Feb. 2, Northam refused to resign and said he’d never seen the photo in the yearbook before it was publicized the day before. “I am not the person in that photo,” he said at a news conference, though he also described darkening his face to impersonate Michael Jackson for a dance contest in Texas.
The photo in the 1984
Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook has roiled Virginia politics.
State Attorney General Mark Herring said Wednesday that he wore brown makeup to look like a black rapper during a party as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia.
Historians remind us that while blackface is considered “clearly racist” now, it was once celebrated.
“Professional blackface minstrelsy was considered a | uniquely American contribution to world culture,” said Rhae Lynn Barnes, a Princeton professor working on a book about blackface. “Before the civil rights movement, making fun of AfricanAmericans was synonymous with American patriotism.”
Blackface dates to the era of minstrel shows, or “minstrelsy,” in the early 1800s.
Intended to be comedic, minstrel shows were first performed in New York with white actors who wore tattered clothing and used shoe polish to blacken their faces in a stereotypical depiction of Africans enslaved in the United States, according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The performances, the museum explains, “cannot be separated fully from the racial derision and stereotyping at its core. By distorting the features and culture of African-Americans — including their looks, language, dance, deportment, and character — white Americans were able to codify whiteness across class and geopolitical lines as its antithesis.”
When blackface was used in the first minstrel shows, it was done “to depict false stereotypes of black people: the big lips, the lack of education, the poor clothing,” said Daryl Davis, a black blues musician known for his efforts to befriend and convert members of the Ku Klux Klan.
“It wasn’t about trying to look black, but trying to look black in a way that portrays blacks negatively,” he said.
As a form of entertainment, it was controversial and condemned as offensive almost from the start.
In 1848, after watching a blackface act, abolitionist Fredrick Douglass called the performers “the filthy scum of white society” in The North Star newspaper.
Blackface performers, he said, “have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature to make money and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow-citizens.”
A joint letter to the editor in the Pittsburgh PostGazette from 1946 called a blackface performance “grotesque” and said it attacked “by ridicule and cheap buffoonery the self-respect of every American Negro.” The letter was written by a state lawmaker, the Inter-Racial Action Council, the InterDenominational Ministers Alliance and the publisher of The Pittsburgh Courier.
Pilgrim notes that Rice
was not the first white comic to perform in blackface but was the most popular of his time. As a result of Rice’s success, Jim Crow became a “common stage persona for white comedians’ blackface portrayals of African-Americans,” he said. In his Jim Crow persona, Rice also sang “Negro ditties” such as “Jump Jim Crow.”
Later, the phrase Jim Crow became a shorthand for the racist laws used throughout the South to segregate black people after emancipation.
Davis, however, has long argued that context is key when judging the use of blackface. In the 1900s, for example, white artists such as Al Jolson painted their faces as they performed ragtime and blues music pioneered by African-Americans.
He credits Jolson with spreading black music to white audiences and advocating for black artists. Other historians say blackface is always racist, no matter who is wearing it or why.
But in the case of the photo on Northam’s yearbook page, Davis said, the context is clear: “It doesn’t matter if the photo was from 1984, 1974 or 2004. He defined what he meant when he paired blackface with a Klan hood. Racial segregation. Racial supremacy. When you have a symbol associated with hate from the beginning, you are saying exactly what you mean.”
Since the Civil Rights Era, several other white politicians and celebrities have faced criticism for blackface performances.
Comedian Billy Crystal was criticized in 2012 for impersonating Sammy Davis Jr. in blackface during his opening montage at the Oscars, a repeat of his skit from “Saturday Night Live” from the 1980s.
Actor Ted Danson was accused of being racist and tasteless for performing a skit in blackface, using the Nword and joking about his sex life with then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg, who is black, at Goldberg’s Friars Club roast in 1993.
Dozens of other whites, including college fraternities and sororities, public officials and law enforcement officers, have also been criticized for blackface incidents.
Florida Secretary of State Mike Ertel resigned last month after a newspaper obtained photos of him in blackface and wearing earrings, a New Orleans Saints bandanna and fake breasts under a purple T-shirt that said “Katrina Victim.” The photos were taken two months after the deadly storm ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, killing more than 1,000 people.
In a curious aspect of
blackface entertainment, early American black actors, singers and vaudevillians were forced to don blackface as well if they wished to perform for more lucrative white audiences.
For example, William Henry “Master Juba” Lane is considered the most influential performer in 19th-century dance and is credited with inventing tap. It was only after his fame reached international proportions that he was allowed to tour with an all-white minstrel troupe and to perform without blackface.
One of the more disastrous critiques of blackface was from black actor Ben Vereen at President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. Vereen’s intent was a tribute to legendary black vaudevillian Bert Williams, who was forced to wear blackface to stay employed.
Vereen first danced and
sang “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” before a cheering GOP audience, along with the president and first lady Nancy Reagan. He then stripped the blackface off while singing “Nobody (I ain’t never got nothin’ from nobody, no time)” to show the pain of blackface and the exploitation of AfricanAmericans.
But ABC omitted the second part of Vereen’s performance when airing it, showing only the minstrelsy segment.
Vereen, who at the time was one of the nation’s top black actors, faced an immediate backlash from AfricanAmerican fans for what they saw as buffoonery.
Vereen has said he was promised that both parts would be shown and that he was “sabotaged by the network.”
In the internet age, social media has fueled furors over blackface.
In 2018, a photo of an Iowa teacher who darkened her face to appear as a Lafawnduh, a black character in the 2004 movie “Napoleon Dynamite,” went viral just as NBC talk show host Megyn Kelly was coming under fire for defending the use of blackface in Halloween costumes.
Similar controversies have arisen in other countries.
In 2017, confrontations broke out in the Netherlands over the helper of the Dutch version of Santa Claus. Known as Black Pete, the character is played by whites in blackface at children’s events.
A leading television station in Peru was fined $26,000 for airing the comedy character Negro Mama on an entertainment show in 2013. The character is played by Jorge Benavides, who dons blackface, exaggerated lips and a flaring nose.
In 2010, Mexican media conglomerate Televisa drew criticism for hiring actors in blackface for a popular morning program during the World Cup.
“In today’s climate, blackface is never appropriate,” said Mia Moody-Ramirez, a Baylor University professor and author of “From Blackface to Black Twitter.”
Ralph Northam’s page in the 1984 medical school yearbook shows one person in blackface next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan costume. “I am not the person in that photo,” he said.