Blackface: The Birth of An Amerian Stereotype

Blackface has been in the news lately. Earlier this month, Dr. Dwandalyn Reece, Curator of Music and Performing Arts at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, joined CBS This Morning to discuss its painful history in the U.S.

Blackface has a long and racist history in the U.S. It became popular in mid-1800s minstrel shows when white performers darkened their faces to depict African-Americans in prejudicial and offensive ways.

Below is a recent Museum blog post that helps illuminate a complicated, yet important part of our national dialog. We hope that you will read it and also check out the vast history captured on the Museum’s website, social media, and other online resources, which bring the Museum’s work far beyond our walls.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

It is our hope that a greater understanding of our shared American history may bring healing and reconciliation to all Americans.

Blackface: The Birth of An American Stereotype

Historian Dale Cockrell once noted that poor and working-class whites who felt “squeezed politically, economically, and socially from the top, but also from the bottom, invented minstrelsy” as a way of expressing the oppression that marked being members of the majority, but outside of the white norm. Minstrelsy, comedic performances of “blackness” by whites in exaggerated costumes and make-up, 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.

“The whole idea of a stereotype is to simplify.”

— Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic

The pervasiveness of stereotypical images like these made the civil rights efforts of African Americans even more difficult. The black people represented here were irresponsible, laughable, and difficult to understand. If white people accepted these stereotypes, it became that much easier to deny African Americans the full rights of citizenship.

The first minstrel shows were performed in 1830s New York by white performers with blackened faces (most used burnt cork or shoe polish) and tattered clothing who imitated and mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations. These performances characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice.

Thomas Dartmouth Rice, known as the “Father of Minstrelsy,” developed the first popularly known blackface character, “Jim Crow” in 1830. By 1845, the popularity of the minstrel had spawned an entertainment subindustry, manufacturing songs and sheet music, makeup, costumes, as well as a ready-set of stereotypes upon which to build new performances.

Blackface performances grew particularly popular between the end of the Civil War and the turn-of-the century in Northern and Midwestern cities, where regular interaction with African Americans was limited.

White racial animus grew following Emancipation when antebellum stereotypes collided with actual African Americans and their demands for full citizenship including the right to vote. The influence of minstrelsy and racial stereotyping on American society cannot be overstated.

New media ushered minstrel performances from the stage, across radio and television airwaves, and into theaters. Popular American actors, including Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney donned blackface, bridging the minstrel performance across generations, and making blackface (racial parody, and stereotypes) a family amusement.

Blackface and the codifying of blackness — language, movement, deportment, and character — as caricature persists through mass media and in public performances today. In addition to the increased popularity of “black” Halloween costumes, colleges and universities across the country continue to battle against student and professor blackface performances. In each instance, those facing scrutiny for blackface performances insist no malice or racial hatred was intended.

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Top: Billy Van, the monologue comedian, 1900. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID var.1831

Second from top: Tin windup toy of “Ham and Sam The Minstrel Team.” Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Collection of James M. Caselli and Jonathan Mark Scharer

Third from top: Cover to early edition of Jump Jim Crow sheet music. Thomas D. Rice is pictured in his blackface role; he was performing at the Bowery Theatre (also known as the “American Theatre”) at the time. This image was highly influential on later Jim Crow and minstrelsy images. Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia.

Fourth from top: Postcard depicting a caricatured boy eating a slice of watermelon. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Collection of James M. Caselli and Jonathan Mark Scharer.

Bottom: A blackface mask. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Collection of James M. Caselli and Jonathan Mark Scharer.

Last edited by Courtney.   Page last modified on March 07, 2019

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