Editor's note: We're surfacing this article from 2013 in light of the February 2019 discovery of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook photograph in which a man wearing blackface poses with another figure in a KKK hood. Though Northam has rescinded his initial admission to being one of the men in the photo, he has admitted to having worn blackface in another instance, offending many of his constituents and stirring a national conversation.
The nefarious practice of blackface reared its ugly head again this past Halloween in startlingly high-profile incidents. Dancing with the Stars alumna Julianne Hough created an ill-advised costume tribute to a character on Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, complete with blackface. Two coaches at a California high school attended an event dressed as the Jamaican bobsled team. And from across the country, photos of students showing up to parties in blackface popped up all over blogs and other social media outlets.
Clearly, we’re not doing such a great job educating today’s students, or society in general, about the problems inherent in this practice; we’ve got egg on our collective blackface.
My own experience with blackface goes back to 1985, at my all-white high school. My freshman year, a group of seniors dressed as Rick James and his band, singing “Super Freak” down the hallways, and a group of students dressed as the Fat Albert Gang my senior year. Both groups had smeared dark makeup all over themselves; some wore Afro or dreadlock wigs.
I distinctly remember feeling uncomfortable with these incidents and wondering whether they were appropriate. Today, when I discuss these and other examples with my students, I often hear both white and black students argue that it’s all in good fun, that those who wear blackface are just playing “characters” or paying tribute to performers they respect.
But the simple fact is that blackface cannot be a tribute because it is a caricature, a demeaning representation of one racial identity, and by definition a reduction of a whole people’s identity down only to their skin color. The ramifications of this for social equality in the United States can be very damaging. As Manthia Diawara, chair of the Africana Studies Department at New York University, writes:
“In the blackface myth, there is a white fantasy which posits whiteness as the norm. What is absent in the blackface stereotype is as important as what is present: every black face is a statement of social imperfection, inferiority, and mimicry that is placed in isolation with an absent whiteness as its ideal opposite.”
The best way we can get students to understand this issue is to explain the historical context in which blackface emerged. Students need to know the history of minstrelsy, a performance practice used to demean African Americans, promote a concept of whiteness that reassured immigrants and others at the bottom of the economic ladder that their status was at least higher than blacks and exploit black culture for white profit. Without understanding this history, it is impossible for young people to see contemporary incidents as part of a longer continuum of degradation and racist constructions.
I’ve taught about the history of blackface and minstrelsy many times; in the beginning, I felt uncomfortable showing such horridly racist imagery to my students, worried that they might either be offended by the image or actually enjoy clips of The Amos ‘n Andy Show or Al Jolson. But I quickly realized that students approach the subject with the appropriate seriousness and often make connections between minstrelsy and contemporary pop culture that expand my own knowledge as well.
Many resources are available to help educators build lesson plans about the problem of blackface, including some excellent histories of minstrelsy, blackface and other racial/ethnic stereotypes. It’s time we confronted this issue more directly. In that way, perhaps we can help prevent further careless and insensitive incidents of blackface in our society.
Alvarez, Natalie and Stephen Johnson. “Minstrels in the Classroom: Teaching, Race, and Blackface.” Canadian Theatre Review, 147 (Summer 2011): 31-37. doi: 10.3138/ctr.147.31.
Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Fourth Edition. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2001.
Lhamon, Jr., W.T. Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Mahar, William. J. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. Urbana and Chicago, Il: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Silos-Rooney is an assistant professor of history at MassBay Community College.