Blackface has been all over the news lately.
It began last month when Florida Secretary of State Mike Ertel resigned after a photo surfaced of him wearing blackface and posing as a Hurricane Katrina victim during a Halloween party. More recently, two Virginia’s top elected officials, Governor Ralph Northam, and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface after embarrassing photos surfaced. Now may face the end of their political careers.
Then, this morning, Gucci pulled a turtleneck sweater that resembled blackface and issued an apology.
Most people are aware that donning blackface is considered offensive and racist. But many are oblivious to the reason why.
The answer lies in the history of the practice.
Many historians consider blackface minstrelsy to be the first truly American form of entertainment. In it, white men would use various methods to darken their faces. They would put on wigs, and use methods to make their lips appear larger.
In blackface skits, black people were portrayed as being lazy, ignorant, promiscuous, superstitious. They were often depicted as thieves and cowards. These performances are considered to be the origins of many of the harmful stereotypes that still exist today.
The practice was wildly popular during the 1830s, particularly with post-Civil War whites in the South. In fact, the name of the racial segregation Jim Crow laws took their name from a popular blackface character created by Thomas Dartmouth Rice. According to Rice, his act “Jump, Jim Crow” was inspired by a slave he once saw.
Blackface minstrelsy was condemned as racist from the start. In 1848, Fredrick Douglass told the North Star newspaper that blackface performers were, “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”
Despite the fact that civil rights activists and organizations publicly condemned blackface from the very beginning, the practice remained popular. In 1946, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a letter to the editor calling the practice “grotesque.” The letter was written by a state lawmaker, the Inter-Denominational Minister’s Alliance, the Inter-Racial Action Council and the publisher of the Pittsburgh Courier. In it, the group stated that blackface attacked “by ridicule and cheap buffoonery the self-respect of every American Negro.”
Many black performers were forced to wear blackface themselves if they hoped to perform for the more lucrative white audiences.
For example, the inventor of tap dance, William Henry Lane wasn’t allowed to tour with an all-white minstrel troupe without blackface until his fame reached international proportions.
In 1981, actor Ben Vereen attempted a criticism of blackface that proved disastrous. Vereen performed at the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. During the first part of his performance, Vereen performed “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” while wearing blackface, to the delight of the audience, President Reagan, and First Lady Nancy Reagan. He next sang “Nobody (I ain’t never got nothin’ from nobody, no time)” while stripping away the blackface as a way to show how the practice painfully exploited African-Americans.
Unfortunately, ABC did not air the second portion of Vereen’s performance and showed only the minstrelsy segment. Vereen immediately faced an overwhelming backlash from his African-American fans.
A History of Scandal
In spite of decades of criticism, the practice of wearing blackface hasn’t exactly disappeared.
In 1993, actor Ted Danson performed a skit in blackface while joking about his sex life with then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg, and using the N-word. He was called racist and tasteless.
In 2000, Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan apologized for a picture that surfaced during his run for the U.S. Senate showing him and his brothers singing in a blackface quartet in the 1960s.
In 2012, Comedian Billy Crystal impersonated Sammy Davis Jr. in blackface when he performed the opening montage at the Oscars. It was a repeat of his 1980s “Saturday Night Live” skit.
And still, it would seem, the practice persists.
Jenn Bentley is a writer and editor originally from Cadiz, Kentucky. Her writing has been featured in publications such as The Examiner, The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, and others. When she’s not writing or editing, Jenn spends her time raising money for Extra Life and advocating for autism awareness.