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Blackface, which dates back to as early as the Middle Ages, is the theater performance practice of wearing soot, cosmetics, paint, or burnt cork to blacken the face. In medieval and Renaissance English theater, blacking up was prevalent in religious cycles and morality plays, where it was used to represent evil, badness, or damnation. Evil characters were portrayed with the color black in order to suggest that they were the antithesis of white, which stood for goodness, purity, or salvation. Blackface was also commonly used as a signifier of negative attributes in other realms of English life. As European global exploration progressed, blackface on the stage began to be used to represent newly encountered peoples of the world.
The sixteenth century witnessed a rise in the variety of blackface characters as a result of the popularity of William Shakespeare’s plays. In one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays, Othello, the main character is a Moor, who was often portrayed by a white man in blackface. Shakespeare’s plays brought a change in the role of blackface characters from merely symbolizing evil, to signifying the social expectations and ideals of black people. At the same time, the negative attributes of blackface were reflected in the development of the African as the “exotic other” in Western society.
Blackface in North America
In the New World, the institution of slavery contributed to the continuance and evolution of blackface characters on the theater stage. In the eighteenth-century United States, white traveling actors known as Ethiopian Delineators, who used burnt cork to blacken their faces, sang slave songs between the acts of plays. These performances, which were given in England as well, slowly began to grow in popularity and developed into lengthy spectacles known as minstrels (or minstrel shows).
The first mainstream minstrel character, Jim Crow, was introduced in the 1830s by Thomas Dartmouth Rice on a Northern stage. The minstrel show consisted of satirical portrayals of black Southern plantation slaves, presented by white male performers with blackened faces, lips colored to suggest exaggerated size, wooly wigs, and ragged clothing. Minstrel shows were one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the United States from the 1840s to the 1880s, and did much to disseminate and perpetuate negative stereotypes of blacks in America. After the Civil War, African Americans themselves began to blacken up their faces and perform on the minstrel stage. Blackface was also adapted by European immigrants: Irishmen, Italians, and Jews began to blacken their face in minstrel shows during the early twentieth century and developed some of the most popular blackface characters. Blackface offered to these European immigrants a way to become accepted as American whites through their embrace of the racist ideology dominant in the United States. Immigrants erased the negative stereotypes associated with their ethnic group by using blackface to highlight their “normalcy” in comparison to blacks. For blacks in America, however, minstrel shows functioned as venues for their public humiliation and degradation.
The emergence of film as the new dominant entertainment medium led to the transitioning of blackface characters from theater stage to screen. In the 1920s and 1930s, films continued the tradition of the blackface minstrel show. One of the most famous blackface performers was the Jewish actor Al Jolson. The negative stereotypes of blacks that blackface actors created and perpetuated were manifested beyond stage and film in literature, advertisements, comic strips and comic books, postcards, cookie jars, lawn accessories, and other consumer products. The popularity of blackface in American culture influenced its extension to the international community.
Traveling theater troupes introduced the blackface satirical performances of the American minstrel to several countries. Ironically, blackface shows that were initiated in England returned within the American minstrel in the mid-nineteenth century. British audiences consumed the blackface performances from the United States and created their own national variant through blackface characters such as the Golliwog.
U.S. influence on the internationalization of blackface is demonstrated by the development of the Cape Town Coon Festival in Cape Town, South Africa. In the late nineteenth century, Orpheus M. McAdoo and the Virginia Jubilee Singers traveled to South Africa, where they remained for almost five years. These traveling troupes introduced the American blackface minstrel performance style and greatly influenced the emergence of the blackened Coon disguise used in a grand festival held in the city center of Cape Town, the origins of which can be traced back to the late 1880s. This festival, the name of which was changed to the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival in 2003, continues to present blackface displays and is one of the area’s most famous tourist attractions.
Traveling American minstrel troupes also influenced the development of Cuba’s teatro bufo, a form of comedic blackface performance featured in musical and theatrical entertainment. Blackface performances first appeared in Cuba in the mid-nineteenth century, as part of a range of satirical representations of the African found throughout Cuban literature, theater, and music.
The broad influence exerted by the American blackface minstrel also contributed to the development of blackface characters in Mexico. Memín Pingüín, a fictional and stereotypical Mexican blackface character, first appeared in a comic book in the 1940s. He was a popular, if controversial, figure, and the comics he was featured in continued to be published until the 1970s. In June 2005, the Mexican Postal Service issued character stamps with images of Memín, sparking international controversy.
The above-mentioned countries are only a few of the many that incorporated blackface: It was also performed in Jamaica, Nigeria, Ghana, India, China, Ukraine, Indonesia, Australia, the Netherlands, and Spain, among numerous other countries. Blackface, which still continues to be performed throughout the world, has done much to continue and disseminate negative stereotypes of African Americans throughout the globe.
- Baxter, Lisa. 2001. Continuity and Change in Cape Town’s Coon Carnival: The 1960s and 1970s. African Studies 60 (1): 87–105.
- Brown, T. Allston, and Charles Day. 1975. Black Musicians and Early Ethiopian Minstrelsy. The Black Perspective in Music 3 (1): 77–99.
- Cole, Catherine M. 1966. Reading Blackface in West Africa: Wonders Taken for Signs. Critical Inquiry 23 (1): 183–215.
- Lane, Jill. 2005. Blackface Cuba, 1840–1895. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Rehin, George F. 1975. Harlequin Jim Crow: Continuity and Convergence in Blackface Clowning. Journal of Popular Culture 9 (3): 682–701.
- Toll, Robert C. 1974. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Vaughan, Virginia Mason. 2005. Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500–1800. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.
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