The History of Blackface
A reading recommendation.
I would highly recommend the following essay by Rhae Lynn Barnes (assistant professor of American cultural history at Princeton University): The troubling history behind Ralph Northam’s blackface Klan photo.
I spent a decade poring over blackface composites from yearbooks and fraternal orders, watching cracked film footage and cataloguing more than 10,000 blackface plays at Harvard University. Those plays and Northam’s racist photo show us the centrality of amateur blackface minstrelsy to American cultural life and universities. They show how upwardly mobile white men concentrated white-supremacist political power in the century after the Civil War, using the profits of amateur blackface to build white-only institutions and using blackface performances to articulate to voters their legislative commitment to white supremacy.
They also show how persistent those power structures remain.
Though blackface was the No. 1 entertainment form throughout the United States in the 19th century, it has a particularly notable legacy in Virginia. The first globally famous minstrel troupe hailing from New York City rebranded itself as the Virginia Minstrels in 1843. Dan Emmett, the group’s founder, understood his minstrel troupe needed to project a sense of authentic, stereotypical blackness. Virginia, a state that imported enslaved Africans as a colony as early as 1619, embodied the complex relationship between blackface entertainment, slavery and American culture in a single word. The troupe did not just borrow Virginia’s brand, but shaped it: Its song “Dixie” became the unofficial Confederate anthem.
The era we now call Jim Crow America was named after a famous blackface minstrel character. His signature debut song “Jumpin’ Jim Crow” reached global fame in 1832, but it wasn’t until the 1860s that everyday Americans bought commercially packaged how-to minstrel blackface plays to perfect these racial stereotypes. A new era of segregation, mass culture and blackface emerged, where blackface-imitating pro-Klan movies such as “Birth of a Nation” were the go-to entertainment form for young men.
The whole thing is worth a read.
One part that did strike me was this:
Blackface was a fundraising and socialization tool for white, all-male, Christian civic organizations such as the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks.
As late as Gerald Ford’s administration in 1974, the annual Charlottesville Lions Club Minstrel show was still so popular it was recommended in travel guidebooks.
It took me a second to connect the dots on local civic organizations (Elks, the Lions Club) and fundraising and then I remembered the Lion’s Club Follies in Temple, Texas when I was a kid. I did a quick Google search and found a story in the local paper from 2015 about the show’s 76th edition, which included this line in passing: “The show traces its beginning to 1936, when it was a minstrel show which evolved into the variety show it is today.” I remember attending the Follies when I was in probably third grade, although I don’t recall any of the skits, nor am I suggesting that the show was problematic at the time (but then again, I really don’t remember the specifics). But the history in the essay did help re-contextualize that type of event and how blackfaced white community leaders could use that type of racist “entertainment” to raise money in a seemingly harmless way, while really promoting white supremacy. It is both banal and insidious at the same time.
Again, I recommend the full piece.