AskDefine | Define blackface

Dictionary Definition

blackface n : the makeup (usually burnt cork) used by a performer in order to imitate a Negro

User Contributed Dictionary



From black + face


  1. a style of theatrical makeup in which a white person blackens the face in order to represent a negro

Extensive Definition

Blackface in the narrow sense is a style of theatrical makeup that originated in the United States, used to take on the appearance of certain archetypes of American racism, especially those of the darky or coon. Blackface in the broader sense includes similarly stereotyped performances even when they do not involve blackface makeup.
Blackface is American in origin, and blackface in the narrow sense was an important performance tradition in the American theater for roughly 100 years beginning around 1830. It was rapidly popular overseas, particularly so in Britain, where the tradition lasted even longer. In both the United States and Britain, blackface was most commonly used in the minstrel performance tradition, but it predates that tradition, and it survived long past the heyday of the minstrel show. White blackface performers in the past used burnt cork and later greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation. Later, black artists also performed in blackface.
Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrelsy played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide. In some quarters, the caricatures that were the legacy of blackface persist to the present day and are a cause of ongoing controversy.
By the mid-20th century, changing attitudes about race and racism effectively ended the prominence of blackface makeup used in performance in the U.S. and elsewhere. It remains in relatively limited use as a theatrical device, mostly outside the U.S., and is more commonly used today as edgy social commentary or satire. Perhaps the most enduring effect of blackface is the precedent it established in the introduction of African American culture to an international audience, albeit through a distorted lens. Blackface's groundbreaking appropriation, exploitation, and assimilation


"Displaying Blackness" and the shaping of racist archetypes

There is no consensus about a single moment that constitutes the origin of blackface. John Strausbaugh places it as part of a tradition of "displaying Blackness for the enjoyment and edification of white viewers" that dates back at least to 1441, when captive West Africans were displayed in Portugal. Whites routinely portrayed black characters in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater (see English Renaissance theatre), most famously in Othello (1604). However, Othello and other plays of this era did not involve the emulation and caricature of "such supposed innate qualities of Blackness as inherent musicality, natural athleticism," etc. that Strausbaugh sees as crucial to blackface.
Lewis Hallam, Jr., a white actor using blackface makeup of American Company fame, brought blackface in this more specific sense to prominence as a theatrical device in the United States when playing the role of "Mungo", an inebriated black man in The Padlock, a British play that premiered in New York City at the John Street Theatre on May 29 1769. The play attracted notice, and other performers adopted the style. From at least the 1810s, blackface clowns were popular in the United States. George Washington Dixon was already building his stage career around blackface in 1828, but it was another white comic actor, Thomas D. Rice, who truly popularized blackface. Rice introduced the song "Jump Jim Crow" accompanied by a dance in his stage act in 1828 and scored stardom with it by 1832.
Rice traveled the U.S., performing under the stage name "Daddy Jim Crow". The name Jim Crow later became attached to statutes that codified the reinstitution of segregation and discrimination after Reconstruction.
1830s and early 1840s blackface mixed skits were with comic songs and vigorous dances. Initially, Rice and his peers performed only in relatively disreputable venues, but as blackface gained popularity they gained opportunities to perform as entr'actes in theatrical venues of a higher class. Stereotyped blackface characters developed: buffoonish, lazy, superstitious, cowardly, and lascivious characters, who stole, lied pathologically, and mangled the English language. Early blackface minstrels were all male, so cross-dressing white men also played black women who were often portrayed either as unappealingly and grotesquely mannish; in the matronly, mammy mold; or highly sexually provocative. The 1830s American stage, where blackface first rose to prominence featured similarly comic stereotypes of the clever Yankee and the larger-than-life Frontiersman; the late 19th- and early 20th-century American and British stage where it last prospered featured many other, mostly ethnically-based, comic stereotypes: conniving, venal Jews; drunken brawling Irishmen with blarney at the ready; In New York City in 1843, Dan Emmett and his Virginia Minstrels broke blackface minstrelsy loose from its novelty act and entr'acte status and performed the first full-blown minstrel show: an evening's entertainment composed entirely of blackface performance. (George Christy did more or less the same, apparently independently, earlier the same year in Buffalo, New York.) Their loosely structured show with the musicians sitting in a semicircle, a tambourine player on one end and a bones player on the other, set the precedent for what would soon become the first act of a standard three-act minstrel show. By 1852, the skits that had been part of blackface performance for decades expanded to one-act farces, often used as the show's third act.
The songs of northern composer Stephen Foster figured prominently in blackface minstrel shows of the period. Though written in dialect and certainly politically incorrect by today's standards, his later songs were free of the ridicule and blatantly racist caricatures that typified other songs of the genre. Foster's works treated slaves and the South in general with an often cloying sentimentality that appealed to audiences of the day.
White minstrel shows featured white performers pretending to be blacks, playing their versions of black music and speaking ersatz black dialects. Minstrel shows dominated popular show business in the U.S. from that time through into the 1890s, also enjoying massive popularity in the UK and in other parts of Europe. As the minstrel show went into decline, blackface returned to its novelty act roots and became part of vaudeville. Blackface featured prominently in film at least into the 1930s, and the "aural blackface" of the Amos 'n' Andy radio show lasted into the 1950s.
As a result, the genre played an important role in shaping perceptions of and prejudices about blacks generally and African Americans in particular. Some social commentators have stated that blackface provided an outlet for whites' fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar, and a socially acceptable way of expressing their feelings and fears about race and control. Writes Eric Lott in Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, "The black mask offered a way to play with the collective fears of a degraded and threatening—and male—Other while at the same time maintaining some symbolic control over them."
American humorist and author Mark Twain reminisced near the end of his life about the shows he had seen in his youth:


Through the 1930s, many well-known entertainers of stage and screen also performed in blackface. Whites who performed in blackface in film included Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby Even the 1914 Uncle Tom starring African American actor Sam Lucas in the title role had a white male in blackface as Topsy. D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) used whites in blackface to represent all of its major black characters, but reaction against the film's racism largely put an end to this practice in dramatic film roles. Thereafter, whites in blackface would appear almost exclusively in broad comedies or "ventriloquizing" blackness in the context of a vaudeville or minstrel performance within a film. This stands in contrast to made-up whites routinely playing Native Americans, Asians, Arabs, and so forth, for several more decades.
Blackface makeup was largely eliminated even from live film comedy in the U.S. after the end of the 1930s, when public sensibilities regarding race began to change and blackface became increasingly associated with racism and bigotry. The conventions of blackface also lived on unmodified at least into the 1950s in animated theatrical cartoons. Strausbaugh estimates that roughly one-third of late 1940s MGM cartoons "included a blackface, coon, or mammy figure." Bugs Bunny appeared in blackface at least as late as Southern Fried Rabbit in 1953.


By 1840, African-American performers also were performing in blackface makeup. Frederick Douglass wrote in 1849 about one such troupe, Gavitt's Original Ethiopian Serenaders: "It is something to be gained when the colored man in any form can appear before a white audience." Douglass generally abhorred blackface and was one of the first people to write against the institution of blackface minstrelsy, condemning it as racist in nature, with inauthentic, northern, white origins.
When all-black minstrel shows began to proliferate in the 1860s, they often were billed as "authentic" and "the real thing". These "colored minstrels" always claimed to be recently-freed slaves (doubtless many were, but most were not) and were widely seen as authentic. This presumption of authenticity could be a bit of a trap, with white audiences seeing them more like "animals in a zoo" than skilled performers. Despite often smaller budgets and smaller venues, their public appeal sometimes rivalled that of white minstrel troupes. In the March 1866 Booker and Clayton's Georgia Minstrels may have been the country's most popular troupe, and were certainly among the most critically acclaimed.
These "colored" troupes—many using the name "Georgia Minstrels"—focused on "plantation" material, rather than the more explicit social commentary (and more nastily racist stereotyping) found in portrayals of northern blacks. In the execution of authentic black music and the percussive, polyrhythmic tradition of pattin' Juba, when the only instruments performers used were their hands and feet, clapping and slapping their bodies and shuffling and stomping their feet, black troupes particularly excelled. One of the most successful black minstrel companies was Sam Hague's Slave Troupe of Georgia Minstrels, managed by Charles Hicks. This company eventually was taken over by Charles Callendar. The Georgia Minstrels toured the United States and abroad and later became Haverly's Colored Minstrels.
From the mid-1870s, as white blackface minstrelsy became increasingly lavish and moved away from "Negro subjects", black troupes took the opposite tack. The popularity of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and other jubilee singers had demonstrated northern white interest in white religious music as sung by blacks, especially spirituals. Some jubilee troupes pitched themselves as quasi-minstrels and even incorporated minstrel songs; meanwhile, blackface troupes began to adopt first jubilee material and then a broader range of southern black religious material. Within a few years, the word "jubilee", originally used by the Fisk Jubilee Singers to set themselves apart from blackface minstrels and to emphasize the religious character of their music, became little more than a synonym for "plantation" material. Where the jubilee singers tried to "clean up" Southern black religion for white consumption, blackface performers exaggerated its more exotic aspects.
African-American blackface productions also contained buffoonery and comedy, by way of self-parody. In the early days of African-American involvement in theatrical performance, blacks could not perform without blackface makeup, regardless of how dark-skinned they were. The 1860s "colored" troupes violated this convention for a time: the comedy-oriented endmen "corked up", but the other performers "astonished" commentators by the diversity of their hues. Still, their performances were largely in accord with established blackface stereotypes.
These black performers became stars within the broad African-American community, but were largely ignored or condemned by the black bourgeoisie. James Monroe Trotter—a middle class African American who had contempt for their "disgusting caricaturing" but admired their "highly musical culture"—wrote in 1882 that "few… who condemned black minstrels for giving 'aid and comfort to the enemy'" had ever seen them perform. Unlike white audiences, black audiences presumably always recognized blackface performance as caricature, and took pleasure in seeing their own culture observed and reflected, much as they would half a century later in the performances of Moms Mabley.
Despite reinforcing racist stereotypes, blackface minstrelsy was a practical and often relatively lucrative livelihood when compared to the menial labor to which most blacks were relegated. Owing to the discrimination of the day, "corking (or "blacking") up" provided an often singular opportunity for African-American musicians, actors, and dancers to practice their crafts. Some minstrel shows, particularly when performing outside the South, also managed subtly to poke fun at the racist attitudes and double standards of white society or champion the abolitionist cause. It was through blackface performers, white and black, that the richness and exuberance of African-American music, humor, and dance first reached mainstream, white audiences in the U.S. and abroad. It was through blackface minstrelsy that African American performers first entered the mainstream of American show business. Black performers used blackface performance to satirize white behavior. It was also a forum for the sexual double-entendre gags that were frowned upon by white moralists. There was often a subtle message behind the outrageous vaudeville routines: With the rise of vaudeville, Antiguan-born actor and comedian Bert Williams became Florenz Ziegfeld's highest-paid star and only African American star.
The darky icon itself—googly-eyed, with inky skin; exaggerated white, pink or red lips; and bright, white teeth—became a common motif in entertainment, children's literature, mechanical banks and other toys and games of all sorts, cartoons and comic strips, advertisements, jewelry, textiles, postcards, sheet music, food branding and packaging, and other consumer goods.
In 1895, the Golliwogg surfaced in Great Britain, the product of American-born children's book illustrator Florence Kate Upton, who modeled her rag doll character Golliwogg after a minstrel doll she had in the U.S. as a child. "Golly", as he later affectionately came to be called, had a jet-black face; wild, woolly hair; bright, red lips; and sported formal minstrel attire. The generic British golliwog later made its way back across the Atlantic as dolls, toy tea sets, ladies' perfume, and in myriad other forms. This word golliwog may have given rise to the ethnic slur wog.
In Dutch and Flemish folklore, Zwarte Piet—"Black Peter"—is a servant of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas). In the past, Zwarte Piet was more identified with the chastising of bad children than the rewarding of the good, but both characters have softened since the mid-19th century, and today the 5 December feast of Saint Nicholas is mainly an occasion for giving gifts to children. Originally so named for his being covered with soot from the chimneys he climbed down while performing his duties, Zwarte Piet inherited many of the classic darky icons, contemporaneous with the spread of darky iconography. To this day, holiday revellers in the Netherlands blacken their faces, wear afro wigs and bright red lipstick, and walk the streets throwing candy to passers-by. As at Carnival, some of the actors behave dim-wittedly, or like buffoons, and/or speak mangled Dutch as embodiments of Zwarte Piet. Blackfaced, googly-eyed, red-lipped Zwarte Piet dolls, die cuts and displays adorn store windows alongside brightly packaged and displayed, holiday merchandise. Accepted without question in the past within a ethnically homogeneous nation, today Zwarte Piet is controversial. Many people continue to enjoy this as a cherished tradition and look forward to his annual appearance, whilst others, especially overseas visitors, see him as a racist caricature that shapes Dutch children's perceptions of black people. As a result of the allegations of racism, some of the Dutch have tried replacing Zwarte Piet's blackface makeup with face paint in alternative colors such as green or purple. This practice, however, has not caught on.

"Coons" of Cape Town

Inspired by blackface minstrels who visited Cape Town, South Africa, in 1848, former Javanese and Malaysian slaves took up the minstrel tradition, holding emancipation celebrations which consisted of music, dancing and parades. In the African-American cakewalk tradition, their songs often parodied their former masters and the privileged, white class. Such celebrations eventually became consolidated into an annual, year-end event known as the Cape Coon Carnival.
Today, carnival minstrels are mostly Coloured ("mixed race"), Afrikaans-speaking revellers. Often in a pared-down style of blackface which exaggerates only the lips, they parade down the streets of the city in colorful costumes, in a celebration of Creole culture. Participants also pay homage to the carnival's African-American roots, playing Negro spirituals and jazz featuring traditional Dixieland jazz instruments, including horns, banjos, and tambourines.
Over time, carnival participants have appropriated the term coon and do not regard it as a pejorative. However, city officials changed the name of the celebration to the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival in 2003, so as to avoid offending tourists. Former South African president Nelson Mandela endorsed the carnival in 1986, and is a member of the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival Association, which presides over the event. Now officially more than a hundred years old, the carnival has become a major tourist attraction, vigorously promoted by the nation's tourism authority, complete with corporate sponsorship. In any case, the South African term Kaapse Klopse, meaning "Cape Town Carnival Troupes Festival", is not controversial in any means whatsoever.


In November 2005, controversy erupted when African American journalist Steve Gilliard posted a photograph on his blog. The image was of black Republican Maryland lieutenant governor Michael S. Steele, then a candidate for U.S. Senate. It had been doctored to include bushy, white eyebrows and big, red lips. The caption read, "I's simple Sambo and I's running for the big house." Gilliard defended the image, commenting that the politically conservative Steele has "refused to stand up for his people."
Further, commodities bearing iconic darky images, from tableware, soap and toy marbles to home accessories and T-shirts, continue to be manufactured and marketed in the U.S. and elsewhere. Some are reproductions of historical artifacts, while others are so-called "fantasy" items, newly designed and manufactured for the marketplace. There is a thriving niche market for such item in the U.S., particularly, as well as for original artifacts of darky iconography. The value of vintage "negrobilia" pieces has risen steadily since the 1970s.


Blackface in the Japanese ganguro subculture has developed with different intentions to other blackface sub-cultures, as it reflects a conscious embrace of African and African-American culture as a means of sub-cultural identification. Japan prides itself on the homogeneity of its population and, in reaction to this, certain youth subcultures have taken to blackface as a re-identification and a means of emulating African American “cool”. Ganguro groups are considered an embarrassment throughout much of Japan because they are considered as 'fake' or 'unauthentic'. They have also been criticized by fellow hip hop followers who believe that hip hop is about the notions of graffiti, break-dancing, and style, but that skin tone should not be an issue. Hamamoto has written, "...blackface is still offensive in Japan. There is an element of ridicule in it and it always disappoints me that a country as global as Japan remains so insensitive when it comes to racial issues." Hamamoto places Japanese blackface in the context of Japan's history of racism, and finds it surprising that they have not made significant racial progress over time. In his view, Japanese blackface draws from an oppressive and racist past and is not sensitive to the cultural implications of its origins.

Other contexts

There are black face performance traditions the origins of which stem not from representation of racial stereotype and are not in the stereotypical blackface mode. In Europe there are a number of folk dances or folk performances in which the black face appears to represent the night, or the coming of the longer nights associated with winter. Many fall or autumn North European folk black face customs are employed ritualistically to appease the forces of the oncoming winter, utilizing characters with blackened faces, or black masks.
In Bacup, Lancashire, England, the Britannia Coco-nut Dancers wear black faces. Some believe the origin of this dance can be traced back to the influx of Cornish miners to northern England, and the black face relates to the dirty blackened faces associated with mining.


Despite its racist portrayals, blackface minstrelsy was the conduit through which African-American and African-American-influenced music, comedy, and dance first reached the American mainstream.}}
In a specific example of this, from Ted Fox's Showtime at the Apollo As with jazz, many of country's earliest stars, such as Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, were veterans of blackface performance. More recently, the American country music television show Hee Haw (1969–1993) had the format and much of the content of a minstrel show.
The immense popularity and profitability of blackface were testaments to the power, appeal, and commercial viability of not only black music and dance, but also of black style. This led to cross-cultural collaborations, as Giddings writes; but, particularly in times past, to the often ruthless exploitation and outright theft of African-American artistic genius, as well—by other, white performers and composers; agents; promoters; publishers; and record company executives.
While blackface in the literal sense has played only a minor role in entertainment in recent decades, various writers see it as epitomizing an appropriation and imitation of black culture that continues today. As noted above, Strausbaugh sees blackface as central to a longer tradition of "displaying Blackness". For more than a century, when white performers have wanted to appear sexy, (like Elvis or Mick Jagger); or streetwise, (like Eminem); they often have turned to African-American performance styles, stage presence and personas. Pop culture referencing and cultural appropriation of African-American performance and stylistic traditions-often resulting in tremendous profit-is a tradition with origins in blackface minstrelsy. The international imprint of African-American culture is pronounced in its depth and breadth, in indigenous expressions, as well as in myriad, blatantly mimetic and subtler, more attenuated forms. This "browning", à la Richard Rodriguez, of American and world popular culture began with blackface minstrelsy. It is a continuum of pervasive African-American influence which has many prominent manifestations today, among them the ubiquity of the cool aesthetic and hip hop culture.

Face paint and ethnic impersonation

Other types of performances involving ethnic impersonation are yellowface, in which performers adopt Asian identities; brownface, for East Indian or non-white Latino; and redface, for Native Americans. Whiteface, or paleface, is sometimes used to describe non-white actors performing white parts (for example, in the film White Chicks), although it more commonly describes the clown or mime traditions of white makeup. Dooley Wilson, famous for the role of Sam the piano player in Casablanca, earned his stage name "Dooley" from performing in whiteface as an Irishman.
In West African folk theatre and puppetry, there is a tradition of satirical represention of white Europeans. Performers will wear white masks and white gloves. In the Yoruba Egungun festivals overly affectionate white couples are made fun of due to their unseemly and ridiculous behaviour. The imagery is very similar to the representation of white colonists, sometimes with a humorous undercurrent, in wood carvings from the same regions. In Thailand, actors darken their faces to portray the Negrito of Thailand in a popular play by King Chulalongkorn (1868–1910), Ngo Pa (), which has been turned into a musical and a movie.



  • Black Magic: A Pictorial History of Black Entertainers in America
  • Sacks, Howard L, and Sacks, Judith (1993). Way up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Mark Twain's Autobiography
  • On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy from Slavery to Chris Rock

Further reading

  • Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and their World
  • Zwarte Piet
  • Understanding the New Black Poetry
  • Blackface
  • Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop
  • Journey Towards Nationalism: The Implications of Race and Racism
  • Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot

External links

blackface in German: Blackface
blackface in Polish: Blackface
blackface in Albanian: Blackface
blackface in Swedish: Blackface
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