Blackface – a sorry aspect of black history

Once called the "king of performers," Al Jolson was famous in the 1920s for his portrayal of blackface.

It’s ironic on the first day of Black History Month a raging controversy erupted in America that recalls one of the more demeaning chapters, that of ‘blackface’, of American Black History.

The controversy prevailed after pages from the 1984 year-book of Virginia Governor Ralph Norton’s tenure at medical school was made public showing individuals dressed in blackface, and a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) uniform, hood and all.

Gravity of situation not recognized

As the controversy rage, with calls for Northam to resign over his association with the blatant racist images, which he denies involves him, some people within the Caribbean American community failed to recognize the gravity of the situation. Some   wondered why should the governor pay a price for behavior as a young man of 25, some 35 years ago?

It’s not surprising this question would be asked. As has been seen in the past, several Caribbean Americans, although they are of the black race don’t fully comprehend, or appreciate some of the significance, especially the more negative aspects, of American Black history.

Aspect of 19th century American theater

Blackface was an aspect of early American theater in the 19th center. White actors would blacken their face with burnt cork, greasepaint or shoe polish, exaggerate the size of their lips, colored bright red, often wear black woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to depict of black people.

Portraying blacks as silly, uneducated uppity

These actors routinely played the role of comics or buffoons, depicting blacks as silly, uneducated, and in the case of free blacks, uppity. The era gave rise to ridiculous characters like Jim Crow, a comical dancer; Zip Coon, a character mocking free blacks; Mammy, the wise black matriarch, and key servant in the white household; Buck, who despite his race fancies white women; the Wench, a promiscuous, provocative black female; and pickaninnies – black children depicted with large, bulging eyes, red lips, unkept hair, and perpetually eager for food.

Blackface actors, which as the years grew, included some black actors, deliberately depicting blacks as stupid, illiterate and inferior to white people, reflected how the white race perceived  black slaves and free blacks.

The Black and White Minstrel show that was a direct off-shoot of blackface grew in popularity among whites, but were regarded by blacks as demeaning to the race  

Opposed by Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, one the earliest social reformers in American history, was also an early critic of blackface in American theater, and the popular black minstrel show. He wrote that the art-form was blatantly racist and should be stopped.

In the early 20th century an increasing number of black actors appeared in blackface in shows nation-wide, some even using the stage to mimic the white race. But, remaining at the core of  blackface was the negative characterization of African Americans as inferior, illiterate buffoons for the comical relief and to entertain whites, feeding the general stereotype most whites had of black within the then society.  

Blackface as a marketing tool

So prevalent was blackface, advertisers in the 1940s and ‘50s  used blackface images like pickaninnies and Mammy to market their consumer products.


In the 1950s the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) launched a deliberate campaign against portraying African Americans in blackface. The NAACP’s initiative morphed as an integral component of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s This resulted in the abandonment of blackface images in branding consumer products, and the Black and White minstrel shows.  Eventually blackface, like the word ‘nigga’ became taboo in America from the end of the 1960s onwards.

Used by insensitive, ignorant people

However, the taboo didn’t stop insensitive and ignorant people  portraying themselves in blackface during carnivals, costume parties, and Halloween. Several people including former Fox and NBC broadcaster Megan Kelly, and now Governor Northam, have been negatively impacted because of their insensitivity, or their ignorance, of the demeaning portrayal of blackface on African Americans.

A despicable stigma

Today, It’s a despicable stigma for African Americans to be characterized as inferior intellectually, socially, financially or any other way to another race. It was the quest of individuals like Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X to erase  every perception of inferiority between black and other races. Portraying images of blackface does conjure the humiliating history of the eras of slavery, post-slavery and racial segregation.

Since the days of blackface, a black-man led America for eight years, black individuals are seated in the US Congress, and blacks are leaders in almost every aspect of American society. Black people, mostly through their own efforts overcame negative stereotypes. There’s no need for images like blackface, KKK uniforms, or hangman nooses to regurgitate the more negative aspects of black history, particularly when these images are overtly, and covertly, used to perpetuate racism.


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