Blackface Beyond Black and White

Representations, perceptions, and imagery associated with Black people almost always fail to capture our fullness and complexity. It is especially true when it comes to blackface minstrelsy, which continues to be a problem in US society.

It’s not simply white people in the “mythical” South who wear blackface in the backwoods of Mississippi or Alabama. Rather, white folks have worn blackface in relatively pedestrian fashion in a variety of places and institutional settings: on college campuses, in fraternities, on Halloween, in police departments, and elsewhere. These instances, while egregious, are not surprising given the racial history of our nation. From its very founding, America has used and operated off of, and also benefited from demeaning, racist, anti-Black ideologies and practices. These are entrenched deeply in the tapestry of the United States.

The recent controversy involving Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and the state’s Attorney General, Mark Herring, underscore how pervasive this problem is in US society. These instances of blackface sparked recent discussion, condemnation, and activism and, by extension, efforts to hold offenders accountable for their insensitive, offensive, racist acts. It begs the question:

When is it appropriate for white people to wear blackface? The answer is simple. Never.

But is it appropriate for Black people to don blackface or wear black makeup? The answer is complex, as some Black people have, for a variety of reasons, utilized blackface — sometimes in vaudeville or minstrel shows. Their intentions for doing so differed from their white counterparts. Instead, they challenged and countered stereotypes of Black people as “laughable,” “primitive,” hypersexual, and simple, offering a “self-presentation” that “balanced racist stereotypes and political commentary.” They took ownership, and they presented and affirmed Black personhood.

And yet the recent controversy involving white politicians in blackface has somehow shifted the conversation about Black people. Over the last few weeks, many have set their eyes on one such target: the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a historically Black Mardi Gras krewe. This parading organization founded in New Orleans in the early 1900s was initially a benevolent society during a time of racial segregation, which created larger sociopolitical implications for Mardi Gras. Blacks were excluded deliberately from white krewes, which often used the event — and its pageantry, floats, costuming, and propaganda — at particular historical moments to reaffirm white dominance, suppress Black rights, reinforce white supremacy, and protest postbellum Reconstruction-era constitutional rights. This was the case when they used it to challenge the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which abolished slavery, extended citizenship to African Americans, and enfranchised Black men (in theory, though not always in practice), respectively.

It is within this racist history and context — which sought to keep Black folks subordinate, to dehumanize them, and to keep them without social, political, or economic equality or subjectivity — that Zulu entered the scene. In raggedy and modest attire, Zulu eventually adopted their unique signature style: grass skirts, Black faces, bushy wigs, and exaggerated appearances to honor and replicate Zulu warriors of South Africa. Later, they would don more elaborate and ornate outfits, headgear, and aesthetics. “Such attire was ostensibly a subversive, revolutionary gesture to punitively mock white-created caricatures of Black identity, including blackface minstrelsy,” while simultaneously challenging an anti-Black American society and the color-conscious New Orleans, which was fixated on light-skin privilege in a racial hierarchy.

In this regard, Zulu’s appearance was radical and subversive. It embraced darker skin and African heritage, if even in exaggerated form, and elevated Blackness. It was a move to appropriate and claim ownership, as well as exercise agency, over racist distortions and images that had otherwise been used to demean, subjugate, dehumanize, and oppress African Americans.

Even with this history, Zulu’s imagery or representations of the Zulu people of continental Africa are stereotypical. But is it blackface minstrelsy? Organizations like Take Em Down NOLA, who protests symbols of white supremacy and monuments to the Confederacy, see no distinction between Zulu’s costuming and racist iconography: blackface. It is not all that surprising that they see it as blackface since blackface minstrelsy and black makeup could appear as similar in resemblance. We have to be careful, however, to not make false equivalences — context and intentions matter. So do distinctions.

Today we are engaged in a social and moral reckoning. We scrutinize our cultural landscape. We are revisiting the markers and dynamics of the past: from Confederate monuments to a culture oversaturated with male sexual misconduct and predation. It behooves us to consider the relevance of images, such as those postured by Zulu. As black feminist scholar-poet Audre Lorde so eloquently put it, “The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.” If we take this to be true, what does that mean for Zulu’s costuming? Does it have the resistance, if even fractional, or the subversive quality of its inception? And, more importantly, the larger purpose and scope of this article, should white members of Zulu wear black makeup or blackface? Who has a right to cultural images, racial artifacts, and even race-based epithets? While the issue of Blackface or blackened faces is a complex one, the lines are clear: non-Black people should not wear it.

Racism — institutionalized, systematic, entrenched — is complex. It is intricate and uncompromising. So, too, must our efforts be as we challenge, dismantle, and disrupt it in its various manifestations, symbols and acts After all, to revert to Audre Lorde, the “master’s tools” may “not dismantle the master’s house.” But those very tools, those procreational instruments, can build an entirely different structure, a new “house”: another model and better version of not only our nation but of ourselves.

About the Author

Trimiko Melancon is an associate professor of English, African American Studies, and Women’s Studies at Loyola University, where she serves as the director of African and African American Studies. Her teaching and scholarly interests and expertise lie primarily in African American and American literary and cultural studies; critical race, gender, and sexuality studies; Black feminist theories and criticism; African American and Black German studies; and race, media, and digital as well as cultural production. She is the author of Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation and co-editor of Black Female Sexualities.