Blackface: White Racist Fantasy

At the heart of the blackface tradition is a paradox: why do white men in the United States want to darken their skin to impersonate a disadvantaged and oppressed population? The seemingly obvious answer is that white men want to further the oppression of African Americans. Yet the white elected state officials in Virginia, Florida, and elsewhere who were recently exposed for having worn blackface profess to be champions of racial equality and to respect African Americans.

These revelations have drawn renewed attention to the persistence of the blackface tradition, which many Americans hoped had died with the poll tax and legalized segregation. But a tradition as deeply embedded in American life and culture as blackface is not easily or quickly uprooted. In particular, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s avowal of respect for African Americans and his use of blackface in a yearbook photo highlight the complex mixture of fascination, envy, revulsion, and fear that have prompted white Americans to don blackface for the past two centuries.

It’s important to recall that blackface minstrelsy was the most popular genre of American secular music and theatrics during the nineteenth century. In New York City during the first few decades of the 1800s, white performers appropriated African American musical instruments, particularly the banjo, to perform Anglo-American music. The result perhaps incorporated some Black musical influences but was otherwise wholly familiar to recent immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and England. The defining characteristic of the genre? Performers donned blackface and sang, danced, and did comedy skits that depicted African Americans.

Its origins may have been northern, but by the 1830s blackface had garnered a national audience and by the 1850s an international following far beyond its original clientele. A few white performers rose from working class obscurity to national fame as blackface impersonators. Perhaps the most acclaimed was Thomas “Daddy” Rice, who made a stage career portraying the hobbled enslaved character “Jim Crow.” Rice’s signal contribution to the rapidly evolving blackface tradition was his claim that his blackface dialect, dancing, and songs authentically reproduced African American culture. Henceforth, blackface performers would trace the provenance of their acts to the slave cabins of the plantation South. Rice’s success inspired regional imitators throughout the country, as well as Edwin Christy’s Minstrels and other travelling companies that honed blackface tropes which would endure for decades.

During this period of rapid expansion, the wellspring of blackface remained the white imagination, particularly that of white males. For instance, the first collection of songs published by Stephen Foster, the most prolific and successful pre-Civil War songwriter, was entitled Ethiopian Melodies. Intent on success as a composer, Foster hitched his ambitions to blackface minstrelsy. When Foster wrote “Old Folks at Home,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and other classics for the Christy’s Minstrels, he displayed no evident qualms that his Pennsylvania and Ohio roots gave him only a superficial familiarity with African Americans, slavery, or the South.

The claims of blackface performers aside, an authentic representation of Black people was not the intent of minstrelsy. Black entertainers found few opportunities in mid-nineteenth century minstrelsy; the rare exception was William Henry “Juba” Lane. Born circa 1825, Lane became a full-fledged star by age 20 when he joined the Ethiopian Serenaders, an influential and previously all-white minstrel company. While touring Europe with the company, he garnered acclaim as a jig dancer and tambourine player that he briefly pursued a solo career there. While Lane’s career failed to open doors for other Black performers, Americans had spread blackface as far as Australia and Japan by the 1850s.

Only at the very end of the 19th century did Black performers gain a place under the stage lights. When they did so, they typically had to populate the roster of characters that had been fashioned decades earlier by white blackface performers. Thus, Bert Williams, an immensely gifted mime, singer, and dancer, had to apply blackface to his light skin in order to win over white audiences. During a career that stretched from the late 1890s until his death in 1922, he labored valiantly to humanize stage roles that he had inherited from the blackface tradition. Had he repudiated those roles, he would have had to surrender his standing as one of the highest paid entertainers of his era. Whites, meanwhile, continued to tap the blackface tradition well into the modern era. In 1927, Al Jolson, a Jewish émigré from Russia and arguably the biggest stage performer of the day, starred in The Jazz Singer, the first major sound movie released in the United States. At the movie’s climax, Jolson’s character, who is the son of Jewish immigrants, fulfills his assimilation into American culture by performing in blackface to adoring audiences. Blackface largely disappeared from movies by the 1940s, but both professional and amateur white entertainers, especially in the South, continued to perform it at fairs, carnivals, and community events for decades to come.

To understand how blackface endured during the 20th century, we should not assume it has been exclusively an expression of white loathing of Black people (though it is that, of course). White men in blackface performances have depicted Blacks as childlike, primitive, and ignorant, but blackface is much more. The link between blackface and white masculinity is striking. Perhaps someone somewhere will locate yearbook photos of young white women in blackface. But if such images exist they will only distract us from the essential fact that blackface is a white male fantasy of appropriating those (exaggerated) attributes that whites have assigned to Black men. When whites blacken their faces they reveal their envy of Blacks, whose culture seems more authentic than white culture. For working class whites during the 19th century, blackface minstrelsy was an antidote to the purportedly prissy, inauthentic, and effete culture that their betters thought they should consume. Working class men preferred rowdy and bawdy songs about hard-living Black men rather than staid parlor songs about chaste love and delayed gratification.

For white men in general, blacking their skin has granted them license to act in ways that they would never feel comfortable doing otherwise. Blackface, then, is as much about white male desire for and jealousy of Blacks as it was about white bigotry.

Whether motivated by envy or mockery, blackface has never reflected the reality of African American abilities, ambitions, or experience. Even the most benign blackface depiction is a white fantasy of assuming someone else’s identity, someone who is presumed to be more carefree, more musical, more graceful, more sensual, or whatever it may be that a white person feels he lacks. Applying blackface and doing the moonwalk, displaying gang signs, or mimicking rappers may be the ultimate expression of white privilege; it is the presumed freedom to appropriate selectively whatever whites most envy about Black culture without having to assume any responsibility or debt to that culture. Only in rare instances – such as white journalist John Howard Griffin who used blackface to experience Jim Crow in 1961, or the white cast members of the 2006 reality TV show Black. White – have whites applied blackface to sample the violence and oppression that have constrained the lives of Black Americans.

The appeal of the blackface fantasy for whites is tenacious. At no time since the 1830s have critics of blackface been silent. It has endured at least a century and a half of opposition from Black and white abolitionists, advocates of racial justice, and others. Nevertheless, its apologists have tirelessly repeated the claim that blackface is a harmless American tradition.

About the Author

W. Fitzhugh Brundage is the William Umstead Distinguished Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His general research interests are American history since the Civil War, with a particular focus on the American South. He is the author of five books, including Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930.