BLACK SOCIAL HISTORY Blackface!
The mask which the actor wears is apt to become his face -- Plato
Blackface is more than just burnt cork applied as makeup.
It is a style of entertainment based on racist Black stereotypes
that began in minstrel shows and continues today.
The stock characters of blackface minstrelsy have played a significant role in disseminating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide. Every immigrant group was stereotyped on the music hall stage during the 19th Century, but the history of prejudice, hostility, and ignorance towards black people has insured a unique longevity to the stereotypes. White America's conceptions of Black entertainers were shaped by minstrelsy's mocking caricatures and for over one hundred years the belief that Blacks were racially and socially inferior was fostered by legions of both white and black performers in blackface.
Racist Black Stereotypes
Originating in the White man's characterizations of plantation slaves and free blacks during the era of minstrel shows (1830-1890), the caricatures took such a firm hold on the American imagination that audiences expected any person with dark skin, no matter what their background, to conform to one or more of the stereotypes:
|Jim CrowThe term Jim Crow originated in 1830 when a White minstrel show performer, Thomas "Daddy" Rice, blackened his face with burnt cork and danced a jig while singing the lyrics to the song,|
"Jump Jim Crow."
|Zip CoonFirst performed by George Dixon in 1834, Zip Coon made a mockery of free blacks. An arrogant, ostentatious figure, he dressed in high style and spoke in a series of malaprops and puns that undermined his attempts to appear dignified.|
Jim Crow and Zip Coon eventually merged into a single stereotype called simply "coon."
|MammyMammy is a source of earthy wisdom who is fiercely independent and brooks no backtalk. Although her image changed a little over the years, she was always a favorite of advertisers.||Uncle TomToms are typically good, gentle, religious and sober. Images of Uncle Toms were another favorite of advertisers and "Uncle Ben" is still being used to sell rice.|
|BuckThe Buck is a large Black man who is proud, sometimes menacing, and always interested in White women.||Wench/JezebelThe temptress. During the minstrel era, wenches were typically a male in female garb. In film, wenches were usually female mulattos.|
|MulattoA mixed-blood male or female. In film, often portrayed as a tragic figure who either intentionally or unintentionally passes for White until they discover they have Negro blood or are discovered by another character to be Black.||PickaninnyPicaninnies have bulging eyes, unkempt hair, red lips and wide mouths into which they stuff huge slices of watermelon.|
These stereotypes were staples during the minstrel era and carried over into vaudeville, film and television.
Blackface in Minstrel Shows
Blackface makeup was either a layer of burnt cork on a layer of coca butter or black grease paint. In the early years exaggerated red lips were painted around their mouths, like those of today's circus clowns. In later years the lips were usually painted white or unpainted. Costumes were usually gaudy combinations of formal wear; swallowtail coats, striped trousers, and top hats.
Minstrel show entertainment included imitating black music and dance and speaking in a "plantation" dialect. The shows featured a variety of jokes, songs, dances and skits that were based on the ugliest stereotypes of African American slaves. From 1840 to 1890, minstrel shows were the most popular form of entertainment in America.
White audiences in the 19th Century wouldn't accept real black entertainers on stage unless they performed in blackface makeup. One of the first Blacks to perform in blackface for White audiences was the man who invented tap dancing, William Henry Lane, aka Master Juba. Lane's talent and skill were extraordinary and eventually he became famous enough that he was able to perform in his own skin.
In the late 1800s one of the most popular of the blackface performances was the adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin; an antislavery tale, it met with few objections even from anti-theater religious leaders. A mixture of minstrel show, circus, and spectacle; with trained dogs, ponies, and sometimes even a crocodile, it remained the most popular play in America for over a century.
The American minstrel show was effectively dead by WW1, yet some old-timers continued to peddle the same blackface stereotypes later in vaudeville, films and television. It's one of the interesting twists of history that in the first half of the twentieth century, the main purveyors of the old-fashioned blackface minstrel tradition were Black performers, who'd began in show business wearing the blackface mask -- either literally or figuratively -- and were reluctant to give it up.
But they also had little choice in the roles they were offered. Until well into the 1950s, Black male actors were limited to stereotypical roles: Coons, for example, Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland, and Willie Best; and Toms, the most famous were Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Likewise, the only film roles for Black women were maids and mammys, and the most famous mammy of all was Hattie McDaniel, best known for her Oscar-winning role as "Mammy" in Gone With the Wind.
Vaudeville was popular in the United States from the 1880s until the early 1930s. It offered a more family-friendly atmosphere than the variety shows that had come before, which catered mostly to rowdy working-class audiences.
Vaudeville began at Tony Pastor's Opera House in New York's Bowery. By 1900, it had become a nationwide network of hundreds of theaters and was the dominant form of American mass entertainment. Each show was a variety of separate, unrelated acts -- short plays, musicians, acrobats, animal acts, dancers, magicians, and comedy routines -- grouped together on a common bill. For a time, vaudeville was the most popular form of live theater but it died out with the advent of talking pictures. Many of the 20th Century's most famous performers got their start in Vaudeville including Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Charlie Chaplin, The Marx Brothers, WC Fields, Jack Benny, and Bob Hope.
The heritage of blackface minstrelsy played a major part in the evolution of the song, dance, comedy acts and routines that vaudeville popularized, but actual performances in blackface were mostly relegated to a single skit or a song. However blackface in vaudeville also provided opportunities for Blacks who performed in blackface. The success of Black comedians such as Ernest Hogan, Bert Williams, and George Walker opened the door for multiracial casts and for later black performers to take the stage without blackface.
Blackface montage from Spike Lee's Bamboozled (2000)