Blackface in America: the complicated, always racist history

A series of scandals last week brought the issue of “blackface” — when nonblack people darken their skin using makeup or other products to imitate a black person — roaring back into the cultural conversation.

Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was embroiled in scandal last week after photos from his 1984 medical school yearbook were leaked, showing a person in blackface and one in Ku Klux Klan robes.

Then Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who would be third in the line of succession to the governorship, admitted that he had also appeared in blackface at a college party in the 1980s.

And then, on Thursday morning, the Italian luxury brand Gucci had to formally apologize after a backlash ensued over a turtleneck sweater that pulls up over the face with a cutout and exaggerated lips around the mouth. As a cursory glance at the fashion model reveals, the sweater looks unmistakably like blackface.

Since blackface is having an, um, moment, it seems like a good time to explore its history and origins. So I reached out to John Strausbaugh, the author of Black Like You, a popular 2006 study of blackface as a cultural practice in the US. We discussed how blackface was initially a way for poor, marginalized Irish Americans to signify to other white people that they were just like them, and how the practice died out in the 1960s and emerged once again in the ’80s as an explicitly racist reaction to diversity efforts on college campuses.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

When did blackface emerge in American culture?

John Strausbaugh

Blackface was an ancient European theatrical device that the Europeans brought with them to America. In Europe, it doesn’t seem to have been so much a racial signifier as a color symbolism. And it was pretty simple: White meant light and daytime and good and safety; black meant night, darkness, bad, and danger.

So in Europe, for instance, demons and devils were often portrayed as black — and that wasn’t their way of saying they thought they were from Africa, it was their way of saying they were creatures of the night, creatures of the darkness.

In America, the slave nation, where your whiteness or blackness is of paramount importance for the quality of your life and your social standing, blackface took on a very different meaning. It emerged in the 1820s, where it was used in minstrel shows, which were sort of comic variety shows that depicted people of African descent.

Sean Illing

And in those early days, at least, it was performed mostly by poor Irish white guys, right?

John Strausbaugh

Yes, it was created and performed mostly in the early years by white guys who had grown up poor and often Irish in the North. It was not a Southern art form at first at all. They were imitating blacks that they saw every day because the Irish and blacks, in places like the Lower East Side of New York City, were in the same ghetto together. They were sharing the lowest rung of the social ladder.

So white Irish Americans were hardly better off than black Americans, and in some ways were on a lower rung of the social ladder. And putting on blackface and performing was actually a way for Irish guys to signal to other white people that they were white just like them.

And the practice was passed on later in the 1800s to other generations of immigrants, to Jewish immigrants, for instance. Because in the late 19th century, anti-Semitism was just as rampant among white Americans as racism was, and so they were saying, “No, look, we’re putting on blackface and imitating black people just like you; we’re white just like you.” It was a cultural signifier.

And then it was passed on to women. They were called “coon shouters.” And in the 1910s and 1920s, it was a way for a lot of women to get into show business. They didn’t have to wear blackface, though sometimes they did, but they were definitely doing everything else that a black stage performer would do. They were singing in black dialect and acting “black” on stage.

So, it has this curious history of being a way for people who were nominally white, but not considered white by the other white folks, to say, “No, we’re white because we put on the blackface.”

Sean Illing

So blackface was essentially a way for white people to signal their superiority over black people to other white people?

John Strausbaugh

That’s exactly right. But it was more than that. At least in its early years, and I think we need to stress this, in the early years of blackface, the 1820s and 1830s, these were the sort of rock ’n’ roll years. And there’s a lot of confusion in the blackface performances. If you look at the lyrics and the performances, there’s a mix of admiration and hate for black culture; they’re often mocking and praising at the same time.

There was always, even in the earliest days, a racist tinge to blackface, but there was also this underlying sense that black people were cool and there was a sort of fawning imitation in all of it. And there’s a direct line from that to white guys playing jazz in the 1910s and 1920s.

Sean Illing

So when did blackface become a more explicit means of mocking black culture and cementing noxious stereotypes?

John Strausbaugh

Again, racism was always a part of it, but as it becomes mainstream and commercialized around 1840, and especially after the Civil War, blackface becomes much crueler, much more about mockery, much meaner and uglier and more hateful.

The term “coon show” arises after the Civil War. And there are social reasons why that happened after the Civil War. At that time, race relations were worse than they had been before the Civil War, and there was great turmoil and upheaval, specifically about race in America at that time.

So it makes perfect sense that blackface would have turned as ugly and mocking as it did.

Sean Illing

What sort of cultural impact did blackface have? Did it succeed, in other words, at spreading various racist stereotypes?

John Strausbaugh

Oh, absolutely. You don’t have to look very far in the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s to see hideous racial stereotypes everywhere. They’re in literature, they’re in advertising, they’re onstage, they’re in songs; it’s everywhere at that point.

And again, I think that’s a direct result of the turmoil that was going on about race in America at the time. And so blackface songs and minstrelsy were a part of an onslaught of racial stereotyping that went on at the time.

Sean Illing

The key point I’d like to tease out here, taking into account everything you said about the complex history of blackface, is that the practice today is unambiguously racist. There’s really no nuance about that, right?

John Strausbaugh

Absolutely. After World War II, black Americans, by dint of a long struggle, finally managed to shame white Americans into not doing blackface anymore. And then other ethnic groups continued shaming white Americans into not doing other kinds of ethnic face since then.

But certainly by the 1960s, blackface had become one of the few very absolute taboos in American culture. The swastika, blackface, the n-word — these are categorically linked to racist histories, and everyone knows it.

And it’s worth noting that in the 1980s, long after blackface had died out, there was a revival of it on college campuses, and not just in Virginia but all across the country. It was a direct reaction to the push to diversify universities at the time, to open them up to people of color.

So if you’re a college student in the 1980s wearing blackface, at a party or wherever, you know exactly what you’re doing. You know you’re being a racist, and you know it’s objectionable and offensive, and you’re doing it on purpose.

Sean Illing

I was going to ask why you think blackface is so persistent in American culture, but I suppose the answer is obvious enough: racism.

John Strausbaugh

I mean, we’re a marginally less racist culture than we were, say, 50 years ago, or several generations ago, but we’re still a racist culture, and one of the only good things you can say about people continuing to perform blackface now, even if it’s just at a party or something, is that it brings this bigotry back into the news.

We’re all buzzing about these idiots in Virginia right now, and in a way, it just forces us to confront the fact that racism has not gone away in America. It’s a necessary reminder that this is still a problem, still an issue, and hasn’t gone away.

So that, at least, is useful.

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