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It’s been nearly two hundred years since white performers first started painting their faces black to mock enslaved Africans in minstrel shows across the United States. It was racist and offensive then, and it’s still racist and offensive today so it’s important for every American to understand what blackface is and why it’s so offensive.
Blackface isn’t just about painting one’s skin darker or putting on a costume. It invokes a racist and painful history. The origins of blackface date back to the minstrel shows of mid-19th century. White performers darkened their skin with polish and cork, put on colorful bright clothes and oversized red lips to look stereotypically “black.” The first minstrel shows mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations, depicting black people as lazy, ignorant, fearful or sexually obsessed. The performances were intended to be funny to white audiences. But to the black community, they were degrading and hurtful.
One of the most popular blackface characters was “Jim Crow,” developed by performer and writer Thomas Dartmouth Rice. As part of a traveling solo act, Rice wore a burnt-cork blackface mask and tattered clothing, used stereotypical “black” intonations and performed a caricatured song and dance routine that he said he learned from a slave.
Though early minstrel shows started in New York, they quickly spread to audiences in both the North and South. Their influence extended into the 20th century. Al Jolson performed in blackface in the first movie with sound “The Jazz Singer,” in 1927, and American actors like Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney put on blackface in movies too.
The characters were so omnipresent that even some black performers put on blackface, historians say. It was the only way they could work – as white audiences weren’t interested in watching black actors do anything else than acting foolish on stage.
Minstrel shows were usually the only depiction of black life that white audiences saw. Presenting enslaved Africans as people who were laughed about, made white Americans less sensitive to the horrors of slavery. The performances also promoted humiliating stereotypes of black people that helped confirm white people’s notions of superiority.
Adapted from: This Is Why Blackface Is Offensive by Harmeet Kaur CNN (February 2019)