Blackface (1750- ) is where an entertainer makes his face black to play a black character. Mostly white men did it to make a laughingstock of black men. In the 1800s the whole minstrel show industry in America was built on it. Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny have all done blackface. It is how Mickey Mouse got his white gloves.
Blackface became rare after the 1950s, thanks in part to the NAACP. Bugs Bunny last did blackface in 1953.
Although now much rarer, it is still with us in 2008. Look at Shirley Q. Liquor, a white man who plays a black welfare queen. It is mean stuff. You also hear about whites doing it from time to time at universities.
A gentler form of blackface is still seen in film and television, as when Fred Armisen (white and Asian) plays Barack Obama on “Saturday Night Live” and Angelina Jolie (white) played Mariane Pearl in “A Mighty Heart” (2007). A curious thing in a country with so much black acting talent.
At least until 1930 whites thought blackface characters were true to life. Even Mark Twain thought so. Part of the attraction of the minstrel show was that it was supposed to be a window onto black life. While it was based on music and dance that was at least part black, most of it was stereotype. Yet it shaped how whites saw blacks.
Blackface seems to go back as far as 1750. By the 1790s blackface characters began to appear in the travelling shows that crossed America.
In the early 1830s a white man named T. Daddy Rice came to New York and made blackface big. He had a song, “Jump Jim Crow”, and an amazing dance to go with it, which he did in blackface. Some say he took the song and dance from a black man in Ohio. It became a huge hit, not just in America but in Britain too.
Soon, by the early 1840s, whole shows were based on blackface characters. These were the minstrel shows. White people could not get enough of them. They became their main form of family entertainment till the 1880s. Minstrel shows started dying out in the 1920s.
Blacks also did blackface. It was about the only way to make a living as a performer in the late 1800s. They painted their faces black too: their skin was not dark enough. The Apollo Theater in Harlem had blacks performing in blackface as late as the 1940s.
Blackface was so much a part of American life that it appeared in the first full-length film that had sound, “The Jazz Singer” (1927). In it Al Jolson sings “My Mammy” in blackface.
Al Jolson was at his best in blackface. He said it made him freer. If you watch him do the same song in blackface and then in his own face you see what he means: as strange as blackface seems now, he seems even stranger performing in his own face. Because you expect white men to be more reserved than that.
- “African Queen”: Numéro does blackface – again – 2013
- University of Minnesota blackface video – 2012
- Zoe Saldana to play Nina Simone – 2012
- Clitoridectomy Cake – 2012
- Vogue does blackface – 2009
- Shirley Q. Liquor – 2008
- Bamboozled – Spike Lee film from 2000 that features it
- Eddie Cantor in “My Baby Just Cares For Me” – 1930
- golliwog – early 1900s
- minstrel show – 1800s, early 1900s
- David Carradine – yellowface
- Chief Wahoo
- The hipsters of the 1940s – thought it was cool to be black, but their ideas of blacks came from jazz musicians and blackface entertainers
- Jim Crow – T. Daddy Rice’s character became a byword for a way of life in the American South.
- Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs – an example of blackface in cartoon form