This guide was created by the Hollins Working Group on Slavery and Its Contemporary Legacies and Wyndham Robertson Library. Text by Rebecca M. Rosen, Visiting Assistant Professor of English; additional resources by Maryke Barber, Public Services and Arts Liaison Librarian.
"Blackface is a style of theatrical makeup used to caricaturize black people. To achieve the look, white blackface performers used a mixture of grease and burnt cork to color the skin to an unnaturally dark hue. The transformation was concluded by putting red greasepaint around the mouth to accentuate the lips and adorning a curly black wig and tattered clothing...since the 1800s, the visibility of blackface has varied but has always remained part of American culture." (Kaor, Sheena, Gardner and Matthew W. Hughey, "Blackface" in Encyclopedia of Race and Racism in the United States, ed. by Charles A. Gallagher and Cameron D. Lippard. Oxford: Greenwood, 2014.)
Why did Hollins create this guide?
In 2019 photos surfaced from yearbooks at a number of colleges and universities across Virginia and elsewhere showing students made up in “blackface.” In an effort to understand what might have occurred in our past, Hollins University undertook its own internal research. We found images of some of our former students in blackface and similar makeup published in past editions of The Spinster, along with racially insensitive cartoon drawings and other materials.
Hollins has no intention of erasing or hiding from our institutional history. It is from this commitment to acknowledging and learning from painful, uncomfortable, and repugnant moments that we make our archival materials available without abridgement or exclusion. Hollins is engaged in and continuing the direct, collaborative, transparent, and on-going process of reconciliation and education, in coordination with faculty, staff, students, alumnae/i, and administrators. Part of that process includes creating this guide to blackface, to help our community and visitors learn more about the history of blackface and its impact.
Blackface performance, the foundation of American minstrelsy, began in 1830 when the white actor John Rice began performing in Pittsburgh as a character called “Jim Crow.” Rice and his imitators used shoe polish and burnt cork to darken their skin, mocking and spreading negative depictions of African Americans.
Historically, demeaning racial performance pervaded popular entertainment, including literature, theater, and live-action and animated film and television. Adding to the painful history of blackface is the fact that from the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, many African American and Afro-Caribbean performers, including the Bahamian actor Bert Williams (1874-1922), were forced to perform in blackface makeup to get work or be received in large venues.
The practice of donning blackface makeup as part of a minstrel show or filmic performance has antecedents in the early modern English theater. During sixteenth- and seventeenth-century stagings of masques or plays featuring African characters, such as Shakespeare’s Othello (c. 1603), white actors wore black clothing and gloves and painted their skin, including their faces and arms, to look darker and signify racial difference. (Smith, “White Skin, Black Masks: Racial Cross-Dressing on the Early Modern Stage.”)
Blackface as an American phenomenon has specific historical and political connotations, as it was used during acts that framed the systematic violence and disenfranchisement of plantation slavery as humorous and entertaining. As Saidiya Hartmann notes in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997), “the desire to don, occupy, or possess blackness or the black body as a sentimental resource and/or locus of excess enjoyment is both founded upon and enabled by the material relations of chattel slavery.” (Hartmann 21)
Aimed at the white working class, minstrel shows used blackface as a means of transposing class problems onto racialized subjects of derision. As Hartmann argues, “the comic inversions, bawdy humor, and lampooning of class hierarchies [on the minstrel stage] operated within the confines of the tolerable…since this transgression of order occurred by reproducing the abject status of blackness.” (Hartmann 29) Legal scholar Cheryl Harris suggests that blackface performance was just one facet of larger attempts by white Americans to codify whiteness as a kind of property, and that “the hypervaluation of whiteness…affirmed the self-identity of whites” while denying that same sense of security to African Americans (Harris, 1743).
Rice’s performance of the “Jim Crow” character was popular through the 1850s, and sparked many imitators. The minstrel show, a staged performance typically featuring white actors in blackface, often featured enslaved or formerly enslaved characters who extolled plantation life as happy and pleasurable and, if they were free, discussed longing to return. In addition, blackface was also donned by white rioters wishing to “mask” themselves during times of celebration and protest. (Lott)
Cultural products including the sentimental novel drew on blackface stereotypes even as they purported to advocate for the freedom and rights of African Americans. The most famous example of this phenomenon is the “romantic racialism” of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which utilizes blackface and minstrelsy tropes in its depictions of Topsy, Tom, and Chloe, among other characters. Theatrical adaptations of the novel drew on these tropes, using white actors in blackface to depict these characters, and aiming to humor their audiences as much as move them to agitate for abolition.
The first feature-length film, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) (originally titled “The Clansman” after its source material, the 1905 novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan) featured actors in blackface lampooning African Americans, including politicians, during Reconstruction. The first feature-length film to use synchronized sound for speech, The Jazz Singer (1927), depicted Al Jolson in blackface.
One scholar suggests that blackface minstrelsy was at its most popular between 1846 and 1854. (Lott) However, blackface performance, which flourished both before and after the Civil War and Reconstruction, has never disappeared from American life. The practice, often justified as humorous by those who engage in it, reflects a desire to elevate whiteness at the expense of African American dignity, safety, and liberty.
Responses and Criticism
African Americans have objected to blackface since its inception. Frederick Douglass famously characterized blackface performers as “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.” (The North Star, 27 October 1848)
The NAACP, which was founded in 1909, has protested negative images of African Americans throughout its history. In 1915, the NAACP organized nationwide protests of Birth of a Nation, with the goal of blocking it from screening. Oscar Micheaux, an early African American filmmaker, made films that explicitly protested racial stereotypes proliferated by Griffith.
In his 2000 film Bamboozled, Spike Lee reflects on the pain and sorrow caused by blackface performance and the many artifacts it proliferated—among them songs, books, dolls, and figurines—through the experiences of Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans). Lee criticizes the pervasive racism of modern media through Delacroix’s modern minstrel show, conceived after the network he works for denies his pitch for a show that depicts African Americans positively.
In addition, American and European fashion designers have recently created clothes, accessories, and campaigns that evoke blackface stereotypes. Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan has consistently written about and against these hurtful products. In a February 2019 article, posted after outcry over a sweater by Gucci, she noted that the fashion industry has long “treated race like a paint chip. Sometimes, dark skin was right for the season’s color palette or mood, sometimes not. Blackness — or brownness — was an extra element on the runway.” In reducing skin color to a trend, Givhan argues, the fashion industry colludes in larger political erasures of the history and context of racist imagery: “Blackface refuses to let darker skin be its own, unalterable baseline. It negates the idea that blackness is a part of a person’s humanity, that it’s a nontransferable essence of who they are. It reduces identity to a pot of grease paint, to a joke….Blackface is not a statement about which race matters more; it’s a reminder of who set up the whole ugly system.”
Recent Events and Higher Education
Recent (post-2010) revelations of photographs, videos, and other documents from the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries showing white students, politicians, and performers donningblackface have prompted new calls to address this material. In Virginia, revelations that Gov. RalphNortham's1984 medical school yearbook page featured a picture ofaman inblackface, posed next to another dressed in a Ku Klux Klan costume,prompted calls for his resignation in February 2019.Northaminitially claimed that he appeared in the photo "in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive." (Wilson, "Va. Gov. Ralph Northam apologizes for medical school yearbook page with racist photo of figures in blackface, KKK robe," Richmond Times Dispatch/Roanoke Times, 1 February 2019) He later backtracked, saying he was not one of the men in the photo, but that he had donnedblackfaceas part of a Michael Jackson impersonation during a dance contest in 1984. (Martin et al., "Virginia Governor, RalphNortham, Defies Calls to ResignOverRacist Photo," The New York Times, 2 February 2019)Duringthe same month, Virginia's attorney general Mark Herring admitted to wearingblackface at a 1980 party. (Merica, "Virginia attorney general admits to wearingblackfaceat 1980 college party," CNN.com, 7 February 2019)
Simultaneously, more and more campuses are reckoning with the fact that white students have engaged in blackface for campus publications (including yearbooks and newspapers) and rituals for over a century.
Writing in USA Today, Derrick Johnson, President and CEO of the NAACP, states that these recurring episodes of blackface reflect centuries of painful history that must be acknowledged. “Though Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, and now Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, are at the center of this latest controversy,” he writes, “the true problem does not begin or end with these two men. It did not begin or end with Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile or the litany of other Black lives. … Instead, they are the consequence of our nation’s collective unwillingness to recognize that 400 years of dehumanizing language and imagery have a cultural impact that expresses itself through explicit and implicit bias.” (Johnson, “NAACP president: Dehumanizing African-Americans with blackface has real consequences.” USA Today, 8 February 2019.)
Dwandalyn Reece, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s curator of music and performing arts, interviewed by Nichelle Smith, noted that this cycle reflects an unwillingness to deal with the signification of blackface: “People don't seem to learn the lesson…. They're not really trying to understand how the stereotypes work[.]" (Smith, “Ralph Northam was far from alone: Why blackface keeps coming up,” USA Today, 6 February 2019.)