Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom

Blackface: The Birth of An American Stereotype

Billy Van, the monologue comedian, 1900. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID var.1831

Historian Dale Cockrell once noted that poor and working-class whites who felt “squeezed politically, economically, and socially from the top, but also from the bottom, invented minstrelsy” as a way of expressing the oppression that marked being members of the majority, but outside of the white norm. Minstrelsy, comedic performances of “blackness” by whites in exaggerated costumes and make-up, cannot be separated fully from the racial derision and stereotyping at its core.  By distorting the features and culture of African Americans—including their looks, language, dance, deportment, and character—white Americans were able to codify whiteness across class and geopolitical lines as its antithesis.

The whole idea of a stereotype is to simplify.

Chinua Achebe
Tin windup toy of "Ham and Sam The Minstrel Team."

The pervasiveness of stereotypical images like these made the civil rights efforts of African Americans even more difficult. The black people represented here were irresponsible, laughable, and difficult to understand. If white people accepted these stereotypes, it became that much easier to deny African Americans the full rights of citizenship. 

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Collection of James M. Caselli and Jonathan Mark Scharer

The first minstrel shows were performed in 1830s New York by white performers with blackened faces (most used burnt cork or shoe polish) and tattered clothing who imitated and mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations. These performances characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice. Thomas Dartmouth Rice, known as the “Father of Minstrelsy,” developed the first popularly known blackface character, “Jim Crow” in 1830. By 1845, the popularity of the minstrel had spawned an entertainment subindustry, manufacturing songs and sheet music, makeup, costumes, as well as a ready-set of stereotypes upon which to build new performances.

Cover to early edition of Jump Jim Crow sheet music.

Thomas D. Rice is pictured in his blackface role; he was performing at the Bowery Theatre (also known as the "American Theatre") at the time. This image was highly influential on later Jim Crow and minstrelsy images.
Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia

Blackface performances grew particularly popular between the end of the Civil War and the turn-of-the century in Northern and Midwestern cities, where regular interaction with African Americans was limited.  White racial animus grew following Emancipation when antebellum stereotypes collided with actual African Americans and their demands for full citizenship including the right to vote.  The influence of minstrelsy and racial stereotyping on American society cannot be overstated.  New media ushered minstrel performances from the stage, across radio and television airwaves, and into theaters.  Popular American actors, including Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney donned blackface, bridging the minstrel performance across generations, and making blackface (racial parody, and stereotypes) a family amusement.

 

Postcard depicting a caricatured boy eating a slice of watermelon.
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Collection of James M. Caselli and Jonathan Mark Scharer

Blackface and the codifying of blackness— language, movement, deportment, and character—as caricature persists through mass media and in public performances today.  In addition to the increased popularity of “black” Halloween costumes, colleges and universities across the country continue to battle against student and professor blackface performances.  In each instance, those facing scrutiny for blackface performances insist no malice or racial hatred was intended.

View objects in our collection related to blackface and minstrelsy.

Three blackface masks
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Collection of James M. Caselli and Jonathan Mark Scharer