The History Behind Blackface

The History Behind Blackface

The history of blackface is rooted in racism. Blackface began in the US after the Civil War as white performers played characters that demeaned and dehumanized African Americans. The portrayal of blackface is when people darken their skin with shoe polish, greasepaint or burnt cork and paint on enlarged lips and other exaggerated features, making blackface steeped in centuries of racism. It peaked in popularity during an era in the United States when demands for civil rights by recently emancipated slaves triggered racial hostility. And today, because of blackface’s historic use to denigrate people of African descent, its continued use is still considered racist.

Although the exact moment when blackface originated isn’t known, its roots date back to centuries-old European theatrical productions. The practice then began in the United States in the 18th century, when European immigrants brought the genre over and performed in seaports along the Northeast.

With quick dance moves, and exaggerated African American buffoonish behavior, there was a new genre of racialized song and dance, blackface minstrel shows which became central to American entertainment in the North and South. White performers in blackface played characters that perpetuated a range of negative stereotypes about African Americans including being lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, criminal or cowardly. Most of the minstrel show actors were working class Irishmen from the Northeast, who performed in blackface to distance themselves from their own lower social, political and economic status in the United States.

Blackface minstrel shows soared in popularity, in particular, during the period after the Civil War and into the start of the 20th century, as documented in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s official blackface history. The widespread demeaning portrayals of African Americans paralleled a period when southern state legislatures were passing “black codes” to restrict the behavior of former slaves and other African Americans. In fact, the codes were also called “Jim Crow” laws, after the blackface stage character.

The appeal of blackface declined after the 1930s and into the Civil Rights Movement. However, the negative stereotypes of African Americans and mocking of dark skin have persisted in recent decades. For example, blackface appeared in the Oscars Ceremony in 2012, on television skits, and wearing blackface to dress up as famous African Americans during Halloween remains an ongoing issue.