STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

This is why blackface is offensive

CNN's Don Lemon reacts to a medical school yearbook page of Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, showing a photograph of two people, one in blackface and one in a KKK hood and robe.

Posted: Feb 2, 2019 8:10 PM
Updated: Feb 2, 2019 8:10 PM

It's been nearly 200 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 still is today.

The latest controversy to erupt over blackface is a photo in Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook. It depicts one person in blackface and another dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. After initially apologizing for appearing in the photo, the Democratic governor now says he is neither the person in blackface nor the person dressed as a Klansman.

However Northam's case plays out, it's important for every American to understand what blackface is and why it's so offensive.

The racist origins of blackface

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 tattered clothing and exaggerated their features to look stereotypically "black." The first minstrel shows mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations, depicting black people as lazy, ignorant, cowardly or hypersexual, according to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

The performances were intended to be funny to white audience. But to the black community, they were demeaning and hurtful.

One of the most popular blackface characters was "Jim Crow," developed by performer and playwright Thomas Dartmouth Rice. As part of a traveling solo act, Rice wore a burnt-cork blackface mask and raggedy clothing, spoke in stereotypical black vernacular and performed a caricatured song and dance routine that he said he learned from a slave, according to the University of South Florida Library.

Though early minstrel shows started in New York, they quickly spread to audiences in both the North and South. By 1845, minstrel shows spawned their own industry, NMAAHC says.

Its influence extended into the 20th century. Al Jolson performed in blackface in "The Jazz Singer," a hit film in 1927, and American actors like Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney put on blackface in movies too.

The characters were so pervasive 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 but act foolish on stage.

William Henry Lane, known as "Master Juba," was one of the first black entertainers to perform in blackface. His shows were very popular and he's even credited with inventing tap dance, according to John Hanners' book "It Was Play or Starve: Acting in Nineteenth-century American Popular Theatre."

Despite Lane's relative success, he was limited to the minstrel circuit and for most of his life performed for supper. He eventually died "from something as simple and as pathetic as overwork," Hanners wrote.

Its damaging legacy

Such negative representations of black people left a damaging legacy in popular culture, especially in art and entertainment.

Minstrel shows were usually the only depiction of black life that white audiences saw. Presenting enslaved Africans as the butt of jokes desensitized white Americans to the horrors of slavery. The performances also promoted demeaning stereotypes of black people that helped confirm white people's own notions of superiority.

"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," NMAAHC says.

Ignorance is no excuse

In modern discussion over blackface, its racist history is often swept under the rug or shrouded in claims of ignorance.

In a 2018 segment on "Megyn Kelly Today" about political correctness and Halloween costumes, the former NBC host said that when she was growing up, it was seen as acceptable for a white person to dress as a black person.

"But what is racist?" Kelly asked. "Because you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface on Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid that was OK, as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character."

Her comments sparked widespread anger. She apologized, but her show was ultimately canceled.

White celebrities, college students and even elected officials have made similar claims of ignorance over past and current controversies involving blackface.

But NMAAHC is clear on this: "Minstrelsy, comedic performances of 'blackness' by whites in exaggerated costumes and makeup, cannot be separated fully from the racial derision and stereotyping at its core."

Huntsville
Broken Clouds
80° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 71°
Feels Like: 84°
Florence
Broken Clouds
85° wxIcon
Hi: 90° Lo: 73°
Feels Like: 91°
Fayetteville
Scattered Clouds
84° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 90°
Decatur
Broken Clouds
80° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 71°
Feels Like: 84°
Scottsboro
Overcast
82° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 71°
Feels Like: 89°
WAAY Radar
WAAY WAAY-TV Cam
WAAY Temperatures

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 45263

Reported Deaths: 1007
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson5410152
Montgomery4158103
Mobile4129134
Tuscaloosa232142
Marshall172410
Madison14917
Lee141137
Shelby133423
Morgan11215
Walker97824
Elmore94314
Franklin89814
Baldwin8949
Dallas8919
Etowah75013
DeKalb7375
Chambers64227
Butler63428
Autauga61012
Tallapoosa60569
Russell5650
Houston5074
Unassigned50323
Limestone5010
Lauderdale4966
Lowndes47221
Cullman4594
Pike4375
Colbert4086
St. Clair4022
Escambia3966
Coffee3812
Calhoun3765
Covington3707
Bullock36910
Barbour3532
Talladega3177
Hale31421
Marengo31211
Dale2990
Wilcox2948
Sumter28512
Jackson2842
Clarke2776
Winston2633
Chilton2522
Blount2431
Monroe2392
Pickens2366
Marion23313
Conecuh2107
Randolph2099
Macon1999
Choctaw19512
Bibb1941
Greene1868
Perry1791
Henry1363
Crenshaw1253
Washington1117
Lawrence1100
Cherokee1027
Geneva830
Lamar781
Fayette711
Clay692
Coosa591
Cleburne381
Out of AL00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 52039

Reported Deaths: 652
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Shelby11936201
Davidson11205121
Rutherford304035
Hamilton280435
Sumner163652
Trousdale14985
Williamson134015
Knox12098
Out of TN11987
Wilson96317
Putnam9067
Robertson83911
Sevier8303
Bradley7454
Lake6940
Tipton6495
Unassigned6351
Bledsoe6211
Bedford5705
Montgomery5677
Macon4874
Maury3573
Hardeman3524
Hamblen3434
Fayette3232
Madison3052
Loudon2881
Rhea2850
Dyer2543
McMinn23918
Cheatham2321
Blount2293
Dickson2120
Cumberland1834
Washington1740
Lawrence1646
Lauderdale1513
Anderson1442
Monroe1416
Jefferson1372
Gibson1291
Smith1221
Sullivan1212
Coffee1200
Greene1142
Obion1132
Hardin1097
Cocke940
Haywood932
Marshall921
Franklin883
Wayne880
Hickman800
Warren780
McNairy760
Marion744
White733
DeKalb680
Carter651
Lincoln650
Weakley641
Overton631
Giles621
Hawkins622
Roane620
Grundy611
Unicoi550
Campbell511
Carroll481
Claiborne480
Henderson480
Polk460
Henry450
Johnson440
Grainger410
Sequatchie410
Crockett403
Cannon370
Chester350
Perry340
Meigs320
Humphreys292
Jackson290
Morgan271
Fentress230
Stewart230
Decatur220
Union190
Clay180
Scott170
Houston150
Benton131
Moore130
Van Buren70
Hancock60
Lewis60
Pickett60

 

 

Community Events