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Lartey writes: "Blackface remains a part of the American culture – because while many things have changed, many have still not."

US army troops are ‘blacked up’ to perform as minstrels in a variety show. (photo: George W Hales/Getty Images)
US army troops are ‘blacked up’ to perform as minstrels in a variety show. (photo: George W Hales/Getty Images)

'Reasserting White Power': Behind the Psychosis That Gave Rise to Blackface

By Jamiles Lartey, Guardian UK

03 April 19

Blackface remains a part of the American culture – because while many things have changed, many have still not

t’s 1830. You’re a poor Irish immigrant living in New York’s infamous Five Points slums. Penniless and uneducated, you’re viewed by affluent white society as every bit as inferior as the blacks you live among in overcrowded squalor.

As best as you can tell, you’ll never gain an ounce of status or wealth unless you can win the social acceptance of the Anglo elites. How do you convince them you’re white – a racial category that was still new and, they hoped, malleable – like them?

Paint yourself black, of course.

“They are using blackface as a way of saying to white Protestant New Yorkers and other people in the urban settings, ‘We’re as good as you, we’re white like you – we’re making fun of black folks, that makes us white like you,’” historian John Strausbaugh told me.

In his 2006 book Black Like You, Strausbaugh traces the roots of blackface minstrelsy to New York’s Bowery Theatre and young Irish performers darkening their skin in comic imitations of blacks on plantations. Strausbaugh wrote: “It was simple and rough, with a tune that was easy to remember and a good beat. It was funny and perhaps more important, it was rude and in bad taste.”

Blackface minstrelsy of the 1820s and 30s emerged as a rejection of the stodgy, uptight European music that dominated at the time. Its popularity was born in part out of the surface appeal of these up-tempo jigs and the irreverent performance, but it was also owed to a deeper and messier psychological hold. “It always has had a dominant aspect of mocking black folks,” Strausbaugh said. “But there’s love and hate, there’s admiration and mockery.”

The New York slums where Irish and blacks lived is where blackface is thought to have first taken hold. It was hardly kumbaya – take the anti-abolition riots of 1834 as a case and point – but it was, by most historical accounts, the first neighborhood-wide example of voluntary racial integration in American history.

Blackface minstrelsy was born in this crucible, and similar to later forms like jazz and rock’n’roll, came to occupy the tangled space between black music and the white mimicry – however lamentable – of black music.

Even as those new cultural phenomena emerged, blackface would remain a part of the American cultural zeitgeist right through the present. Some things would change, others wouldn’t. On the one hand, any complex notions of cultural admiration would be thoroughly excised after the civil war, as blackface devolved into abject, uncomplicated racist propaganda.

On the other hand, blackface minstrelsy’s appeal as an outlet of lowbrow, salacious youth culture is a strand that followed it through to modern day, where it’s still invoked as spoof on college campuses and Halloween parties. This was drawn in stark terms when, in January, Virginia governor Ralph Northam was engulfed in scandal from a decades-old blackface image in his 1984 medical school yearbook.

He wasn’t alone. A USA Today survey of some 900 yearbooks from around the country found that the late 1970s and 1980s saw a wave of blackface creep into white American youth culture, especially at college parties and among fraternities.

Why? Strausbaugh points to the fact that by late 1960s into the 1970s was a period of broad and intentional movement at colleges and universities to diversify the student body and on-campus programming. It was the start of affirmative action, new departments in ethnic and gender studies began to pop up coast to coast. Universities were becoming less and less the repositories of classic literature and history for the elite, and instead, bastions of subversive and progressive ideology.

“By the 1980s, you had to know that blackface was taboo, that it was an insult and an outrage,” said Strausbaugh. “You were doing it on purpose to be outrageous and to make a statement which was: ‘we feel threatened on our campus that used to be an exclusively white preserve.’”

The 1980s is the reaction point, where, fueled by the conservative “Reagan revolution” white students start pushing back against this perceived encroachment.

“In this fantasy narrative of white loss, blackface becomes a way of reasserting white power,” said David Leonard, a professor of comparative ethnic studies and American studies at Washington University. “Whether it’s affirmative action threatening white futures or political correctness – this becomes a response to each of those kinds of imagined assaults on whiteness.

“It becomes a way of reasserting the power to, quote-unquote, ‘do whatever we want’.”

In the 1840s and 50s, blackface minstrelsy was a dominant theatre act across the US. On the back of his massive song/dance hit called Jump Jim Crow, a man named Thomas Rice would become the form’s first superstar. Strausbaugh compares his emergence to what Elvis would later mean for rock’n’roll. The character he performed – a limping, shuffling old black field-hand in jet black grease paint made from burnt cork – would ossify as the archetypal blackface minstrel. The name Jim Crow would of course, become immortalized as the informal nickname for the system of apartheid segregation that would emerge in the US after the civil war.

It was fitting. By the late 1800s, blackface minstrelsy had become almost entirely a vehicle of anti-black propaganda, broadcasting blacks as buffoonish, untrustworthy oafs to white Americans who, in many cases, had no other exposure to black people.

“Alongside everything else going on in the country after Reconstruction, it becomes much uglier, much harder, much more brutally anti-black than it had been in its fairly early years,” Strausbaugh said.

Blackface (though not minstrelsy, per se) would reach its pinnacle as racist propaganda in 1915 with the release of DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which used white actors in blackface to depict freed blacks as animalistic rapists to such effect that it helped spawn a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

“It was an exhibition of power,” Leonard said, “the power to become this other, to become that which is mockable, that which is not fully human. And if you can become this other not fully human, this uncivilized, then that reinforces what you are – all the opposites, civilized, human, desirable.”

The form would undergo one last tonal shift at the onset of the jazz age. Like the Irish before them, nominally white Jewish performers began blacking up to sing and dance in mimicry of black artists, for arguably many of the same reasons as a century earlier. “It became a way of proving one’s whiteness because, if one was becoming black through blackface then you weren’t black,” Leonard said.

Far less explicitly white supremacist than in the immediate fall of Reconstruction, the jazz age revival was nevertheless set to the tone of a kind of plantation nostalgia with all of the racist implications of a “time when darkies knew their place”.

But it was, thankfully, the end of an era. By the civil rights movement, white Americans had been all but shamed out of blackface performance in professional entertainment settings. Cue its re-emergence as a derisive embrace of forbidden tropes among groups of white students on college campuses.

It’s a trend that has survived beyond Northam and the 1980s to today, and one Strausbaugh says not to expect an end to anytime soon.

“Folklorists, say that the lore cycles back as long as the conditions that created it in the first place haven’t changed that much, and that’s what we’re seeing,” said Strausbaugh. “As long as the American psychosis about race is still embedded in the culture, which it clearly is, then things like blackface are going to keep reappearing.”

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