It doesn’t take a genius to know that the current reaction to the word “blackface” is a small shudder at the very least and a sense of anxiety or anger at the very most. In recent weeks we have seen controversy after controversy rock our news platforms with one of the more prominent cycles revolving around the state of Virginia. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has found himself embroiled in a political firestorm after a copy of his 1984 yearbook page from Eastern Virginia Medical School surfaced. One of the photos has someone in a KKK costume and the other person is a man in blackface. Additionally, other leaders have come forward and admitted to dressing in blackface for parties. Many in the nation, such as TV personality Megyn Kelly, (She found herself trapped in her own firestorm months ago because of comments she made offhand about this issue.) have expressed confusion around the term. On the opposite side of the spectrum you have many Americans, especially black Americans expressing rage and hurt that blackface is still surfacing its ugly head in our present society. Is blackface a big deal?
In a word, yes. The history of blackface is complex, but in a nutshell, blackface found its origins for the most part in the minstrel shows of the mid nineteenth century. The shows found instant success as many of the shows found white people darkening their skin with polish and cork and proceeding to act out very problematic caricatures of African Americans. Characters such as “Jim Crow” (the very name by which we get the title for Jim Crow era), became famous and even hat hit songs that impacted the nation. As the popularity grew for these minstrel shows, so did the money. The money from hit minstrel shows impacted many regions and organizations. University of Virginia was even helped by the donations of a minstrel show whereby the University of Virginia Chapel was constructed. Eventually, the movie Birth of a Nation was created in 1915 as the groundbreaking silent film depicted oversexualized and dumb black men (mostly played by white actors) who preyed upon white society. In the film the KKK was portrayed in a heroic light and some believe the movie helped to rebirth the KKK society.
The era of blackface and minstrel shows grew to the point that even black Americans joined in the shows in order to just make enough money for food. Many would never make the equivalent of their white counterparts as they all continued to share the false caricatures with the world. It is important to note that this wasn’t just a small portion of theater, it WAS American theater. Theater that entertained the rich and the poor alike. Theater that entertained presidents. With all of this painful history it is easy to see why the issue of blackface is a deplorable part of American history. Blackface isn’t neutral. It is a sharp reminder of the not so distant history of race in America and the hatred and misinformation that plagued African Americans.
Where do we go from here? Well the way forward seems a bit tricky. I think education is the first thing needed to break the cycle of ignorance. No blackface isn’t neutral. It has never been ok and does not deserve to be reimagined for our current context. Is it true that every time someone white dresses up as a black figure that they are participating in blackface? That is hard to say. The intent does seem to be very unlike the intent of generations past. However, the reminders and wounds are still so fresh that it seems best to refrain from dressing up as your favorite rapper for the moment, acknowledge the brutal history and help to educate others. When this topic comes up in conversation, rather than asking “What’s the big deal?” “Why are black people so sensitive?” A better way might be to read up on the troubling history of blackface. Our nation has come a long way from the minstrel shows that plagued our society until recently. The scars though are not yet healed and the time has come to heal all of the negative stereotypes and self hatred that was propagated through this horrible art form and costume choice.