Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used by performers to represent a black person. In the United States of America this make-up gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the proliferation of stereotypes. Blackface minstrel shows were an American national art of the time in 1848, but quickly became popular elsewhere, particularly so in the United Kingdom, where the tradition lasted longer than in the United States of America. Early in the 20th century, blackface branched off from the minstrel show and became a form in its own right, until it ended in the U. S. with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
- In this mean work of detraction, we scarcely need say that the miserable dough-face who edits the Cass paper in this city, and through whom our daughter was basely excluded from "Seward Seminary," on account of her complexion, very appropriately took the lead. This self-elected umpire of taste in the city of Rochester, claims as much skill in matters relating to the harmony of sounds, as he assumes with respect to the harmony of colors. We warn the good people of Rochester against attending either seminaries or concerts, on pain of being expelled from respectable and refined society, should they venture to do so before obtaining the opinion of this "most learned judge" whose word is sufficient to set at defiance and veto the wishes of a whole seminary of young ladies and misses. We believe he does not object to the "Virginia Minstrels," "Christy's Minstrels," the "Ethiopian Serenaders," or any of the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow-citizens. Those performers are undoubtedly in harmony with his refined and elegant taste!
- Partly from a love of music, and partly from curiosity to see persons of color exaggerating the peculiarities of their race, we were induced last evening to hear these Serenaders. The Company is said to be composed entirely of colored people, and it may be so. We observed, however, that they too had recourse to the burnt cork and lamp black, the better to express their characters and to produce uniformity of complexion. Their lips, too, were evidently painted, and otherwise exaggerated. Their singing generally was but an imitation of white performers, and not even a tolerable representation of the character of colored people. Their attempts at wit showed them to possess a plentiful lack of it, and gave their audience a very low idea of the shrewdness and sharpness of the race to which they belong. With two or three exceptions, they were a poor set, and will make themselves ridiculous wherever they go. We heard but one really fine voice among the whole, and that was Cooper's, who is truly an excellent singer; and a company possessing equal ability with himself, would no doubt, be very successful in commanding the respect and patronage of the public generally. Davis (the Bones) too, is certainly a master player; but the Tambourine was an utter failure. B. Richardson is an extraordinary character. His Virginia Breakdown excelled anything which we have ever seen of that description of dancing. He is certainly far before the dancer in the Company of the Campbells. We are not sure that our readers will approve of our mention of those persons, so strong must be their dislike of everything that seems to feed the flame of American prejudice against colored people; and in this they may be right, but we think otherwise. It is something gained when the colored man in any form can appear before a white audience; and we think that even this company, with industry, application, and a proper cultivation of their taste, may yet be instrumental in removing the prejudice against our race. But they must cease to exaggerate the exaggerations of our enemies; and represent the colored man rather as he is, than as Ethiopian Minstrels usually represent him to be. They will then command the respect of both races; whereas now they only shock the taste of the one, and provoke the disgust of the other. Let Cooper, Davis and Richardson bring around themselves persons of equal skill, and seek to improve, relying more upon the refinement of the public, than its vulgarity; let them strive to conform to it, rather than to cater to the lower elements of the baser sort, and they may do much to elevate themselves and their race in popular estimation.
- Blackface is a form of cross-dressing, in which one puts on the insignias of a sex, class, or race that stands in binary opposition to one's own. Current attention to cross-dressing, however, derives from gender and not racial studies. There are good theoretical reasons to privilege sexual over racial cross-dressing, since the construction of sexual difference is a universal feature of culture. Sexual and racial cross-dressing may not do the same work, a possibility that problematizes the use of gender cross-dressing theory to answer the question raised by race. But where the prevailing historical cross-dressing practice has been grounded on race, then the theory must do justice to the resulting sexuoracial system.
- Michael Rogan, §4 of "Two Declarations of Independence: The Contaminated Origins of American National Culture," ch. 2 of "Made in America," pt. 1 of Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1996), p. 30.
Quotes from fiction
- Dennis: There's countless examples of very classy actors doing blackface. We got the great C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man. We got the Wayans Brothers in White Chicks. That was a very tasteful example of reverse blackface.
- Rick Ford: During the threat of an assassination attempt, I appeared convincingly in front of Congress as Barack Obama.
- Susan Cooper: In blackface? That's not appropriate.