What is Blackface?

The current political crisis over Virginia’s governor and attorney general appearing in blackface raises many opportunities for learning, including about aspects of our nation’s history of racism. These issues require ongoing attention and deep exploration far beyond this news cycle. Here are some points of information that may serve as a taking off point.

To the teacher: 

The current political crisis over Virginia’s governor and attorney general appearing in blackface raises many opportunities for learning, including about aspects of our nation’s history of racism.

These issues require ongoing attention and deep exploration far beyond this news cycle. But for the short term, here are some points of information that may serve as a taking off point for you and your students.

What happened?

Virginia governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, is facing widespread calls to resign after a page from his 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced in early February 2019. The page includes a photograph of two men—one dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan (a white terrorist organization), the other in blackface.

Northam initially acknowledged that he was one of the men in the racist attire, but later said that he was not. However, Northam said that he had worn blackface on another occasion: He had darkened his face with shoe polish for a Michael Jackson costume in a dance contest in Texas in 1984, when he was a young Army officer. “I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that,” said Northam.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s Attorney General, Mark Herring, announced that he too had donned blackface while in college. As of February 10, both men are facing a barrage of condemnation and demands that they leave office.

What is blackface?

“Blackface” is the use of theatrical makeup to represent a black person, often used by non-black people. White actors began wearing blackface in the 1800s to act out racist stereotypes.

Often, characters in blackface would dress in rags, with a battered hat and coattails.

"It was a way to mock and mark black incompetence in various areas: dance, fashion, song, language and knowledge," said Brandi Thompson Summers, an assistant professor of African-American studies and associate executive director at the Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation at Virginia Commonwealth University. "The blackface character was inept, angry, and uncontrollable in every way."

Jeffrey Blount, an author and professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, calls blackface in America “homegrown propaganda" and "a visual element of domestic terrorism." He notes that images denigrating African-Americans were effective in shaping social and political discourse around what it means to be black.

"Frederick Douglass and other black leaders highlighted the intellectual capabilities of their people, yet the image of a dufus in blackface is what many whites preferred as the dominant representation of African Americans and their culture," Blount said.

What is the history of blackface?

Though white people had colored their faces black earlier, blackface became popular in minstrel shows during slavery in the 1830s. These shows featured music, comedy skits, and dancing, mostly in blackface. One particular entertainer, T.D. Rice, gained enormous popularity and helped make minstrel shows a national phenomenon. His character “Jim Crow” later became the name applied to laws and customs enforcing segregation.

By the 1840s, minstrel shows were a full-fledged entertainment genre. Minstrel shows toured all parts of the country, though especially popular in the north and Midwest. During the 1850s in the period of intense abolitionism, minstrel shows served as pro-slavery propaganda, portraying plantation blacks as simple but happy people.

Even when other forms of entertainment replaced minstrel shows for popular amusement, blackface continued. Vaudeville, radio, and movies kept it alive with star attractions like Amos ‘n’ Andy and Al Jolson. Many others who did not build their careers on blackface, also made appearances in black make-up, including Mae West, Shirley Temple and The Three Stooges.

Blackface became less acceptable in the entertainment industry when the modern civil rights movement, beginning in the 1950s, made it possible for criticism and protest of the practice to be heard.  But blackface in less public settings continued (as evidenced by the use of blackface in the Northam’s 1984 Virginia medical school yearbook) – and continues to this day.

Stereotypes and systems

A stereotype is a preconceived notion about a group of people:  If you see a person belonging to a specific group, you already “know” things about that person. If those notions are negative and multiple,  the consequences for individuals and society increase.

Stereotypes, whether they are driven by media, images, school curricula, religious sermons, or jokes and cartoons, are most often applied to groups of people who are already facing discrimination and inequity. Every group that has been discriminated against has had to endure negative stereotypes that make it easier for those in the majority to hate them, fear them, and dehumanize them.

Blackface is part of a wider history of anti-black racism in the U.S. that goes back to when European colonists first appeared on America’s eastern shore, continued through U.S.’s 400 year history of slavery, and persists today.

Racist structures like a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets people of color or electoral laws that deprive African-Americans of voting rights are upheld by politicians interested in power. But the racism that keeps everyday Americans, especially white Americans, from working to end (or even seeing) the systemic discrimination, depends on the negative stereotypes that are passed down to us and reinforced by everything from entertainment media to joking among friends.

Anyone who is willing to admit that racism is a continuing obstacle to justice in America must face up to the common biases and assumptions that make racism possible.


For discussion

  1. Was any of this information new to you?  Did anything in the reading especially strike you? Why?
  2. Do you have questions about the history of blackface? How can those questions be answered? 
  3. Do you have any questions about the controversy in Virginia over Ralph Northam and Mark Herring? How can those questions be answered?