When Megyn Kelly used her perch on “Megyn Kelly Today” to defend the use of blackface before an audience of millions, she professed ignorance of a bygone practice that still annually haunts the nation 170 years later, especially during Halloween. Kelly may have lost her job, but anyone getting up to speed on the controversy because of one debate about costumes should understand that the conversation goes much deeper than that. The tradition of blackface remains a sore point in American history that continues to have a destructive impact to this day.
Needless to say, white audiences will never be able to engage with “blackface” through the nuanced lens that black audiences can bring. Terence Nance addressed this disconnect in several episodes of his HBO series “Random Acts of Flyness,” when he literally gives face to a Larry Wilmore “Daily Show” quote (“Here is when blackface is OK: When you have a black face!”). More than once, Nance cuts to a montage of actual black faces, each matched with a voiceover repeating the word “blackface,” in an attempt at reclaiming the narrative. The device is markedly similar to the way that African Americans of yesteryear sought to bring authenticity to the tradition, humanizing their portrayals in a popular forum.
Blackface minstrelsy emerged as the country’s most popular form of entertainment in the mid-1800s. The term stemmed from the historic practice of burning cork to create a black ash, which was then applied directly to the skin. Most blackface contained cartoonish features — clown-like paint on the eyes and lips — and as a result, blackface and early African-American comedy traditions are inextricably linked. However, the term goes beyond this performative context. There’s a broader definition of blackface that refers to an entire body of grotesque media images, which have popularized dehumanizing stereotypes of black people among non-black Americans and helped them justify longstanding racist beliefs.
When the first Africans were brought to America on ships as slaves, African-American humor could not exist in the public sphere. As slaves, they were effectively silenced, so that form of cultural expression was relegated to the underground: African-American folktales became an early platform for standup comedy. It was here that slaves would mock their willingness to seem ignorant or naive in the presence of the master as a means of criticizing their unwitting superiors. While slaves may have been satirizing their owners, the behavior took root in a different way — blackface minstrelsy was born in the 1830s, popularized by white actor Thomas D. Rice’s song-and-dance caricature act “Jump Jim Crow,” in which he performed in blackface. Of course, the term “Jim Crow,” which describes legalized segregation, traces its origins to Rice’s pejorative.
Ridiculing the plantation slaves they imitated, white entertainers “blacked up,” wearing absurd makeup and exaggerated clothing to create disparaging black caricatures: the ignorant, lazy, buffoonish, overly superstitious, eager-to-please, and musically talented “Negro.” By the turn of the 20th century, these racist archetypes, notably the Sambo-like figure, became a ubiquitous presence in American culture, serving as propaganda unjustly marketed and accepted as a true representation of the nature and culture of black people.Very much in the American mainstream at this time, blackface was even used to sell products, from cigarettes to pancakes, while minstrel-era songs were turned into sheet music sold around the world. The popular counting rhyme “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo…” can also be found rooted in America’s minstrel past, initially commanding that the listener “catch a nigger by his toe.”
A long list of popular white Hollywood actors and actresses appeared in film and on TV, whether as blackface characters or with blackface characters, including Bing Crosby, Milton Berle, Al Jolson, Fred Astaire, Shirley Temple, and even Bugs Bunny. In some warped way, maybe this abhorrent ritual provided an early glimpse at an America that has always been enamored with a black/African culture. One well-documented example of this is the historical trend of white musicians appropriating black music.
From the outset and long after, blacks had little power to control these offensive characterizations. Whites could parody blacks, but blacks could only parody themselves. And so they did. This is where blackface minstrelsy starts to complicate itself: Enter the black American performer exploiting the toxic art form, muddying both historical and contemporary perceptions of the practice.
After the abolishment of slavery, black Americans began to more openly engage with blackface minstrelsy. Some black entertainers before 1940 wore blackface, even for black audiences — including the immensely popular Bert Williams, who brought blackface minstrelsy to legitimate theater. Williams starred alongside George Walker in Broadway’s first all-black musical, “In Dahomey,” in 1903.
In the beginning, many black performers had to engage with blackface minstrelsy as a means of survival. Their options were severely limited. For some, wearing blackface was akin to putting on a mask as an escape from the harsh realities of American racism. But whatever their motivations, this was considered a more authentic form of the tradition. Although still perpetrating the stereotypes established by the minstrelsy of white performers, a more authentic African-American humor began to emerge, as these early performers brought a layer of humanity.
Above: A scene from “Random Acts of Flyness”
Blackface minstrelsy started to fade in the early half of the 20th century, but its grotesque stereotypes continue to influence (and damage) American media today. It has stalled and muddied the development of African-American film and TV artistic achievements, and blackface minstrelsy tropes continue to be an endless source of discord within a black community that’s still coming to terms with this history.
Robert Townsend’s classic 1987 parody “Hollywood Shuffle” addressed the legacy of minstrel-era screen stereotypes by following a black actor through a series of vignettes in which he discovers a crushing reality: The film industry only offers black performers roles that memorialize blackface minstrel archetypes, a true-to-life practice that effectively limited the opportunities for black actors.
However, Spike Lee’s 2000 satire “Bamboozled” stands as cinema’s most emphatic condemnation of the blackface minstrel tradition. At the center of the narrative is a TV production, “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show,” which revives minstrel-era entertainment and stereotypes including the use of blackface makeup. Conceived by TV executive Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) as a plot that will reveal the racist corporate environment in which he’s employed and release him from his network contract, the show unexpectedly becomes a hit, sparking blackface mania across the country. Delacroix is seduced by the resurgence and exploits it for his own commercial gain. So while white racism is lambasted in Lee’s film, black exploitation of that racism doesn’t escape unscathed.
A decade later, Lee would more directly target his ire at Tyler Perry. In a 2009 interview on the syndicated program “Our World with Black Enterprise,” Lee condemned the Perry-branded sitcoms “House of Payne” and “Meet the Browns” as modern-day versions of blackface minstrelsy. “Each artist should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors,” Lee said, “but I still think there is a lot of stuff out today that is coonery and buffoonery.” Referencing the characters he created in “Bamboozled,” he added, “I see these ads for these two shows and I am scratching my head … We got a black president and we going back to Mantan Moreland and Sleep ‘n’ Eat?” Perry wasn’t pleased with Lee’s remarks (“Spike can go straight to hell!” he later said), but he has never really concerned himself with such critiques, believing that he’s giving his audience what it wants.
It’s a mentality that has troubled many other storytellers. Dave Chappelle’s popular Comedy Central series “Chappelle’s Show” revisited black minstrel stereotypes with an outrageous sketch in which his character struggles with his inner pixie as he decides whether he wants to eat chicken or fish as his on-flight meal. The sketch features a jigging, grinning, uncouth miniature Chappelle in full blackface. Chappelle eventually abandoned the series, forgoing a $55 million contract offer, after the discomfort he said he felt when one white staffer laughed at his pixie performance. In this case, black laughter gave white viewers permission to laugh. This suggests a still-lingering “underground” nature to black humor, as there was during the slavery era — a self-awareness that becomes ugly in the presence of a white gaze.
The blackface minstrel tradition — as enacted by white performers — was primarily a racist endeavor, motivated by a desire to castrate the cultural identity of an entire race. The sad truth is we still see remnants: Aunt Jemima remains an unwitting brand ambassador for pancake mix; Chef Rastus hocks Cream of Wheat. This country must address the historical and cultural context of blackface minstrelsy and why it remains problematic today. Ignorance, as Megyn Kelly learned, simply won’t cut it — and we shouldn’t have to wait for Halloween to figure that out.