WASHINGTON, D.C., UNITED STATES (FEBRUARY 7, 2019) (REUTERS) – The painful history of blackface in America was highlighted this week as two top Virginia Democrats came under fire after admitting to having blackened their faces to resemble African-Americans while in college in the 1980s.
White Americans have been blackening their faces to mimic people of African descent for two centuries and while the practice is less common than it was decades ago, African-American scholars say it persists in some corners as evidence of racism.
Apologies by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring followed blackface appearances by celebrities such as actor Billy Crystal and late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon in recent years. Blackface images have also been seen in clothing lines by prominent apparel lines.
Blackface began in New York vaudeville shows of the 1830s, when slavery was still legal in the U.S. South, and featured white performers who blackened their faces with burnt cork or shoe polish to caricature blacks on plantations as lazy and stupid.
With ugly, exaggerated features, and wearing tattered clothes, these “minstrels” made fun of enslaved Africans.
“Blackface Minstrelsy had tremendous power and the whole idea of objectifying a person and taking away their humanity and reducing them to stereotypes and images and making fun of them, is a painful experience for those people who are the subject of this kind of treatment.”
An American minstrel sub-industry of songs, sheet music, makeup, costumes and toys flourished through the mid-19th century even as the Northern and Southern states fought the Civil War that led to the abolition of slavery in 1865. Songs that defamed African-Americans became popular in the 1880s and 1890s.
By the early 20th century, black entertainers used blackface to gain acceptance with white audiences. White actors wearing blackface acted like buffoons in one of the first American epic movies, 1915’s “Birth of a Nation.” Popular American actors, including Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, donned blackface.
“I don’t think we’ve ever come to grips really in this country with…the depth of racism and the depth of dehumanization that’s occurred and we have to eventually come to grips with that or else we’re going to see the same old Groundhog Day thing… these things coming back around and around on us and to be so shocked by it, we’re just simply, you know, not recognizing how deep these things are into the culture,” Dr. Jules Harrell, a professor of psychology at Howard University in Washington told Reuters.
Both Democrats and Republicans condemned the images emerging in Virginia this week, but the scandal was an unwelcome blow to Democratic Party leaders in a swing state that will play a key role in the 2020 White House race and where the Democrats have been gaining ground, helped by growing strength with women and minorities.