With the release of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook photo with images of students dressed in blackface and a Ku Klux Klan robe, there has been widespread call for his resignation. When the story broke, the country quickly learned about two more Virginia officials tainted with the charge of using or condoning blackface images. One might think, how has this happened? How should one judge such revelations? To understand the depth of the blackface caricature and its impact on our collective attitudes and behavior, it is important to take a look at its history.
At the beginning
By most accounts, Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice is considered the Father of American Minstrelsy. In 1828, Rice worked at the Louisville Theatre, playing run-of-the-mill parts. While there, according to David Pilgrim, author of the book “Watermelons, Nooses, and Straight Razors: Stories from the Jim Crow Museum,” Rice “happened upon an elderly enslaved black man “crooning an odd melody and doing a curious shuffling step each time he reached the chorus of his little song.” The words to the song include the refrain: “First on de heel tap, den on de toe; Ebery time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow; Wheel about and turn about and do jis so; And every time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.”
Rice saw this as an opportunity. He created a skit where he pretended to be the enslaved man and rewrote parts of the man’s song. He dressed in black face, wearing ragged clothes and performed on stage as Jim Crow, an ignorant plantation slave. His “’Negro impersonation’ quickly became an astounding success before
Sell-out crowds in the United States, London and Dublin.”
By 1843 the one-person imitators gave way to groups such as the Virginia Minstrels, The Ethiopian Serenaders and the Christy Minstrels. These groups often sat in a semi-circle on stage with a tambourine player (Mr. Tambo) at one end and a bones player (Mr. Bones) at the other end, all in blackface singing songs and telling jokes. In little more than a decade the minstrel show evolved into a full-fledged form of entertainment.
Blackface minstrel shows so offended Frederick Douglass that he wrote in the North Star, his antislavery newspaper, that such shows represent “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”
After the Civil War, minstrel shows fed the national nostalgia for the “good old days.” According to contemporary writer John Strausbaugh, “The minstrel South was another fantasy onto which White folks could project their desires—a lost preindustrial paradise where ‘the sun shines bright’ and ‘the darkies are gay’ and ‘de time is neber dreary.’ A mythic Eden filled with ripe watermelon and stacks of steaming hoecakes, smiling mammies, kindly massas, wily catfish and ringing banjos.”
It’s still here
Blackface entertainment remained popular on into the 20th century. It was largely entertainer Al Jolson, called “the king of blackface” performers, who brought such entertainment into homes throughout America. Jolson’s dynamic style of singing African-American jazz and blues made him widely popular in white America. Ted Gioia of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia remarked, “If blackface has its shameful poster boy, it is Al Jolson.”
As a result of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, blackface entertainment was widely rejected. This rejection, however, did not eliminate its stubborn legacy. As we are currently learning, such a deeply embedded cultural image and stereotype, established for over 150, does not just die with the passage of laws.
The laughing at and mocking of black people is still found on college campuses today. Publicized incidents occurred at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1986, at Auburn University in 2001, at University of California at San Diego in 2010, at Arizona State University in 2014, and at University of Oklahoma in 2015. All incidents make reference to the demeaning stereotyped images and behaviors of the blackface minstrel.
Pilgrim concludes, “although the portrayals of black people in minstrel shows were counterfeit, their impact was real. Minstrelsy helped shape white America’s attitudes toward black people. The dimwitted, too often happy ‘black person’ on the minstrel stage was argument against the need for treating real black people as first-class citizens. Minstrel shows assuaged the consciences of white Americans by portraying black people as either contented slaves or childish buffoons.”
Sources for those seeking more information are: The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia https://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/ and Understanding Jim Crow by David Pilgrim.
Fred Ginocchio lives in Green Valley.