Philadelphia children in blackface; by photographer James Bartlett Rich (1866-1942); ca. 1895.
Image Source: Library Company of Philadelphia
Image Description: (From the Library Company of Philadelphia:) “Group portrait in a house foyer of several children in costume, most in blackface, holding tin horns. The children, possibly attired to perform a minstrel show for home entertainment, include the photographer’s daughter, Hazel, seated on a rocker in a large ruffled hat with a mask-like cloth veil.”
Biographical/ historical note: (From the Library Company of Philadelphia:) James Bartlett Rich was a professional Philadelphia landscape photographer who produced several candid portraits of family and friends.
Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used by performers to represent a black person. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the proliferation of stereotypes such as the “happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation” or the “dandified coon”. In 1848, blackface minstrel shows were an American national art of the time, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience. 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 United States with the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Blackface was an important performance tradition in the American theater for roughly 100 years beginning around 1830. It quickly became popular elsewhere, particularly so in Britain, where the tradition lasted longer than in the US, occurring on primetime TV, most famously in The Black and White Minstrel Show (which ended in 1978) and in Are You Being Served? ’s Christmas specials in 1976 and finally in 1981. In both the United States and Britain, blackface was most commonly used in the minstrel performance tradition, which it both predated and outlasted. White blackface performers in the past used burnt cork and later greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation. Later, black artists also performed in blackface.
Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrels not only played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes, and perceptions worldwide, but also in popularizing black culture. In some quarters, the caricatures that were the legacy of blackface persist to the present day and are a cause of ongoing controversy. Another view is that “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.”
By the mid-20th century, changing attitudes about race and racism effectively ended the prominence of blackface makeup used in performance in the U.S. and elsewhere. It remains in relatively limited use as a theatrical device and is more commonly used today as social commentary or satire. Perhaps the most enduring effect of blackface is the precedent it established in the introduction of African-American culture to an international audience, albeit through a distorted lens. Blackface’s groundbreaking appropriation, exploitation, and assimilation of African-American culture—as well as the inter-ethnic artistic collaborations that stemmed from it—were but a prologue to the lucrative packaging, marketing, and dissemination of African-American cultural expression and its myriad derivative forms in today’s world popular culture.
To me, the most interesting thing about blackface was that (a) it was racism as performance art, and (b) it was so commonly performed, in both the North and South, among people of all classes and, as seen here, people of all ages. Thus, whites who might not even see an African American in their day to day lives might “perform” racist stereotypes by “dressing up” as caricatured negroes.
Today, we view blackface portrayal as a negative thing. Back then, it was fun, and everybody was doing it, shamelessly so.