Issues WLAIC

The Blackface Meme

A Historically Racist Stereotype

By William House

Numerous incidents of blackface imagery and imitation have appeared in daily news articles over the past several years. High-level politicians, celebrities, and average citizens were caught up in the ensuing controversies. Each incident elicited a predictable range of responses ranging from indignation to confusion. For those not familiar with the racially-charged history of blackface displays, indignation at these incidents may seem to be an overreaction. Failure to understand the history of blackface lets people mistake this racial stereotyping for light humor or parody.

The origins of blackface stretch back to the 1830s when minstrel shows became a popular entertainment form in America. The shows typically featured white actors with blackened faces performing songs, dances, and comedy routines based on stereotypical depictions of African Americans. These performances routinely depicted black men and women as ignorant, superstitious, lazy, and cowardly people with lax morals and proclivities towards thievery and dishonesty.

While the minstrel shows were popular with many, they did raise the ire and condemnation of others. Devotees of the abolitionist movement, who recognized the human debasement at the heart of each performance, widely denounced the shows.

One of the famous blackface performers was Thomas Dartmouth Rice. His show was entitled “Jumping Jim Crow,” and he contended his performance was inspired by a slave he had once encountered. It was from this performance by Rice that the Jim Crow laws took their name. 

The Jim Crow Laws had their roots in the post-war reconstruction period from 1865 to 1877. These laws were a collection of both local and state ordinances aimed at keeping black citizens in servitude. They initially sought to limit the voting rights of former slaves and control where they could work and what compensation they could receive. 

At the time of the Hayes-Tilden Compromise in 1877, prominent cities in the South were not as entrenched in these laws as rural municipalities. The Compromise, however, paved the way for an expansion of the Jim Crow Laws across the country, leading to legally enforced segregation at all levels of our social and governmental structures.

These laws forbade black citizens from living in white neighborhoods and cut off their access to public spaces. Blacks were forcibly removed from public areas deemed “white only,” and violence against African Americans and their communities became commonplace.

The historical context of blackface is rooted in the promotion of white superiority. Blackface entertainment sought to exploit and profit from developing and reinforcing racist stereotypes of blacks. The prevalence of these shows in popular entertainment played a prominent role in institutionalizing racism within the fabric of our society. Today in 2021, we still struggle to disentangle this embedded racism in our local communities and across our nation. The blackface meme is an ugly racist stereotype for those who know its history, thus their indignation.