Richards' speech: The history of blackface

Sandra L. Richards
November 5, 2009 •

The following is the text of Professor Sandra L. Richards' speech on blackface at the Nov. 5 forum on race at Northwestern.

In approximately 1832 the white comedian Thomas D. Rice blackened his face, went onstage, did a strange dance, and sang a song whose lyrics ended this way: "Weel about and turn about and do jis so,/ Eb'ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow." The act was novel and appealing to white audiences. Perhaps Rice even gave an encore. But emanating from the stage wings, a voice could be heard imploringly pleading: "Gimme back my clothes." That voice belonged to an enslaved black man, whose clothes Rice had borrowed. Rice had seen the man down at the wharf, dancing and singing in order to attract business carrying baggage and goods, but now the old man needed his clothes, for another boat had come in, and he hoped to make money, most of which would be returned to his master. That allegedly is how blackface minstrelsy began in nineteenth century America.

Now historians have tried to confirm this origin story and concluded that it probably is a false tale. Nonetheless, it contains significant elements of truth. Namely, in the 1800's white men enjoyed blackening up–that is, applying burnt cork to their faces and exaggerating their mouths by painting a grotesquely large set of lips in either white or red. In addition, they put on tattered clothes and danced in ways that respectable whites thought inappropriate but comical. Further, first as solo performers and then later as parts of minstrel companies, they concocted a dialect to create a sambo, a grinning darky, a nigger who could not speak English properly, who was lazy, who stole chickens and watermelons especially, and who had ridiculous ideas about how society worked. The performers claimed in newspaper interviews that they had done their homework, that they had observed black people who acted just as the performers portrayed them onstage. Audiences–particularly Northern, working class white men (generally women did not attend these shows)–loved this darky and rewarded performers by flocking to see their minstrel shows. Migrating in from the countryside to the cities in search of work and success, they could sit in a dark auditorium and laugh at an ignorant character who was even more out of place than they. The performances grew more elaborate, becoming a kind of variety show in which some performers sang or played an instrument, others told jokes, some delivered stump speeches or sarcastic send-ups of politicians. Left on the sidelines and denied compensation were black people who had supposedly been the source of these representations, for not until after the Civil War, nearly fifty years after blackface minstrelsy consolidated as a performance form, were black men allowed onstage to play this grinning darky. When these black men went onstage, they found that their own dark complexioned skins were not enough to satisfy audiences who knew the kind of black they wanted to see. So African American actors found it necessary to blacken their faces if they wanted to find employment onstage rather than in the fields. They took on the challenge of trying to change public perception.

Remember, I said that the song that Rice sang–that has been historically documented–contained the lyrics Jump Jim Crow. I believe every person who attends high school in the United States has to take an American history course and thus is familiar with this term Jim Crow, which since its origins in minstrelsy became a racial slur signifying inferiority: thus we had segregated Jim Crow railroad cars and Jim Crow schools, where black children received a separate and decidedly unequal education in comparison to that enjoyed by their white counterparts. Though technically citizens of the United States, black people merited this kind of treatment, so dominant thinking went, because they themselves were inferior–intellectually, socially, morally; they did not deserve the rights of citizenship. Blackface, the stupid, grinning darky, the sambo became the sign that black people did not belong.

I want to draw out one other point in this abbreviated history of blackface. If one had attended a minstrel show in the 1850's or the 1870's, he would have also seen caricatures of Germans and Irishmen, just to name a few of the other ethnic groups who appeared onstage. Germans were laughed at because they were stocky and ate bratwurst; the Irish were funny because supposedly they drank too much. But as the status of these ethnic groups rose, so too did the stereotypes change and in the case of the Germans, disappear. That is, as these ethnic groups were able to purchase property, demand and receive better wages for their labor, send their children to school, and participate in the political process, as these groups won upward mobility offstage, their onstage representations changed. The majority of Black people have not yet achieved that same degree of upward mobility-despite the significant gains of the Civil Rights movements and the fact of Barack Obama's election to the presidency. Because so many black people are still consigned to substandard schools, to low paying jobs when they can find work, to impoverished neighborhoods or to subprime loans in "good neighborhoods," to higher rates of incarceration and poor health, blackface continues to wound. It continues to say "You don't belong."

A similar blackface "prank" occurred on our campus in 2008 but at the time it attracted less media attention. Mentioning that incident in the Daily in 2009 in a letter to the editor about minority recruitment, then sophomore Marcus Shepard pointed to how that blackface sign of "you don't belong" is repeated almost as everyday practice. That is, he makes mention of going out, as I'm sure many of you have done, to guard the Rock late at night or early morning in order to repaint it. But whereas his white male colleagues on similar occasions were not asked to produce their university id's and then did not have that id called into the police station for verification, this sequence of events happened to him. He says too, "I, along with uncounted other minority males, have been questioned by university police and security guards about my presence on this campus." We remember a similar incident from last year in which a black male student was subjected to police scrutiny simply because he walked through the Kellogg School of Business. These incidents explain in part why the choice to blacken up in 2009 on this campus offends. It says, along with the more routine reminders, "You don't belong here."

I am not saying that this is what these students meant in making the choice to put on blackface. I am saying that this is how the sign reads. Blackface is not history: it says "you don't belong" in ways that are echoed throughout society today-both off campus and on.

--Sandra L. Richards, ProfessorAfrican American Studies, Theatre, & Performance Studies

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