Cultural Context

Weekly Editors

In light of the recent Halloween incident where two Northwestern undergraduate students painted their faces black – and the reaction it sparked – the weekly compiled a timeline of blackface in our history and culture.


Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice, a white performer, learns a popular African-American song and dance number based on escaped slave Jim Crow. He blackens his face with burnt cork to perform the act and becomes the “father of blackface minstrelsy.”


Black performers follow in “Daddy” Rice’s footsteps and wear blackface. The Virginia Minstrels, comprised of white men donning blackface and one of the first minstrel troupes, puts on its first “Ethiopian Concert” in Boston.


A racist silent film about the Ku Klux Klan, Birth of a Nation, uses white actors in blackface to play blacks. The Boston branch of the NAACP protests the use of blackface and the portrayal of blacks as villains.

1947Talley Beatty, a black dancer who grew up in Chicago, performs in “Blackface,” a minstrel ballet. The ballet was choreographed for the Ballet Society, which later became the New York City Ballet.

2000Spike Lee wrote and directed Bamboozled (2000), a satire in which a black, Ivy League-educated writer creates a show with black actors in blackface.

2007The 1927 “talkie” The Jazz Singer is released in a three-DVD 80th anniversary set. In the movie, Al Jolson spreads burnt cork on his face backstage. Jolson spends the majority of the movie in blackface.

2008Actor Robert Downey Jr. is nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Tropic Thunder. In the movie, Downey plays a white Australian actor who dyes his skin for a role as an African-American soldier in a war movie.


In an episode of “Mad Men,” character Roger Sterling dons blackface to sing to his new wife on stage at their wedding. The episode is set in 1963.