Before radio and television there were minstrel shows and vaudeville, original entertainment venues that existed in North America (U.S. and Canada) from the early 1800s until about 1910 and 1930, respectively. Such theatrical performances often featured blackface minstrels, especially as comedic breaks between acts. These performers, usually white, darkened their faces with burned cork, grease paint or shoe polish, adding a distinctive white circle around their mouths. The complicated image evoked by these minstrels has been praised as “progressive” by some and vilified as “racist” by others. Some African Americans even used the guise while performing at minstrel shows, perplexing white observers. Why would these people want to demean themselves and their own culture, they would ask.
“After the Civil War, African Americans themselves began to put on blackface, using the same exaggerated features and performing the same demeaning dialect and acts before white audiences. Why? Because such acts paved the way to stardom,” writes Marc Aronson, a professor at the Rutgers School of Communications, in an article in the Washington Post entitled “The Complicated Mix of Racism and Envy behind Blackface.”
This was also true for Caucasians such as Al Jolson, a New York-based singer who became famous in the 1920s and 1930s for performing in blackface. Jolson was best known for being the star of the 1927 groundbreaking movie “The Jazz Singer,” which was the world’s first talking motion picture. Jolson stunned moviegoers, used to reading the placards of silent movie screens, when he broke into a booming voice. After conquering Broadway and Hollywood, Jolson became known as “the greatest entertainer in the world.” After one stage performance, for example, Jolson got a mind-blowing 37 curtain calls. His blackface “happy slave” character called “Gus,” for better or worse, lives on the collective minds of many Americans.
How does all this relate to the early blues? “Even in the 1920s, as Ma Rainey [often called the mother of the blues] and Bessie Smith toured with tent shows in the South, playing to white and African American audiences, they included African American performers in blackface doing chicken-stealing skits similar to those used by the white minstrels of the 19th century,” writes Aronson. Rainey once said of her travels. “We’d go to places where they’d never seen a colored person before. I remember once in Illinois, when we rolled into this little town, they thought we were no-tailed bears!”
There was also a distinct crossover between blackface minstrels who later became blues singers. “Many famous [blues] singers and [stage] actors gained their start in black minstrelsy, including W.C. Handy, Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Butterbeans and Susie. The Rabbit’s Foot Company was a variety troupe, founded in 1900 by an African American, Pat Chappelle, which drew on and developed the minstrel tradition while updating it and helping to develop and spread black musical styles,” states Wikipedia.
On the other hand, many black entertainers and intellectuals were disgusted by the whole concept of blackface. “[Duke] Ellington, like [Frederick] Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, wanted to scrub off the burned cork and show African Americans as individuals, not clownish distortions. This critique of minstrelsy continues to shape the conversation today. But it is also important to understand what the strange yearning seen in minstrelsy reveals — both yesterday and today. Minstrelsy allowed black and white society to touch while maintaining distance,” explains Aronson.
Perhaps on an idealistic level, Aronson is right, but the negative aspects of blackface are all too apparent in today’s news. Megyn Kelly, who had her own television talk show, was suddenly without that job recently after publicly defending blackface. “I don’t know how that [blackface] got racist on Halloween. I can’t keep up with the number of people we’re offending just by being, like, normal people these days,” Kelly said. Kelly is not the only celebrity to be singled out either. Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring got similar treatment, as did Florida’s now-former Secretary of State Michael Ertel.
“There’s a common
misconception that the deepest and most prevalent forms of American racism are
exclusive to the South, but blackface minstrelsy – when white men dress as
black people while reinforcing negative stereotypes of African Americans for
entertainment – actually started in the North. In fact, it was most popular in
the Northern and Midwestern cities among whites who didn’t have frequent
interactions with blacks. These performances portrayed black people as lazy,
untrustworthy, unintelligent, cowardly, and hypersexual,” writes Jameelah
Nasheed in teenvogue.com. “What Kelly
and Northam – like many other white Americans – fail to acknowledge is the
origin of blackface is inherently racist.”
By going blackface, then, was the white Al Jolson a hero for trying to help more black people get into entertainment or was he a racist trying to demean their culture? Or is it even fair to judge a 1920s blackface minstrel by today’s standards? Instead of just using minstrelsy as a term of derision, perhaps we need to treat it as a chance to examine those tangled and entangled relationships that are so disturbing, and so defining, of all of us as Americans.