The portrayal of blackface–when people darken their skin with shoe polish, greasepaint or burnt cork and paint on enlarged lips and other exaggerated features—is steeped in centuries of racism. It peaked in popularity during an era in the United States when demands for civil rights by recently emancipated slaves triggered racial hostility. And today, because of blackface’s historic use to denigrate people of African descent, its continued use is still considered racist.

“It’s an assertion of power and control,” says David Leonard , a professor of comparative ethnic studies and American studies at Washington State University. “It allows a society to routinely and historically imagine African Americans as not fully human. It serves to rationalize violence and Jim Crow segregation.”

Although the exact moment when blackface originated isn’t known, its roots date back to centuries-old European theatrical productions, most famously, Shakespeare’s Othello. The practice then began in the United States in the 18th century, when European immigrants brought the genre over and performed in seaports along the Northeast, says Daphne Brooks, a professor of African American studies and theater studies at Yale University.

“But the most famous sort of era to think of as being the birth of the form itself is the Antebellum era of the early 19th century,” Brooks says.

Thomas Dartmouth Rice , an actor born in New York, is considered the “Father of Minstrelsy.” After reportedly traveling to the South and observing slaves, Rice developed a Black stage character called “Jim Crow” in 1830.

With quick dance moves, an exaggerated African American vernacular and buffoonish behavior, Rice founded a new genre of racialized song and dance—blackface minstrel shows—which became central to American entertainment in the North and South.

White performers in blackface played characters that perpetuated a range of negative stereotypes about African Americans including being lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, criminal or cowardly.

Shirley Temple in blackface
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Actresses Shirley Temple (in blackface) and Hannah Washington (right) in the 1935 film 'The Littlest Rebel.'

Several characters in minstrel shows became archetypes, as described in the University of Florida’s digital exhibit, “History of Minstrels: From ‘Jump Jim Crow’ to ‘The Jazz Singer.’” Some of the most famous ones were Rice’s “Jim Crow,” a rural dancing fool in tattered clothing; the “Mammy,” an overweight and loud mother figure; and “Zip Coon,” a flamboyant-dressed man who used sophisticated words incorrectly.

Most of the minstrel show actors were working-class Irishmen from the Northeast, who performed in blackface to distance themselves from their own lower social, political and economic status in the United States, says Leonard.

“They did it to authenticate their whiteness,” he says. “It was the same as saying ‘We can become the other and mock the other and assert our superiority by dehumanizing the other.’”

Blackface minstrel shows soared in popularity, in particular, during the period after the Civil War and into the start of the 20th century, as documented in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s official blackface history. The widespread demeaning portrayals of African Americans paralleled a period when southern state legislatures were passing “Black Codes” to restrict the behavior of former slaves and other African Americans. In fact, the codes were also called “Jim Crow” laws, after the blackface stage character.

Scene from the film 'Birth of a Nation'
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A group of Klansmen surrounding freedman Gus (played by white actor Walter Long in blackface) in a scene from director D W Griffith's motion picture 'The Birth of a Nation', 1915.

As society modernized, so did the ways in which blackface was portrayed. Not only was blackface in theaters, but it moved to the film industry. In the blockbuster movie The Birth of a Nation, blackface characters were seen as unscrupulous and rapists. The stereotypes were so powerful they became a recruiting tool for the Ku Klu Klan. African Americans protested the film’s portrayals and its distorted take on the post-Civil War era, yet it continued to be popular among white audiences.

“There are different ways in which blackface becomes weaponized as a form of white supremacist propaganda,” says Brooks.

African Americans also performed in blackface given it was the only way to be in the entertainment industry. But their performances countered some of the primitive representations that were popularized. Black artists Bert Williams and George Walker infused political commentary with their comedic minstrel routines, offering a more intelligent representation of African Americans.

But blackface minstrelsy remained a genre heavily dominated by white actors. Al Jolson, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who came to New York as a child, became one of the most influential blackface stars of the 20th century, including his 1927 hit film The Jazz Singer.

Al Jolson
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Al Jolson wearing blackface in character as Sambo, 1925

The appeal of blackface declined after the 1930s and into the civil rights movement. However, the negative stereotypes of African Americans and mocking of dark skin have persisted in recent decades. For example, blackface appeared in the Oscars ceremony in 2012, on televisions skits, and wearing blackface to dress up as famous African Americans during Halloween remains an ongoing issue. 

More recently, outrage ensued when Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and the state attorney general Mark Herring both admitted in February 2019 to wearing blackface costumes as young men. 

As Leonard says, “Blackface is part of the toxic culture of racism.”