Day 212: When White People Suck – The Blackface Story

originally published July 30, 2012

How thrilled I was to learn that I’d be penning my daily tithe to the Goddess of Obligation on a band I’d never heard of. A band from the 1840’s, a decade not known for producing chart-busting, spear-to-your-ear, rockin’ smash hit songs. In fact, Wikipedia only lists three songs from the 1840’s: “Clar de Track”, “Jamie Raeburn”, and “Rose Of Allendale.” This was all fresh, exciting, unexplored territory for me. Bring on the Ethiopian Serenaders.

Oh.

They weren’t so much a band as a blackface minstrel troupe. What was the appeal of blackface? Why was it entertaining for white men to splatter makeup on their faces and make fun of another race? Was this considered funny?

My first instinct is to believe that this was simply the olden-days equivalent of the same racist jokes I get sent to my Inbox every day by that guy I work with who mistakenly believes that I enjoy racist jokes, even though he’s never heard me tell one. It turns out the days that spawned the origin of blackface are more olden than I’d thought.

Blackface is thought to stretch back to the 15th century, when West African captives were put on display in Portugal. Theatrical depictions of black people are spattered through history, most notably Shakepeare’s titular star of Othello. While I’m certain the actors back in 1604 were white guys in the Elizabethan equivalent of blackface, Othello was not an embodiment of racist stereotypes. He was just a black guy.

Fast-forward to America, where they know how to do racism up right. Lewis Hallam Jr. played “Mungo”, a drunken black man in a British play called The Padlock in 1769. I don’t know if Mungo was a comical drunk guy or a comical drunk black guy, but this appears to be one of the first absurdly racist depictions involving blackface in theatre.

The real culprit for unleashing blackface unto the world was Thomas D. Rice.

Rice became a star in the 1830s – and the more I read about this, the less I want to explore the music of the early 1800s – with a song called “Jump Jim Crow”, which became a huge part of his stage act. While decorum and a strong desire not to spoil my evening will prevent me from searching for a modernized recreation of this on Youtube, it’s enough just to say that the lyrics and description suggest that this was every racial stereotype Rice could squeeze into a single song.

Singing in blackface was generally accompanied by vigorous dances set to goofy comedic routines. This was the dawn of what would become vaudeville, and just as Jim Carrey can get laughs playing a moron or Larry the Cable Guy can get laughs actually being a moron on stage today, this was an easy ticket to quick laughs. With so many white audiences feeling an innate superiority to black people, it made sense to these performers to slap makeup on their faces and play into the prejudice.

As a student of comedy, this concept sends my stomach into somersaults. It was a cheap grab at a laugh, a lowly swoop at the audiences’ ugliest selves. Yet by the 1840s, the slapstick gags and ‘he’s-just-like-one-of-them’ bits were elevated beyond the mainstream. This is where I came in – with the Ethiopian Serenaders.

The first major performance by the Serenaders was before President John Tyler, whom I immortalized in an article entitled “The Crap-Bucket of History”. Go figure. The Serenaders performed their act at the White House in 1844 for a gathering of dignitaries, diplomats, and whomever President Tyler deemed worthy of his inner circle. This marked the elevation of blackface into acceptable Society entertainment.

The Ethiopian Serenaders (none of whom had probably ever been to Ethiopia) tweaked their act after that show. They dropped the cheap laughs and incorporated sentimental songs into their repertoire, romantic songs, even pieces from popular opera. The one thing they never compromised on was their commitment to racism. They no longer called their shows ‘minstrel shows’, they were now ‘Blackface Concerts’.

They toured England. Upon returning to America, they found that they were getting rotten reviews – people wanted the fall-down comedy. They didn’t want to hear black people sing, they wanted to laugh at black people.

How I wish this blight on the History of Haha could be left in the 19th century to rot. But no, blackface continued into the era of film.

Al Jolson, Fred Astaire, Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby all performed in blackface at some point in their careers. Early films in which black people were portrayed tended to feature white performers in makeup, though if you want to see the embodiment of sheer audacity, check out the first epic major motion picture in Hollywood history, D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation, a staple in entry-level film classes and the bane of almost every film student’s existence.

One of the last well-known film characters to adopt blackface came in 1953:

Does it matter that black performers began touring successfully in blackface in the 1800s? Does it matter that some of them actually made some pretty good money doing it? I suppose as a middle-age white guy, I’m not the right person to answer those questions. But I think I know which way I’m leaning.

Early minstrel performers used to claim that their stage personas were based on authentic observations of African-American culture and traditions. This is where the pratfalls get dangerous. I’m not saying that racial tolerance, integration and a collective conscience would have burst into the mainstream by 1900 had it not been for these vicious and evil minstrel shows. But come on, these things couldn’t have helped.

Today the perception of blackface has changed considerably. Even the most backward bigot knows better than to believe the simplified stereotypes of the pre-vaudeville minstrels. But that doesn’t necessarily keep away the controversy. When the Indonesian singer who calls himself ‘Taco’ dropped blackface dancers into his “Puttin’ On The Ritz” video in 1982, only a re-cut, no-dancer version appeared on MTV.

Now that we’re in the post-postmodern age (or whatever the hell we’re calling it), we can look back on blackface with the appropriate level of disgust, dropping a self-righteous antacid to quell our white guilt. Thankfully, that era is over, and we as a culture have risen above the embarrassment of such humor.

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