Over at The Grio, Blair L. M. Kelley—an associate professor at North Carolina State University—has published an apparently much-needed reminder of why wearing blackface for Halloween (or any other occasion) is insensitive if not entirely racist.
Kelley's piece paces through the history of minstrelsy shows and Jim Crow laws and the characters that helped propel the depiction of black stereotypes to the forefront of American entertainment in the 19th century. She explains and lists examples of how minstrel humor became a staple in American popular culture.
Blackface was used to push products from cigarettes to pancakes while minstrel songs were turned into sheet music, sold and sung around the world. Classic American songs such as “Jimmy Crack Corn,” “Camptown Races” and “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah” all began as minstrel songs. Children’s rhymes and games also are drawn from our minstrel past. “Eeny Meeny, Miny, Moe,” initially commanded that the listener to “catch a ni**er by his toe.” “Do Your Ears Hang Low” was originally the 1829 song entitled “Zip Coon.” The story of the children’s book Ten Little Monkeys was first published as Ten Little Ni**er Boys where each boy was killed as the story progressed.
Blackface became a mainstay of stage and later film performance in the twentieth century. Most often blackface was used as a comic device that played on the stereotypes of black laziness, ignorance, or crass behavior for laughs. Sometimes blackface was used simply to portray black characters. The 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, the first feature film to be shown in the White House, used blackface to portray Reconstruction era black legislators as incompetent and to paint all black men as threatening to rape white women. The first talking picture, 1927’s The Jazz Singer starred Al Jolson, one of the most famous American performers of his day, in blackface. Even America’s sweetheart, Shirley Temple, donned blackface in 1935 film The Littlest Rebel. While none of the black actors in The Littlest Rebel film wore blackface, they performed in a style first created on the minstrel stage one hundred years earlier.
And, in case Kelley's "brief history of blackface" isn't enough to reinforce the notion that wearing blackface for Halloween is a terrible and racist idea, please consult shouldidressinblackfacethishalloween.com to further research whether or not you should incorporate it into your costume. [The Grio]