The curious origins of blackface minstrelsy

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau is the latest politician to be revealed to have appeared in blackface in the past.

Less than five weeks before the federal election on 21 October, the Liberal leader’s campaign was rocked when images emerged of Trudeau wearing blackface makeup.

On Thursday, new video emerged of a third instance of Trudeau in blackface – just hours after he had apologized for wearing what he described as “racist” makeup to a costume party in 2001.

The latest images came in a short, undated video clip published by Global News in which, Trudeau – his face, arms and legs painted black – waves at the camera and sticks his tongue out.

Trudeau immediately apologized, and acknowledged that he had previously blacked up at a high school talent show, when he had sung Day-O, the traditional Jamaican song.

“I apologise profoundly,” Trudeau told reporters aboard his campaign plane. “I didn’t think it was racist at the time, but now I see, it was a racist thing to do.

When, how, and where did this idea of white people painting themselves black originate as something desirable to do and why did it have such a fascination for white people? I am not aware of the opposite whiteface phenomenon, where people of color put on white makeup and perform just for the hell of it, having occurred anywhere. The only people who seem to wear white makeup are mimes and clowns and they are also usually white.

It is clear that for a long time it was seen as unproblematic for white people to do this, right up the very recent past, less than two decades ago, long after the civil rights struggles, the elimination of Jim Crow laws, and the recognition of the horrors of slavery and racism in the US. The 1619 Project that I wrote about before has an interesting article by Wesley Morris (pages 60-67) that has some folkloric information on how blackface minstrelsy probably originated, with a white actor named Thomas Dartmouth Rice.

In 1830, Rice was a nobody actor in his early 20s, touring with a theater company in Cincinnati (or Louisville; historians don’t know for sure), when, the story goes, he saw a decrepit, possibly disfigured old black man singing while grooming a horse on the property of a white man whose last name was Crow. On went the light bulb. Rice took in the tune and the movements but failed, it seems, to take down the old man’s name. So in his song based on the horse groomer, he renamed him: ‘‘Weel about and turn about jus so/Ebery time I weel about, I jump Jim Crow.’’ And just like that, Rice had invented the fellow who would become the mascot for two centuries of legalized racism.

That night, Rice made himself up to look like the old black man — or something like him, because Rice’s get-up most likely concocted skin blacker than any actual black person’s and a gibberish dialect meant to imply black speech. Rice had turned the old man’s melody and hobbled movements into a song-and-dance routine that no white audience had ever experienced before. What they saw caused a permanent sensation. He reportedly won 20 encores.

Other performers came and conquered, particularly the Virginia Minstrels, who exploded in 1843, burned brightly then burned out after only months. In their wake, P. T. Barnum made a habit of booking other troupes for his American Museum; when he was short on performers, he blacked up himself. By the 1840s, minstrel acts were taking over concert halls, doing wildly clamored-for residencies in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. A blackface minstrel would sing, dance, play music, give speeches and cut up for white audiences, almost exclusively in the North, at least initially. Blackface was used for mock operas and political monologues (they called them stump speeches), skits, gender parodies and dances. taking over concert halls, doing wildly clamored-for residencies in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

As a result, white performers putting on blackface became highly popular. And this led to a bizarre development in which even black performers felt obliged to put on blackface and make caricatures of themselves in order to appeal to white audiences.

But where did this leave a black performer? If blackface was the country’s cultural juggernaut, who would pay Negroes money to perform as themselves? When they were hired, it was only in a pinch. Once, P. T. Barnum needed a replacement for John Diamond, his star white minstrel. In a New York City dance hall, Barnum found a boy, who, it was reported at the time, could outdo Diamond (and Diamond was good). The boy, of course, was genuinely black. And his being actually black would have rendered him an outrageous blight on a white consumer’s narrow presumptions. As Thomas Low Nichols would write in his 1864 compendium, ‘‘Forty Years of American Life,’’ ‘‘There was not an audience in America that would not have resented, in a very energetic fashion, the insult of being asked to look at the dancing of a real negro.’’ So Barnum ‘‘greased the little ‘nigger’s’ face and rubbed it over with a new blacking of burned cork, painted his thick lips vermilion, put on a woolly wig over his tight curled locks and brought him out as ‘the champion nigger-dancer of the world.’ ’’ This child might have been William Henry Lane, whose stage name was Juba. And, as Juba, Lane was persuasive enough that Barnum could pass him off as a white person in blackface. He ceased being a real black boy in order to become Barnum’s minstrel Pinocchio.

After the Civil War, black performers had taken up minstrelsy, too, corking themselves, for both white and black audiences — with a straight face or a wink, depending on who was looking. Black troupes invented important new dances with blue-ribbon names (the buck-and-wing, the Virginia essence, the stop-time). But these were unhappy innovations. Custom obligated black performers to fulfill an audience’s expectations, expectations that white performers had established. A black minstrel was impersonating the impersonation of himself. Think, for a moment, about the talent required to pull that off.

I found this to be a truly bizarre story.


  1. says

    I found this to be a truly bizarre story.

    It’s not bizarre, it’s a painfully common story. A majority privileged group discriminates and dislikes an oppressed minority group. The majority will create caricatures and stereotypes of the minority. The entertainment industry will use actors who belong to the majority group in order to portray the minority characters. That’s how it works. I can give plenty of similar examples.

    Example 1: Gays and lesbians. By now homophobia is lessening in at least some societies, so these stereotypes are fading by now, but in past there used to be stereotypes about how gay men were feminine and obsessed with their visual appearance while lesbians were masculine and ugly. Moreover, how many movies had homosexual characters played by straight actors?

    Example 2: Trans people. There are nasty stereotypes about who we are, how we look, and how we live. Movies routinely use cis actors to portray trans characters, even though it’s not like there were no trans people interested in being movie stars. And just look at the stereotypes themselves. A trans woman is just a masculine looking guy in a dress with some make-up. She’s expected to be very feminine in her fashion choices. She’s not expected to just look like a normal average woman. As for trans men, we have to do weird stuff in order to earn our right to live as guys.

    Once the stereotypes are created, people who actually belong to said minority group are impacted by them, they are expected to live according to said stereotype. For example, I have to do weird stuff in order for people to accept my claim that I prefer to live as a man, because otherwise people will dismiss my claims about my gender identity only because I don’t appear masculine enough to satisfy some stereotype. Consider haircuts, for example. Personally, I believe that long hair look fabulous on men. The longer a man’s hair, the sexier he seems for me. But when a trans man keeps his hair long, that somehow invalidates his masculinity in other people’s eyes. (I still haven’t cut my hair, because I sort of enjoy having long hair; but lately I’m seriously considering a change of haircut.)

  2. fentex says

    Blackface is an insult because it’s a deliberate effort to invoke a stereotype -- but not all dark makeup is blackface.

    I think what Trudeau did is blackface -- but I’m reminded of a story a few years ago about a boy and his mother being vilified in Australia because he went to a fancy dress party dressed as his favourite Australian Rules football player -- who the boy had put on dark makeup to better resemble.

    And that wasn’t blackface, it was makeup to more accurately costume himself as an individual -- not to invoke a stereotype.

    Yet in debate over the matter I saw many people asserting that’s not possible, that all dark makeup is blackface -- I suspect because often such disputes draw in the political consideration of, no matter what individuals intent, power imbalances in society and non-intentioned implications to others, no matter how innocent people believe themselves to be.

  3. mailliw says

    There used to be a show on BBC called The Black and White Minstrel Show, with the white performers performing in blackface.

    It was cancelled in 1978 by the BBC because it was considered to be racially offensive (which it most definitely is). The show did continue for a while as a stage show, but now no longer exists.

    This is why I find it rather astonishing that Trudeau should still be doing something like this in the 21st century.

    The Dutch still have the tradition of Zwarte Piet (black Peter) which involves blackface. A subject of great controversy in the Netherlands.

  4. blf says

    The Dutch still have the tradition of Zwarte Piet (black Peter) which involves blackface. A subject of great controversy in the Netherlands.

    This is changing (finally!), Dutch Saint Nicholas parade to replace blackface with ‘sooty faces’:

    After years of debate and at times violent protest, this year’s Christmas-season Saint Nicholas parade in the Netherlands will not feature white people in blackface makeup, the public broadcaster that organises the event has said.


    Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas’s helper, has traditionally been portrayed by adults wearing gaudy costumes, large gold earrings, afro-style wigs, red lipstick and full blackface makeup, a characterisation critics say is a racist reference to slavery.

    Many Dutch, however, strongly defend the traditional Piet, arguing that his face is black only because of soot from the many chimneys he has had to climb down to bring presents to excited children on 5 December.


    “Today is a beautiful, historic day,” said Jerry Afriyie of Kick Out Zwarte Piet, who has been campaigning against Zwarte Piet since 2008. “This is a victory for everyone who strives for an inclusive parade that will delight all children. We want the tradition to continue for thousands of years — but adapted to the times.”

    Afriyie pledged to continue the fight against Zwarte Piet in blackface until the figure had disappeared completely. “The national arrival of Sinterklaas is the big one, but there are other, local ones,” he said. “We will fight for change.”

    Polls show support for the traditional Piet is strong, but fading: in 2013, 89% of the Dutch favoured blackface, a figure that had fallen to 68% by 2017. More than half of young people between 18 and 25 thought the character’s appearance should change.

    In 2015, the Dutch government said it would reflect on the character after a report from the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination said its portrayal “reflects negative stereotypes of people of African descent and is experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery”.

    This seems reasonable to me. If the reason for the character’s visual appearance is soot from chimneys, then an obviously-sooty appearance seems not-as-problematic; the current one of “afro-style wigs, red lipstick and full blackface makeup” is both not-sooty (contrary to the fantasy) and a rather obvious racist slur. (There is an image of a full-blackface Zwarte Piet at the link, but not one of the sooty-faced Zwarte Piet.)

  5. Michael Sternberg says

    The “Zwarte Piet” controversy is a double-edged sword: The demands to discontinue the practice because of US-specific connotations looks rather like cultural imperialism, i.e., imposing American sensitivities and values onto another culture.

    The full story, of course, must consider how the minstrel-like makeup came to be
    the canonical representation of Zwarte Piet. Was it convergent evolution or was it influenced by 19th century American publications?

  6. mailliw says

    @8 Michael Sternberg

    The “Zwarte Piet” controversy is a double-edged sword: The demands to discontinue the practice because of US-specific connotations looks rather like cultural imperialism, i.e., imposing American sensitivities and values onto another culture.

    This strikes me as implausible. Many of those protesting against Zwarte Piet are people of colour from the Netherlands’ former colonies.

    Also consider how many of the people protesting against the replacement of “black Peter” with “sooty Peter” come from some extremely unsavoury far right groups.

    As cities like Amsterdam, Den Haag and Utrecht have shown it is possible to continue the tradition while removing the black face and curly wigs.

  7. M'thew says

    @8, @9:

    The phenomenon of Zwarte Piet seems to be of uniquely Dutch origin: the Wiki article is a good introduction.
    Maybe the resistance against Zwarte Piet is influenced by the struggle against racism that also takes place in the United States, but to paint it as “cultural imperialism” in my mind plays into the hands of the people who don’t want to change this “tradition”. They can paint it off as “Amerikaanse toestanden”, PC excesses inspired by the oversensitive lefty crowd on the other side of the Atlantic. Fact is, Zwarte Piet does instill a racist attitude in people and it is high time it is shown the door.

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