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This reproduction of a 1900 William H. West minstrel show poster, originally published by the Strobridge Litho Co., shows the transformation from "white" to "black".

Blackface is a term used to describe a form of theatrical make-up used predominantly by non-black performers to represent a caricature of a black person. The term is also used for black makeup worn as part of folk traditions and disguising, not all of which are perceived as or originated as racial stereotypes of black people.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7]

In the United States the practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the spread of racial stereotypes such as the "happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation" or the "dandified coon".[8] By the middle of the century, blackface minstrel shows had become a distinctive American artform, translating formal works such as opera into popular terms for a general audience.[9] Early in the 20th century, blackface branched off from the minstrel show and became a form in its own right.[10] In the United States, blackface had largely fallen out of favor by the turn of the 21st century, and is now generally considered offensive, disrespectful, and racist,[11] though the practice continues in other countries.


The Dreadnought hoaxers in Abyssinian costume

Blackface was a performance tradition in the American theater for roughly 100 years beginning around 1830. It quickly became popular in Britain as well, where the tradition lasted longer than in the U.S., occurring on primetime TV, most famously in The Black and White Minstrel Show, which ended in 1978,[12] and in Are You Being Served?s Christmas specials in 1976[13] and finally in 1981.[14]

In both the United States and Britain, blackface was most commonly used in the minstrel performance tradition, which it both predated and outlasted. Early white performers in blackface used burnt cork and later greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation. Later, black artists also performed in blackface. The famous[15]Dreadnought hoax involved the use of blackface and costume in order for a group of high profile authors to gain access to a Military vessel.

Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrels not only played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes, and perceptions worldwide, but also in popularizing black culture.[16] In some quarters, the caricatures that were the legacy of blackface persist to the present day and are a cause of ongoing controversy. Another view is that "blackface is a form of cross-dressing in which one puts on the insignias of a sex, class, or race that stands in opposition to one's own."[17]

By the mid-20th century, changing attitudes about race and racism effectively ended the prominence of blackface makeup used in performance in the U.S. and elsewhere. Blackface in contemporary art remains in relatively limited use as a theatrical device and is more commonly used today as social commentary or satire. Perhaps the most enduring effect of blackface is the precedent it established in the introduction of African-American culture to an international audience, albeit through a distorted lens.[18][19] Blackface's appropriation,[18][19][20]exploitation, and assimilation[18] of African-American culture - as well as the inter-ethnic artistic collaborations that stemmed from it - were but a prologue to the lucrative packaging, marketing, and dissemination of African-American cultural expression and its myriad derivative forms in today's world popular culture.[19][21][22]

Racist archetypes

The white American actor John McCullough as Othello, 1878

There is no consensus about a single moment that constitutes the origin of blackface. The journalist and cultural commentator John Strausbaugh places it as part of a tradition of "displaying Blackness for the enjoyment and edification of white viewers" that dates back at least to 1441, when captive West Africans were displayed in Portugal.[23] White people routinely portrayed the black characters in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater (see English Renaissance theatre), most famously in Othello (1604).[12] However, Othello and other plays of this era did not involve the emulation and caricature of "such supposed innate qualities of Blackness as inherent musicality, natural athleticism", etc. that Strausbaugh sees as crucial to blackface.[23]

Lewis Hallam, Jr., a white blackface actor of American Company fame, brought blackface in this more specific sense to prominence as a theatrical device in the United States when playing the role of "Mungo", an inebriated black man in The Padlock, a British play that premiered in New York City at the John Street Theatre on May 29, 1769.[24] The play attracted notice, and other performers adopted the style. From at least the 1810s, blackface clowns were popular in the United States.[25] British actor Charles Mathews toured the U.S. in 1822-23, and as a result added a "black" characterization to his repertoire of British regional types for his next show, A Trip to America, which included Mathews singing "Possum up a Gum Tree", a popular slave freedom song.[26]Edwin Forrest played a plantation black in 1823,[26] and George Washington Dixon was already building his stage career around blackface in 1828,[27] but it was another white comic actor, Thomas D. Rice, who truly popularized blackface. Rice introduced the song "Jump Jim Crow" accompanied by a dance in his stage act in 1828[28] and scored stardom with it by 1832.[29]

First on de heel tap, den on the toe
Every time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow.
I wheel about and turn about an do just so,
And every time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow.[30]

This postcard, published c. 1908, shows a white minstrel team. While both are wearing wigs, the man on the left is in blackface and drag.

Rice traveled the U.S., performing under the stage name "Daddy Jim Crow". The name Jim Crow later became attached to statutes that codified the reinstitution of segregation and discrimination after Reconstruction.[31]

In the 1830s and early 1840s, blackface performances mixed skits with comic songs and vigorous dances. Initially, Rice and his peers performed only in relatively disreputable venues, but as blackface gained popularity they gained opportunities to perform as entr'actes in theatrical venues of a higher class. Stereotyped blackface characters developed: buffoonish, lazy, superstitious, cowardly, and lascivious characters, who stole, lied pathologically, and mangled the English language. Early blackface minstrels were all male, so cross-dressing white men also played black women who were often portrayed as unappealingly and grotesquely mannish, in the matronly mammy mold, or as highly sexually provocative. The 1830s American stage, where blackface first rose to prominence, featured similarly comic stereotypes of the clever Yankee and the larger-than-life Frontiersman;[32] the late 19th- and early 20th-century American and British stage where it last prospered[33] featured many other, mostly ethnically-based, comic stereotypes: conniving, venal Jews;[34][35] drunken brawling Irishmen with blarney at the ready;[35][36][37] oily Italians;[35] stodgy Germans;[35] and gullible rural rubes.[35]

1830s and early 1840s blackface performers performed solo or as duos, with the occasional trio; the traveling troupes that would later characterize blackface minstrelsy arose only with the minstrel show.[38] In New York City in 1843, Dan Emmett and his Virginia Minstrels broke blackface minstrelsy loose from its novelty act and entr'acte status and performed the first full-blown minstrel show: an evening's entertainment composed entirely of blackface performance. (E. P. Christy did more or less the same, apparently independently, earlier the same year in Buffalo, New York.)[39] Their loosely structured show with the musicians sitting in a semicircle, a tambourine player on one end and a bones player on the other, set the precedent for what would soon become the first act of a standard three-act minstrel show.[40] By 1852, the skits that had been part of blackface performance for decades expanded to one-act farces, often used as the show's third act.[41]

The songs of northern composer Stephen Foster figured prominently in blackface minstrel shows of the period. Though written in dialect and certainly politically incorrect by today's standards, his later songs were free of the ridicule and blatantly racist caricatures that typified other songs of the genre. Foster's works treated slaves and the South in general with an often cloying sentimentality that appealed to audiences of the day.[42]

White minstrel shows featured white performers pretending to be black people, playing their versions of 'black music' and speaking ersatz black dialects. Minstrel shows dominated popular show business in the U.S. from that time through into the 1890s, also enjoying massive popularity in the UK and in other parts of Europe.[43] As the minstrel show went into decline, blackface returned to its novelty act roots and became part of vaudeville.[33] Blackface featured prominently in film at least into the 1930s, and the "aural blackface"[44] of the Amos 'n' Andy radio show lasted into the 1950s.[44] Meanwhile, amateur blackface minstrel shows continued to be common at least into the 1950s.[45] In the UK, one such blackface popular in the 1950s was Ricardo Warley from Alston, Cumbria who toured around the North of England with a monkey called Bilbo.[46]

As a result, the genre played an important role in shaping perceptions of and prejudices about black people generally and African Americans in particular. Some social commentators have stated that blackface provided an outlet for white peoples' fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar, and a socially acceptable way of expressing their feelings and fears about race and control. Writes Eric Lott in Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, "The black mask offered a way to play with the collective fears of a degraded and threatening - and male - Other while at the same time maintaining some symbolic control over them."[47]

Blackface, at least initially, could also give voice to an oppositional dynamic that was prohibited by society. As early as 1832, a blacked-up Thomas D. Rice was singing, "An' I caution all white dandies not to come in my way, / For if dey insult me, dey'll in de gutter lay." It also on occasion equated lower-class white and lower-class black audiences; while parodying Shakespeare, Rice sang, "Aldough I'm a black man, de white is call'd my broder."[48]


Singer and actor Al Jolson wearing blackface in the musical film The Jazz Singer

Through the 1930s, many well-known entertainers of stage and screen also performed in blackface.[49] White people who performed in blackface in film included Al Jolson,[50]Eddie Cantor,[51]Bing Crosby,[50]Fred Astaire, Buster Keaton, Joan Crawford, Irene Dunne, Doris Day, Milton Berle, William Holden, Marion Davies, Myrna Loy, Betty Grable, Dennis Morgan, Laurel and Hardy, Betty Hutton, The Three Stooges, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Donald O'Connor and Chester Morris and George E. Stone in Boston Blackie's Rendezvous.[51] As late as the 1940s, Warner Bros. used blackface in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), a minstrel show sketch in This Is the Army (1943) and by casting Flora Robson as a Haitian maid in Saratoga Trunk (1945).[52]

In the early years of film, black characters were routinely played by white people in blackface. In the first filmic adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903), all of the major black roles were white people in blackface.[53] Even the 1914 Uncle Tom starring African-American actor Sam Lucas in the title role had a white male in blackface as Topsy.[54]D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) used white people in blackface to represent all of its major black characters,[55] but reaction against the film's racism largely put an end to this practice in dramatic film roles. Thereafter, white people in blackface would appear almost exclusively in broad comedies or "ventriloquizing" blackness[56] in the context of a vaudeville or minstrel performance within a film.[57] This stands in contrast to made-up white people routinely playing Native Americans, Asians, Arabs, and so forth, for several more decades.[58]

Blackface makeup was largely eliminated even from live film comedy in the U.S. after the end of the 1930s, when public sensibilities regarding race began to change and blackface became increasingly associated with racism and bigotry.[51] Still, the tradition did not end all at once. The radio program Amos 'n' Andy (1928-60) constituted a type of "oral blackface", in that the black characters were portrayed by white people and conformed to stage blackface stereotypes.[59] The conventions of blackface also lived on unmodified at least into the 1950s in animated theatrical cartoons. Strausbaugh estimates that roughly one-third of late 1940s MGM cartoons "included a blackface, coon, or mammy figure."[60]Bugs Bunny appeared in blackface at least as late as Southern Fried Rabbit in 1953.[61]


In 1910, the ballet Sheherazade, choreographed by Michael Fokine, premiered in Russia. The story behind the ballet was inspired by a tone poem written by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In the ballet the leading female character, Zobeide, is seduced by a Golden Slave. The dancer who portrayed the Golden Slave, the first being Vaslav Nijinsky, would have his face and body painted brown for the performance. This was done to show the audience the slave was of a darker complexion. Later in 1912, Fokine choreographed the ballet Petrushka, which centers around three puppets that come to life, Petrushka, the Ballerina, and the Moor. When the ballet premiered, the part of the Moor, first danced by Alexander Orlov, was performed in full blackface. The Moor puppet is first seen onstage playing with a coconut, which he attempts to open with his scimitar. His movements are apelike. The Moor seduces the Ballerina and later savagely cuts off the head of the puppet Petrushka. When Petrushka is performed today, the part of the Moor is still done in full blackface, or occasionally blueface. The blackface has not been publicly criticized in the ballet community. Black and brownface appear in other ballets today, such as La Bayadère and Othello, in the United States and Europe.[62]

Black minstrel shows

Bert Williams was the only black member of the Ziegfeld Follies when he joined them in 1910. Shown here in blackface, he was the highest-paid African American entertainer of his day.[63]

By 1840, black performers also were performing in blackface makeup. Frederick Douglass generally abhorred blackface and was one of the first people to write against the institution of blackface minstrelsy, condemning it as racist in nature, with inauthentic, northern, white origins.[64] Douglass did, however, maintain: "It is something to be gained when the colored man in any form can appear before a white audience."[65]

When all-black minstrel shows began to proliferate in the 1860s, they often were billed as "authentic" and "the real thing". These "colored minstrels"[66] always claimed to be recently freed slaves (doubtlessly many were, but most were not)[67] and were widely seen as authentic. This presumption of authenticity could be a bit of a trap, with white audiences seeing them more like "animals in a zoo"[68] than skilled performers. Despite often smaller budgets and smaller venues, their public appeal sometimes rivalled that of white minstrel troupes. In March 1866, Booker and Clayton's Georgia Minstrels may have been the country's most popular troupe, and were certainly among the most critically acclaimed.[69]

These "colored" troupes - many using the name "Georgia Minstrels"[70] - focused on "plantation" material, rather than the more explicit social commentary (and more nastily racist stereotyping) found in portrayals of northern black people.[71] In the execution of authentic black music and the percussive, polyrhythmic tradition of pattin' Juba, when the only instruments performers used were their hands and feet, clapping and slapping their bodies and shuffling and stomping their feet, black troupes particularly excelled. One of the most successful black minstrel companies was Sam Hague's Slave Troupe of Georgia Minstrels, managed by Charles Hicks. This company eventually was taken over by Charles Callendar. The Georgia Minstrels toured the United States and abroad and later became Haverly's Colored Minstrels.[69]

From the mid-1870s, as white blackface minstrelsy became increasingly lavish and moved away from "Negro subjects", black troupes took the opposite tack.[72] The popularity of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and other jubilee singers had demonstrated northern white interest in white religious music as sung by black people, especially spirituals. Some jubilee troupes pitched themselves as quasi-minstrels and even incorporated minstrel songs; meanwhile, blackface troupes began to adopt first jubilee material and then a broader range of southern black religious material. Within a few years, the word "jubilee", originally used by the Fisk Jubilee Singers to set themselves apart from blackface minstrels and to emphasize the religious character of their music, became little more than a synonym for "plantation" material.[73] Where the jubilee singers tried to "clean up" Southern black religion for white consumption, blackface performers exaggerated its more exotic aspects.[74]

African-American blackface productions also contained buffoonery and comedy, by way of self-parody. In the early days of African-American involvement in theatrical performance, black people could not perform without blackface makeup, regardless of how dark-skinned they were. The 1860s "colored" troupes violated this convention for a time: the comedy-oriented endmen "corked up", but the other performers "astonished" commentators by the diversity of their hues.[75] Still, their performances were largely in accord with established blackface stereotypes.[76]

These black performers became stars within the broad African-American community, but were largely ignored or condemned by the black bourgeoisie. James Monroe Trotter  - a middle-class African American who had contempt for their "disgusting caricaturing" but admired their "highly musical culture" - wrote in 1882 that "few ... who condemned black minstrels for giving 'aid and comfort to the enemy'" had ever seen them perform.[77] Unlike white audiences, black audiences presumably always recognized blackface performance as caricature, but took pleasure in seeing their own culture observed and reflected, much as they would half a century later in the performances of Moms Mabley.[78]

Despite reinforcing racist stereotypes, blackface minstrelsy was a practical and often relatively lucrative livelihood when compared to the menial labor to which most black people were relegated. Owing to the discrimination of the day, "corking (or blacking) up" provided an often singular opportunity for African-American musicians, actors, and dancers to practice their crafts.[79] Some minstrel shows, particularly when performing outside the South, also managed subtly to poke fun at the racist attitudes and double standards of white society or champion the abolitionist cause. It was through blackface performers, white and black, that the richness and exuberance of African-American music, humor, and dance first reached mainstream, white audiences in the U.S. and abroad.[19] It was through blackface minstrelsy that African American performers first entered the mainstream of American show business.[80] Black performers used blackface performance to satirize white behavior. It was also a forum for the sexual double entendre gags that were frowned upon by white moralists. There was often a subtle message behind the outrageous vaudeville routines:

The laughter that cascaded out of the seats was directed parenthetically toward those in America who allowed themselves to imagine that such 'nigger' showtime was in any way respective of the way we live or thought about ourselves in the real world.[81]:5, 92-92, 1983 ed.

With the rise of vaudeville, Bahamian-born actor and comedian Bert Williams became Florenz Ziegfeld's highest-paid star and only African-American star.[63][82]

A poster for the 1939 Broadway show The Hot Mikado using blackface imagery

In the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA), an all-black vaudeville circuit organized in 1909, blackface acts were a popular staple. Called "Toby" for short, performers also nicknamed it "Tough on Black Actors" (or, variously, "Artists" or "Asses"), because earnings were so meager. Still, TOBA headliners like Tim Moore and Johnny Hudgins could make a very good living, and even for lesser players, TOBA provided fairly steady, more desirable work than generally was available elsewhere. Blackface served as a springboard for hundreds of artists and entertainers - black and white - many of whom later would go on to find work in other performance traditions. For example, one of the most famous stars of Haverly's European Minstrels was Sam Lucas, who became known as the "Grand Old Man of the Negro Stage".[83] Lucas later played the title role in the 1914 cinematic production of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. From the early 1930s to the late 1940s, New York City's famous Apollo Theater in Harlem featured skits in which almost all black male performers wore the blackface makeup and huge white painted lips, despite protests that it was degrading from the NAACP. The comics said they felt "naked" without it.[81]:4, 1983 ed.

The minstrel show was appropriated by the black performer from the original white shows, but only in its general form. Black people took over the form and made it their own. The professionalism of performance came from black theater. Some argue that the black minstrels gave the shows vitality and humor that the white shows never had. As the black social critic LeRoi Jones has written:

It is essential to realize that ... the idea of white men imitating, or caricaturing, what they consider certain generic characteristics of the black man's life in America is important if only because of the Negro's reaction to it. (And it is the Negro's reaction to America, first white and then black and white America, that I consider to have made him such a unique member of this society.)[84]

The black minstrel performer was not only poking fun at himself but in a more profound way, he was poking fun at the white man. The cakewalk is caricaturing white customs, while white theater companies attempted to satirize the cakewalk as a black dance. Again, as LeRoi Jones notes:

If the cakewalk is a Negro dance caricaturing certain white customs, what is that dance when, say, a white theater company attempts to satirize it as a Negro dance? I find the idea of white minstrels in blackface satirizing a dance satirizing themselves a remarkable kind of irony - which, I suppose is the whole point of minstrel shows.[84]

Authentic or counterfeit

The degree to which blackface performance drew on authentic black culture and traditions is controversial. Blacks, including slaves, were influenced by white culture, including white musical culture. Certainly this was the case with church music from very early times. Complicating matters further, once the blackface era began, some blackface minstrel songs unquestionably written by New York-based professionals (Stephen Foster, for example) made their way to the plantations in the South and merged into the body of black folk music.[85]

It seems clear, however, that American music by the early 19th century was an interwoven mixture of many influences, and that blacks were quite aware of white musical traditions and incorporated these into their music.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, white-to-black and black-to-white musical influences were widespread, a fact documented in numerous contemporary accounts.... [I]t becomes clear that the prevailing musical interaction and influences in the nineteenth century American produced a black populace conversant with the music of both traditions.[86]

Early blackface minstrels often said that their material was largely or entirely authentic black culture; John Strausbaugh, author of Black Like You, said that such claims were likely to be untrue. Well into the 20th century, scholars took the stories at face value.[87]Constance Rourke, one of the founders of what is now known as cultural studies, largely assumed this as late as 1931.[88] In the Civil Rights era there was a strong reaction against this view, to the point of denying that blackface was anything other than a white racist counterfeit.[89] Starting no later than Robert Toll's Blacking Up (1974), a "third wave" has systematically studied the origins of blackface, and has put forward a nuanced picture: that blackface did, indeed, draw on black culture, but that it transformed, stereotyped, and caricatured that culture, resulting in often racist representations of black characters[90]

As discussed above, this picture becomes even more complicated after the Civil War, when many blacks became blackface performers. They drew on much material of undoubted slave origins, but they also drew on a professional performer's instincts, while working within an established genre, and with the same motivation as white performers to make exaggerated claims of the authenticity of their own material.

Author Strausbaugh summed up as follows: "Some minstrel songs started as Negro folk songs, were adapted by White minstrels, became widely popular, and were readopted by Blacks," writes Strausbaugh. "The question of whether minstrelsy was white or black music was moot. It was a mix, a mutt - that is, it was American music."[91]

Florence Kate Upton's "Golliwog" in 1895, described as "a horrid sight, the blackest gnome." Note the formal minstrel attire.

"Darky" iconography

The darky icon itself - googly-eyed, with inky skin, exaggerated white, pink or red lips, and bright, white teeth - became a common motif in entertainment, children's literature, mechanical banks, and other toys and games of all sorts, cartoons and comic strips, advertisements, jewelry, textiles, postcards, sheet music, food branding and packaging, and other consumer goods.

In 1895, the Golliwog surfaced in Great Britain, the product of children's book illustrator Florence Kate Upton, who modeled her rag doll character after a minstrel doll from her American childhood. "Golly", as he later affectionately came to be called, had a jet-black face, wild, woolly hair, bright, red lips, and sported formal minstrel attire. The generic British golliwog later made its way back across the Atlantic as dolls, toy tea sets, ladies' perfume, and in myriad of other forms. The word "golliwog" may have given rise to the ethnic slur "wog".[92]

"Darky" iconography frequently adorned the covers of sheet music from the 1870s through the 1940s, but virtually disappeared by the 1950s.
Grocery list pegboard with a blackface graphic

U.S. cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s often featured characters in blackface gags as well as other racial and ethnic caricatures. Blackface was one of the influences in the development of characters such as Mickey Mouse.[93] The United Artists 1933 release "Mickey's Mellerdrammer" - the name a corruption of "melodrama" thought to harken back to the earliest minstrel shows - was a film short based on a production of Uncle Tom's Cabin by the Disney characters. Mickey, of course, was already black, but the advertising poster for the film shows Mickey with exaggerated, orange lips; bushy, white sidewhiskers; and his now trademark white gloves.[94]

Reproduction of an old tin sign advertising Picaninny Freeze, a frozen treat (1922)

In the U.S., by the 1950s, the NAACP had begun calling attention to such portrayals of African Americans and mounted a campaign to put an end to blackface performances and depictions. For decades, darky images had been seen in the branding of everyday products and commodities such as Picaninny Freeze, the Coon Chicken Inn[95]restaurant chain, and Nigger Hair Tobacco. With the eventual successes of the modern day Civil Rights Movement, such blatantly racist branding practices ended in the U.S., and blackface became an American taboo.

Continued use in Asia

However, blackface-inspired iconography continue in popular media in Asia. In Japan, in the early 1960s, a toy called Dakkochan became hugely popular. Dakkochan was a black child with large red lips and a grass skirt. There were boy and girl dolls, with the girls being distinguished by a bow. The black skin of the dolls was said to have been significant and in-line with the rising popularity of jazz. Novelist Tensei Kawano went as far as to state, "We of the younger generation are outcasts from politics and society. In a way we are like Negroes, who have a long record of oppression and misunderstanding, and we feel akin to them."[96] Japanese manga and anime continue to prominently feature characters inspired by "darky" iconography, which includes Mr. Popo from the Dragon Ball series and the design of the Pokémon character Jynx. Both Mr. Popo and Jynx have been censored on American broadcasting. An American licensing company, 4 Licensing Company had Dragon Ball Z on their anime block 4Kids. The character Mr. Popo was turned bright blue and given orange-yellow lips[97] In 2011, a television drama in the Philippines titled Nita Negrita was widely criticized in the media and by academics.[98][99][100]

Prominent brands continue to use the iconography, including Chinese toothpaste brand Darlie, which was re-named from "Darkie", and 'Black Man' in Thailand.[101] Vaudeville-inspired blackface remains frequently utilized in commercials.[102]

Modern-day manifestations


Over time, blackface and "darky" iconography became artistic and stylistic devices associated with art deco and the Jazz Age. By the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in Europe, where it was more widely tolerated, blackface became a kind of outré, camp convention in some artistic circles. The Black and White Minstrel Show was a popular British musical variety show that featured blackface performers, and remained on British television until 1978 and in stage shows until 1989. Many of the songs were from the music hall, country and western and folk traditions.[103] Actors and dancers in blackface appeared in music videos such as Grace Jones's "Slave to the Rhythm" (1980, also part of her touring piece A One Man Show),[104]Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" (1982)[105] and Taco's "Puttin' On the Ritz" (1983).[106]

When trade and tourism produce a confluence of cultures, bringing differing sensibilities regarding blackface into contact with one another, the results can be jarring. When Japanese toymaker Sanrio Corporation exported a darky-icon character doll (the doll, Bibinba, had fat, pink lips and rings in its ears)[107] in the 1990s, the ensuing controversy prompted Sanrio to halt production.[108]

Trademark for Conguitos, a confection manufactured by the LACASA Group[109] features a tubby, little brown character with full, red lips. It became a topic of controversy after a Manchester City player compared his black teammate with the character.[110] In Britain, "Golly",[111] a golliwog character, fell out of favor in 2001 after almost a century as the trademark of jam producer James Robertson & Sons, but the debate still continues whether the golliwog should be banished in all forms from further commercial production and display, or preserved as a treasured childhood icon. In France, the chocolate powder Banania[112] still uses a little black boy with large red lips as its emblem. The licorice brand Tabu, owned by Perfetti Van Melle and distributed in Europe, introduced a cartoon minstrel mascot in the 1980s inspired by Al Jolson's blackface performance in The Jazz Singer, which is still in use today.[113]

The influence of blackface on branding and advertising, as well as on perceptions and portrayals of black people, generally, can be found worldwide.

High tech

Digital media provide opportunities to inhabit and perform black identity without actually painting one's face. In 1999, Adam Clayton Powell III coined the term "high-tech blackface" to refer to stereotypical portrayals of black characters in video games.[114] David Leonard writes that "The desire to 'be black' because of the stereotypical visions of strength, athleticism, power and sexual potency all play out within the virtual reality of sports games." Leonard's argument suggests that players perform a type of identity tourism by controlling black avatars in sports games.[115] Phillips and Reed argue that this type of blackface "is not only about whites assuming black roles, nor about exaggerated performances of blackness for the benefit of a racist audience. Rather, it is about performing a version of blackness that constrains it within the boundaries legible to white supremacy."[116]

Social media has also facilitated the spread of blackface in culture. In 2016, a controversy emerged over Snapchat's Bob Marley filter, which allowed users to superimpose dark skin, dreadlocks, and a knitted cap over their own faces.[117][118] A number of controversies have also emerged about students at American universities sharing images of themselves appearing to wear blackface makeup.[119][120][121][122] Additionally, writers such as Lauren Michele Jackson and Victoria Princewill have criticized non-black people sharing animated images of black people or black-skinned emojis, calling the practice "digital blackface".[123][124]


In 1980 the white members of UB40 appeared in blackface in their "Dream a Lie" video. The black members of the group appeared in whiteface to give the opposite appearance.[125] Similarly, in a 2006 reality television program, Black. White., white participants wore blackface makeup and black participants wore whiteface makeup in an attempt to be better able to see the world through the perspective of the other race.[126]

Comedians in many Asian countries continue to occasionally use minstrel-inspired blackface, with considerable frequency in South Korea.[127][128][129][130][131][132][133]

Stunt doubles

The work of stunt doubles in American TV and film productions is overwhelmingly taken by white men. When they are made up to look like a woman, the practice is called "wigging". When they are made up to look like another race, the practice is called a "paint down". Stunt performers Janeshia Adams-Ginyard and Sharon Schaffer have equated it in 2018 with blackface minstrelsy.[134]



Black and White Minstrels Coburg, Melbourne, Australia, 6 November 1935

In October 2009, a talent-search skit on Australian TV's Hey Hey It's Saturday reunion show featured a tribute group for Michael Jackson, the "Jackson Jive" in blackface, with the Michael Jackson character in whiteface. American performer Harry Connick, Jr. was one of the guest judges and objected to the act, stating that he believed it was offensive to black people, and gave the troupe a score of zero. The show and the group later apologised to Connick, with the troupe leader of Indian descent stating that the skit was not intended to be offensive or racist.[135]


The "Mohrenbrauerei" in Dornbirn, Austria, uses a blackface type drawing in its logo.[136]

Belgium and Netherlands

In Tintin in the Congo, cartoonist Hergé uses a blackface type drawing style to depict the native Congolese. And in the Dutch comic Sjors & Sjimmie, started in 1902, Sjimmie was initially depicted in the same way, but was gradually turned into a normal, but black, Dutch boy and in 1969, when Jan Kruis took over the comic, his transformation to a normal black boy was complete.

Christian traditions: Sinterklaas

A Dutch man in Zwarte Piet costume
Sinterklaas and his Black Petes arrive by boat at the start of a procession in Nijmegen (Netherlands), 2016

In the Netherlands and Belgium, people annually celebrate St. Nicolas Eve with Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas, accompanied by multiple helpers or Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes). The first is typically an older white man similar to the American Santa, while the latter are usually adolescent boys and girls, and men and women in make-up and attire similar to the American blackface. The task of the Pieten is generally to entertain the children with jokes and pranks, and to help Sinterklaas distribute presents and dole out candy. The Pieten wear Moorish page boy costumes and partake in parades. The Moorish Zwarte Piet character has been traced back to the middle of the 19th century when Jan Schenkman, a popular children's book author, added a black servant to the Sinterklaas story. According to folklore, the skin of the Pieten is colored by soot from going down chimneys to bringing presents into people's houses.[137] However, the original and archetypal Zwarte Piet is believed to be a continuation of a much older custom in which people with blackface appeared in Winter Solstice rituals.[138] In other parts of Western Europe and in Central Europe, black-faced and masked people also perform the role of companions of Saint Nicholas, who is known as Nikolo in Austria, Nikolaus in Germany and Samichlaus in Switzerland. Also on Saint Martin's Eve, black-faced men go around in processions through Wörgl and the Lower Inn Valley, in Tyrol.[1]

Due to Zwarte Piet's strong aesthetic resemblance to the archetypal US blackface, as well as the dynamics between the blackface servants and the white Sinterklaas,[139] there has been international condemnation of the practice since the 1960's.[140] Some of the stereotypical elements have been toned down in recent decades as a result of increasing protests within the nation.[141] For example, there has been a transition towards applying only a few smears of 'soot' to the Piet's cheeks, rather than apply a full blackface.[142][142] The support for changing the characters has increased from 5% (versus 89% opposition to changes) in 2013,[143] to 26% (versus 68% opposed to character changes) in 2017.[144] In 2019 the support for Zwarte Piet increased, while the opposition underwent a slight decline.[145] In 2020, following the death of George Floyd and worldwide protests against racism, the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte (who previously, since 2013, had strongly supported Zwarte Piet and condemned protests against Zwarte Piet and suggestions for change) stated he had changed his mind on the matter and hoped the tradition would die out. Yet, he emphasized not intending to impose an official ban and noted he too retains sympathy towards those who do not want to let go of Zwarte Piet.[146][147][148]

Christian traditions: Driekoningen

Children celebrating Driekoningen in Amsterdam in 1958

On the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, children go door to door in threes wearing paper crowns (to commemorate the biblical magi), carrying a lantern and singing songs. They are dressed in adult clothing (to commemorate the massacre of the innocents) and one of the three may be in blackface to depict Balthazar.

Quebec, Canada

Up until the early 2000s, white comedians sometimes used makeup to represent a black person, most often as a parody of an actual person. Many of these segments have been aired during the annual New Year's Eve TV special "Bye Bye." For instance, the 1986 edition[149] features three such skits:

  • a multi-ethnic version of the series "Le temps d'une paix" (fr), in which comedienne Michèle Deslauriers played the character Mémère Bouchard as if she hailed from Africa;
  • a reference to a joint concert by Quebec rocker Marjo and U.S. diva Eartha Kitt, in which Deslauriers and comic Dominique Michel alluded to Kitt spilling wine on Marjo during the show's press conference;[150]
  • a mock American Express commercial spoofing president Ronald Reagan's foreign policy, in which Deslauriers, Michel and actor Michel Côté played Middle-Eastern arms buyers.

The Montreal-based satiric group Rock et Belles Oreilles did its own blackface sketches, for instance when comedian Yves Pelletier disguised himself as comedian and show host Gregory Charles, making fun of his energetic personality (not of his racial background) on his television game show "Que le meilleur gagne".[151] RBO also did a parody of a talk show where a stereotypical Haitian man (Pelletier again) was easily offended,[152] as well as a group parody of the Caribbean band La Compagnie Créole[153] and a sketch about the lines of African-American actors that were mangled in movie translations.[154] Pelletier did another parody of Gregory Charles for the New Year's Eve TV special "Le Bye Bye de RBO" in 2006 (as an homage to Charles who had had a particularly successful year[155]), along with a parody of Governor General Michaëlle Jean.[156] And in RBO's 2007 "Bye Bye", Guy A. Lepage impersonated a black Quebecer testifying during the Bouchard-Taylor hearings on cultural differences,[157] while in another sketch, Lepage, Pelletier and Bruno Landry impersonated injured Darfur residents.[158]

In September 2011, HEC Montréal students caused a stir when using blackface to "pay tribute" to Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt during Frosh Week. The story went national, and was even covered on CNN.[159] The university students were filmed in Jamaican flag colours, chanting "smoke weed" in a chorus.[160] The University later apologized for the lack of consciousness of its student body.[161][162]

In May 2013, comedian Mario Jean (fr) took part in an award show to imitated several fellow comics, donning blackface when he came to Boucar Diouf (fr), a Senegalese-born story-teller.[163][164][165] Many Quebec pundits defended the practice[163][166][167] and Diouf himself praised Jean for his open-mindedness.[168]

In December 2013, white actor Joel Legendre (fr) performed in blackface in "Bye Bye 2013", in yet another parody[169] of Gregory Charles, this time as host of the variety show "Le choc des générations".

In December 2014, the satirical end-of-year production by Théâtre du Rideau Vert, a mainstream theatre company, included a blackface representation of hockey player P.K. Subban by actor Marc Saint-Martin.[170] Despite some criticism the sketch was not withdrawn.[171]

In March 2018, comedian of the year[172] Mariana Mazza (fr), whose parents are Arab and Uruguayan, celebrated International Women's Day by posting a message on her Facebook page which read "Vive la diversité" (Hurrah for diversity) and was accompanied by a picture of herself surrounded by eight ethnic variations, including one in a wig and makeup that showed what she'd look like if she were black.[173][174] She immediately received a flurry of hate messages and death threats, and two days later, posted another message[175] in which she apologized to whoever had been offended, but argued that she had been "naively" trying to "express her support for all these communities."

In June 2018, theatre director Robert Lepage was accused of staging scenes that were reminiscent of blackface[176] when he put together the show "SL?V" at the Montreal Jazz Festival, notably because white performers were dressed as slaves as they picked cotton.[177] After two initial performances, lead singer Betty Bonifassi broke an ankle and the rest of the summer run was canceled, but later performances were nevertheless scheduled in other venues.[178] The controversy prompted further protests about the play "Kanata" that Lepage was to stage in Paris about the Canadian Indian residential school system - without resorting to any indigenous actors.[179] The project was briefly put on hold when investors pulled out, but the production eventually resumed as planned.[180]

Prime Ministers

On September 18, 2019, Time magazine published a photograph of Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau wearing brownface makeup in the spring of 2001.[181] The photograph, which had not been previously reported, was taken at an "Arabian Nights"-themed gala. The photograph showed Trudeau, wearing a turban and robes with his face, neck and hands completely darkened. The photograph appeared in the 2000-2001 yearbook of the West Point Grey Academy, where Trudeau was a teacher. A copy of the yearbook was obtained by Time earlier in the month from Vancouver businessman Michael Adamson, who was part of the West Point Grey Academy community. Adamson said that he first saw the photograph in July and felt it should be made public. On September 19, 2019, Global News obtained and published a video from the early 1990s showing Trudeau in blackface.[182] The video showed Trudeau covered in dark makeup and raising his hands in the air while laughing, sticking his tongue out and making faces. The video showed his arms and legs covered in makeup as well.

Cape Verde

There are some occurrences of blacking up (completely covering the entire exposed body) with afro wigs and stereotypical grass skirts and costume at festivals in this African country.[183]


On February 15, 2018, a comedy sketch titled "Same Joy, Same Happiness" intending to celebrate Chinese-African ties on the CCTV New Year's Gala, which draws an audience of up to 800 million, showed a Chinese actress in blackface makeup with a giant fake bottom playing an African mother, while a performer only exposing black arms playing a monkey accompanied her. At the end of the skit, the actress shouted, "I love Chinese people! I love China!" After being broadcast, the scene was widely criticized as being "disgusting", "awkward" and "completely racist" on Twitter and Sina Weibo.[184][185] According to the street interviews by the Associated Press in Beijing on February 16, some Chinese people believed this kind of criticism was overblown.[186] Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, who also watched the skit, said that China had consistently opposed any form of racism, and added, "I want to say that if there are people who want to seize on an incident to exaggerate matters, and sow discord in China's relations with African countries, this is a doomed futile effort" at a daily news briefing on February 22, 2018.[187]


In Europe, there are a number of folk dances or folk performances in which the black face appears to represent the night, or the coming of the longer nights associated with winter. Many fall or autumn North European folk black face customs are employed ritualistically to appease the forces of the oncoming winter, utilizing characters with blackened faces, or black masks.[2]


In Finland, a version of the Star boys' singing procession originating in the city of Oulu, a musical play known as Tiernapojat, has become established as a cherished Christmas tradition nationwide. The Tiernapojat show is a staple of Christmas festivities in schools, kindergartens, and elsewhere, and it is broadcast every Christmas on radio and television. The Finnish version contains non-biblical elements such as King Herod vanquishing the "king of the Moors," whose face in the play has traditionally been painted black. The character's color of skin is also a theme in the procession's lyrics.[188]

The last installation of the Pekka and Pätkä comedy film series, Pekka ja Pätkä neekereinä (Pekka and Pätkä as Negroes), was made in 1960. In the film a computer tells the title characters that a "negro" would be a suitable profession for them. They blacken their faces and pretend to be American or African entertainers performing in a night club, talking self-invented gibberish that is supposed to be English. The computer meant "negro" as a now archaic term for a journalist, which originates from journalists' hands becoming tinted black with ink when handling prints.[189][190] When Finland's national public broadcasting company Yle aired this film 2016, some people on the social media disapproved of it and insisted that the film should have been censored, or at least the name changed. A representative from Yle said that an old movie should be evaluated in the context of its own time, and that the idea of the movie is to laugh at people being prejudiced. When the film series was aired in 2019, this particular film of the series was left unaired.[191][192]

Before the 1990s the word "neekeri" (negro) was generally considered neutral, inoffensive word.[193]


A group of showmen in the Cologne Carnival called Negerköpp, founded in 1929, act with their hands and faces painted black.[194]

The Germany-based Dutch musician Taco Ockerse stirred up controversy in 1983 by using dancers in blackface for his hit synthpop version of "Puttin' on the Ritz".[195]

In Germany, blackface was used in several theatrical productions.[when?]

Examples of theatrical productions include the many productions of the play "Unschuld" (Innocence) by the German writer Dea Loher, although in this play about two black African immigrants, the use of black-face is not part of the stage directions or instructions.[196] The staging of the play "Unschuld" (Innocence) at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin was also subject of protest.[197] The activist group "Bühnenwatch" (stage watch) performed a stunt in one of the stagings: 42 activists, posing as spectators, left the audience without a word and later distributed leaflets to the audience. Fundamental of the criticism was that the use of black-face solidifies stereotypes regardless of any good intentions and supports racist structures. The critics were invited to a discussion with the director, actors, theatre manager and other artists of the Deutsches Theater. As a result of the discussion, Deutsches Theater changed the design of actor make-up. Ulrich Khuon, the theatre manager, later admitted to being surprised by the protest and is now in a process of reflection.[198]

German productions of Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport almost always cast the role of Midge Carter, the black character, famously portrayed in the U.S. by Ossie Davis, with a white actor in black makeup. The 2012 production of the play at the Berlin Schlosspark-Theater was the subject of protest.[199][200] The director, Thomas Schendel, in his response to critics, argued that the classical and common plays would not offer enough roles that would justify a repertoire position for a black actor in a German theatre company. The protest grew considerably and was followed by media reports. While advocates of the theatre indicated that in principle it should be possible for any actor to play any character and that the play itself has an anti-racist message, the critics noted that the letter unwillingly disclosed the general, unexpressed policy of German theatres, i.e., that white actors are accounted to be qualified for all roles, even black ones, while black actors are suitable only for black roles.[201] Other authors said that this problem in Germany generally exists for citizens with an immigrant background.[202][203] The debate also received foreign media attention. The Schlosspark-Theater announced plans to continue the performances, and the German publishing company of Rappaport stated it will continue to grant permits for such performances.

German dramatists commented on the debate:

Unfortunately, I do not believe that our society has come to accept a black Faust in the theatre.

-- Christian Tombeil, theater manager of Schauspiel Essen, 2012[204]

We too have a problem to deal with issues of racism. We try to work it out by promoting tolerance, but tolerance is not a solution to racism. Why not? Because it does not matter whether our best friends are immigrants if, at the same time, we cannot cast a Black man for the part of Hamlet because then nobody could truly understand the "real" essence of that part. Issues of racism are primarily issues of representation, especially in the theatre.

-- René Pollesch, director, 2012[205]

In 2012, the American dramatist Bruce Norris cancelled a German production of his play Clybourne Park when it was disclosed that a white actress would portray the African-American "Francine". A subsequent production using black German actors was successfully staged.[206]


Guatemalan 2015 elected president, Jimmy Morales, was a comic actor. One of the characters he impersonated in his comic show "Moralejas" was called Black Pitaya which used blackface makeup. Jimmy Morales defended his blackface character saying he is adored by the country's black Garifuna and indigenous Mayan communities.[207]


Hajji Firuz is a character in Iranian folklore who appears in the streets by the beginning of the New Year festival of Nowruz.[3]


In Japanese hip hop, a subculture of hip-hoppers subscribe to the burapan style, and are referred to as blackfacers.[208] The appearance of these blackfacers is evidence of the popularity of the hip-hop movement in Japan despite what is described as racist tendencies in the culture.[209] Some Japanese fans of hip-hop find it embarrassing and ridiculous that blackface fans do this because they feel like they should not change their appearance to embrace the culture. In some instances it can be seen as a racist act, but for many of the young Japanese fans it is a way of immersing in the hip hop culture the way they see fit.[210] The use of blackface is seen by some as a way to rebel against the culture of surface images in Japan.[211]

Blackface has also been a contentious issue in the music scene outside of hip hop.[212] One Japanese R&B group, the Gosperats, has been known to wear blackface makeup during performances.[213] In March 2015 a music television program produced by the Fuji TV network was scheduled to show a segment featuring two Japanese groups performing together in blackface, Rats & Star and Momoiro Clover Z. A picture was published online by one of the Rats & Star members after the segment was recorded, which led to a campaign against broadcasting of the segment. The program that aired on March 7 was edited by the network to remove the segment "after considering the overall circumstances",[214] but the announcement did not acknowledge the campaign against the segment.[215]


In modern-day Mexico there are examples of images (usually caricatures) in blackface (e.g., Memín Pinguín). Though there is backlash from international communities, Mexican society has not protested to have these images changed to racially sensitive images. On the contrary, in the controversial Memín Pinguín cartoon there has been support publicly and politically[216] (chancellor for Mexico, Luis Ernesto Derbez). Currently in Mexico, only 3-4% of the population are composed of Afro-Mexicans (this percentage includes Asian Mexicans).


Portobelo's Carnival and Congo dance in Panama include a use of blackface as a form of celebration of African history, an emancipatory symbol. Black men paint their faces with charcoal representing three things. Firstly, the blackface is used as a tool to remember their African ancestors. Secondly, the black face is representative of the disguise or concealment on the run slaves would have used to evade the Spanish colonizers. Lastly, the practice of blackface is used as a way to signify the code or "secret language" slaves would have used during the time of Spanish occupation. During the celebration, for example, good morning will mean good night, and wearing black, or in this case blackface, which normally denotes a time of mourning, is used as a way to represent a time of celebration instead.[217]

Portugal and Brazil

Recently,[when?] Eduardo Madeira dressed up as Serena Williams,[218] adding an African accent the tennis player does not have in real life. Use of black performance in impersonations was quite frequently used in the (ongoing) song and impressions show A Tua Cara não Me É Estranha, with blackface impressions of Michael Jackson,[219][220]Siedah Garrett,[221]Tracy Chapman,[222]Louie Armstrong,[223]Nat King Cole,[224] among others.

In Brazil, there has been at least some history of non-comedic use of blackface, using white actors for black characters like Uncle Tom (although the practice of "racelift", or making black/mulatto characters into mestiços/swarthy whites/caboclos, is more frequent than blackface).[225][226][227] Use of blackface in humor has been used more rarely than in Portugal, although it also continues into this century (but it creates major uproar among the sizeable and more politically active Afro-Brazilian community).[228]

Some Brazilian comics like Monica's Gang also portrayed black characters with circles around their mouths and sometimes without noses like the character Jeremiah and also Pelezinho (which was a comic adaptation of the real soccer player Pelé). However after the 80's the black characters of these comics began to be drawn without circles in the mouth and with normal thin lips and old comics had the blackface censored in republications.

Puerto Rico

It wasn't unusual for people to wear a blackface at carnivals in Puerto Rico in the 20th century.[229] In 2019, when blackface was prominently featured at a carnival in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico, the town immediately faced backlash and criticism.[230]

South Africa

Inspired by blackface minstrels who visited Cape Town, South Africa, in 1848, former Javanese and Malay coolies took up the minstrel tradition, holding emancipation celebrations which consisted of music, dancing and parades. Such celebrations eventually became consolidated into an annual, year-end event called the "Coon Carnival" but now known as the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival or the Kaapse Klopse.

Today, carnival minstrels are mostly Coloured ("mixed race"), Afrikaans-speaking revelers. Often in a pared-down style of blackface which exaggerates only the lips. They parade down the streets of the city in colorful costumes, in a celebration of Creole culture. Participants also pay homage to the carnival's African-American roots, playing Negro spirituals and jazz featuring traditional Dixieland jazz instruments, including horns, banjos, and tambourines.[231]

The South African actor and filmmaker Leon Schuster is well known for employing the blackface technique in his filming to little or no controversy. But in 2013, the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa halted the airing of an ad wherein Schuster portrayed a stereotypically dishonest African politician in blackface.[232] The action was in response to the following submitted complaint:

... the commercial is offensive as it portrays a stereotype that black politicians are liars. This technique is known as blackface, and is an inherently racist form of acting. The black character is depicted with derogatory intention, speaks with a thick accent, and recalls a stereotypical black dictator. To achieve the desired result of showing a corrupt official, there was no need for the man to be made out to be black.

Vodacom South Africa has also been accused of using non-African actors in blackface in its advertising as opposed to simply using African actors. Some have denounced blackface as an artefact of apartheid, accusing broadcasters of lampooning Black people. Others continue to see it as "harmless fun".[233] In 2014, photos of two white University of Pretoria female students donning blackface makeup in an attempt at caricaturing Black domestic workers surfaced on Facebook. The students were said to face disciplinary action for throwing the institution's name into disrepute, this despite having perpetrated the incident at a private party and later taking down the images.[234]

South Korea

"Acting black" has been a common phenomenon in South Korean media for more than 30 years: in the 80s, comedians used to perform with darkened faces without attracting criticism.[235] Although criticism has increased, one could still see use of blackface in Korean media in the last year: a performer used blackface in a TV show, a play called "The Blacks" used blackface, as well as a K-pop group doing a cover for one Bruno Mars' songs.[236] More recently, students posted pictures in which they pose in blackface for Halloween.[237]


Taiwanese YouTube comedy group The Wackyboys came under fire after some of its members blackfaced for a Dancing Pallbearers parody video. The group later apologised and deleted the video.[238]


In Thailand, actors darken their faces to portray the Negrito of Thailand in a popular play by King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910), Ngo Pa (Thai: ?), which has been turned into a musical and a movie.[239]

United Kingdom

Poachers and rioters

From 1723-1823, it was a criminal offence to blacken one's face in some circumstances, with a punishment of death. The Black Act was passed at a time of economic downturn that led to heightened social tensions, and in response to a series of raids by two groups of poachers who blackened their faces to prevent identification.[4] Blackening one's face with soot, lampblack, boot polish or coal dust was a traditional form of disguise, or masking, especially at night when poaching.

The Welsh Rebecca Rioters (1839-1843) used to blacken their faces or wear masks to prevent themselves being identified whilst breaking down turnpike gates, sometimes disguised as women.

Folk culture

South Western English traditional folk plays sometimes have a Turk Slaver character, probably from the Barbary Coast Slave raids on Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset in the early 17th Century by "Sallee Rovers" (where the English were the slaves captured and taken by force to North Africa). This character is usually played using a black face (or brownface).

Various forms of folk dance in England, including Morris dancing, have traditionally used blackface; its continuing use by some troupes is controversial.[5][6][7]

Molly Dancers and Cornish Guise Dancers, traditionally associated with midwinter festivals, often use blacked faces as a disguise. The Molly dancers wished to avoid being identified by the landlords and petty nobles, who were also usually the local magistrates, when they played tricks on those who failed to be generous enough in their gifts to the dancers. The Guise dancers (disguised dancers) also wished to avoid any punishment for their mocking songs embarrassing the local gentry.

In Bacup, Lancashire, the Britannia Coconut Dancers wear black faces. Some[who?] believe the origin of this dance can be traced back to the influx of Cornish miners to northern England, and the black face relates to the dirty blackened faces associated with mining.

In Cornwall, several Mummer's Day celebrations are still held; these used to be sometimes known as "Darkie Day" (a corruption of the original "Darking Day", referring to the darkening or painting of the faces) and involved local residents dancing through the streets in blackface to musical accompaniment. The origins of blacking-up for Mummer's Day have no racial connotations; the tradition is pagan in origin and goes back to the days of the Celts. When minstrel songs were part of British popular culture, at least one festival (Padstow) used such songs, including the words "He's gone where the good niggers go".[240]

The traditional wedding day chimney sweep, that is considered to be good luck, sometimes has a partially blacked up face to suggest smears of soot. This depends on the performer but it was, and still is, unusual to have a full blackening. Though the complete covered "greyface" is known.[241]

These two traditions, of chimney sweep and folk dancing, coincide in the sometimes lost traditions of (chimney)sweepers festivals. Medway Council supports the Sweeps' Festival, revived in 1981, now claimed to be "the largest festival of Morris dance in the world". It takes place in Rochester around May Day and features a Jack in the Green character. Originally the chimney sweeps were little boys, and they used the day to beg for money, until this child labour was outlawed.[242]

On Guy Fawkes' Day 2017, participants in the Lewes Bonfire, the best known of the Sussex bonfire tradition, decided to abandon black face paint in their depiction of Zulu warriors.[243]

On July 3, 2020, the Joint Morris Organisation announced that all three constituent bodies, representing the vast majority of Morris Dancing in the United Kingdom, would be actively moving to eliminate the use of full-face black makeup from their membership.[244]

The Black and White Minstrel Show

The Black and White Minstrel Show was a hugely popular British light entertainment show that ran for twenty years on BBC prime-time television. Beginning in 1958, it was a weekly variety show which presented traditional American minstrel and country songs, as well as show tunes and music hall numbers, lavishly costumed. It was also a successful stage show which ran for ten years from 1962 to 1972 at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London. This was followed by tours of UK seaside resorts, together with Australia and New Zealand.

Due to its employment of artists wearing blackface, the show was seen by UK anti-racist groups such as the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, to be both racist and perpetuating ethnic stereotypes.

United States

20th century

This elaborate Art Deco Ronson tabletop cigarette lighter, made in 1936,[245] is an example of an everyday consumer item rendered in classic darky iconographical style.
Poster for Spike Lee's movie Bamboozled (2000)

In the early 20th century, group of African-American laborers began a marching club in the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade, dressed as hobos and calling themselves "The Tramps". Wanting a flashier look, they renamed themselves "Zulus" and copied their costumes from a blackface vaudeville skit performed at a local black jazz club and cabaret.[246] The result is one of the best known and most striking krewes of Mardi Gras, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Dressed in grass skirts, top hat and exaggerated blackface, the Zulus of New Orleans are controversial as well as popular.[247]

In 1936, Orson Welles was touring his Voodoo Macbeth; the lead actor, Maurice Ellis, fell ill, so Welles stepped into the role, performing in blackface.[248]

The wearing of blackface was once a regular part of the annual Mummers Parade in Philadelphia. Growing dissent from civil rights groups and the offense of the black community led to a 1964 city policy, ruling out blackface.[249] Despite the ban on blackface, brownface was still used in the parade in 2016 to depict Mexicans, causing outrage once again among civil rights groups.[250] Also in 1964, bowing to pressure from the interracial group Concern, teenagers in Norfolk, Connecticut, reluctantly agreed to discontinue using blackface in their traditional minstrel show that was a fund-raiser for the March of Dimes.[251]

Grace Slick, singer of Jefferson Airplane, was wearing blackface when they performed "Crown of Creation" and "Lather" at The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968. A clip is included in a 2004 documentary Fly Jefferson Airplane, directed by Bob Sarles. Frank Zappa is depicted in blackface on the covers of his triple album Joe's Garage, released in 1979. In 1980, an underground film, Forbidden Zone, was released, directed by Richard Elfman and starring the band Oingo Boingo, which received controversy for blackface sequences.[252]

Joni Mitchell has donned blackface numerous times throughout her career, even marketing her 1977 album using her alter ego "Art Nouveau" on her album cover Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. Mitchell has remained unapologetic about her alter 'persona,' citing that she "does not have the soul of a white woman ... I write like a black poet. I frequently write from a black perspective" in an interview with LA Weekly.[253] Her denial of any fault has not gone without criticism, as Sheila Weller writes in her book Girls Like Us "Joni romanticized being black, without the disadvantages. She would increasingly insist that her music was 'black' and that, as it progressed deeply into jazz, it should be played on black stations (it rarely was)."

Trading Places is a 1983 film telling the elaborate story of a commodities banker and street hustler crossing paths after being made part of a bet. The film features a scene between Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Denholm Elliott, and Dan Aykroyd when they must don disguises to enter a train. For no reason relevant to the plot, Aykroyd's character puts on full black face make up, a dreadlocked wig and a Jamaican accent to fill the position of a Jamaican pot head. The film has received little criticism for its use of racial and ethnic stereotype, with Rotten Tomatoes citing it as "featuring deft interplay between Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, Trading Places is an immensely appealing social satire."[254]

Soul Man is a 1986 film featuring C. Thomas Howell as Mark Watson, a pampered rich white college graduate who uses 'tanning pills' in order to qualify for a scholarship to Harvard Law only available to African American students. He expects to be treated as a fellow student and instead learns the isolation of 'being black' on campus. Mark Watson later befriends and falls in love with the original candidate of the scholarship, a single mother who works as a waitress to support her education. The character later 'comes out' as white, leading to the famous defending line "Can you blame him for the color of his skin?" The film was met with heavy criticism of a white man donning black face to humanize white ignorance at the expense of African American viewers. Despite a large box office intake, it has scored low on every film critic platform. "A white man donning blackface is taboo," said Howell; "Conversation over - you can't win. But our intentions were pure: We wanted to make a funny movie that had a message about racism."[255]

Former Illinois congressman and House Republican party minority leader Bob Michel caused a minor stir in 1988, when on the USA Today television program he fondly recalled minstrel shows in which he had participated as a young man and expressed his regret that they had fallen out of fashion.[256][257]

Blackface and minstrelsy serve as the theme of Spike Lee's film Bamboozled (2000). It tells of a disgruntled black television executive who reintroduces the old blackface style in a series concept in an attempt to get himself fired, and is instead horrified by its success.

21st century

Commodities bearing iconic "darky" images, from tableware, soap and toy marbles to home accessories and T-shirts, continue to be manufactured and marketed. Some are reproductions of historical artifacts ("negrobilia"), while others are designed for today's marketplace ("fantasy"). There is a thriving niche market for such items in the U.S., particularly. The value of the original examples of darky iconography (vintage negrobilia collectables) has risen steadily since the 1970s.[258]

There have been several inflammatory incidents of white college students donning blackface. Such incidents usually escalate around Halloween, with students accused of perpetuating racial stereotypes.[259][260][261][262]

Jimmy Kimmel donned black paint over his body and used an exaggerated, accented voice to portray NBA player Karl Malone on The Man Show in 2003. Kimmel repeatedly impersonated the NBA player on The Man Show and even made an appearance on Crank Yankers using his exaggerated Ebonics/African-American Vernacular English to prank call about Beanie Babies.

In November 2005, controversy erupted when journalist Steve Gilliard posted a photograph on his blog. The image was of African American Michael S. Steele, a politician, then a candidate for U.S. Senate. It had been doctored to include bushy, white eyebrows and big, red lips. The caption read, "I's simple Sambo and I's running for the big house." Gilliard, also African-American, defended the image, commenting that the politically conservative Steele has "refused to stand up for his people."[263] (See Uncle Tom § Epithet.)

A Mighty Heart is a 2007 American film featuring Angelina Jolie playing Mariane Pearl, the wife of the kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Mariane is of multiracial descent, born from an Afro-Chinese-Cuban mother and a Dutch Jewish father. She personally cast Jolie to play herself, defending the choice to have Jolie "sporting a spray tan and a corkscrew wig."[264] Criticism of the film came in large part for the choice to have Jolie portraying Mariane Pearl in this manner. Defense of the casting choice was in large part due Pearl's mixed racial heritage, critics claiming it would have been impossible to find an Afro-Latina actress with the same crowd-drawing caliber of Jolie. Director Michael Winterbottom defended his casting choice in an interview, "To try and find a French actress who's half-Cuban, quarter-Chinese, half-Dutch who speaks great English and could do that part better - I mean, if there had been some more choices, I might have thought, 'Why don't we use that person?'...I don't think there would have been anyone better."[265]

A 2008 imitation of Barack Obama by comedian Fred Armisen (of Venezuelan and Korean descent) on the popular television program Saturday Night Live caused some stir, with The Guardian's commentator asking why SNL did not hire an additional black actor to do the sketch; the show had only one black cast member at the time.[266]

In the November 2010 episode "Dee Reynolds: Shaping America's Youth", the TV show It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia comically explored if blackface could ever be done "right". One of the characters, Frank Reynolds insists that Laurence Olivier's blackface performance in his 1965 production of Othello was not offensive, while Dennis claimed it "distasteful" and "never okay". In the same episode, the gang shows their fan film, Lethal Weapon 5, in which the character Mac appears in blackface.[267] In the season 9 episode "The Gang make Lethal Weapon 6", Mac once again dons black make-up, along with Dee, who plays his character's daughter in the film.

A 2012 Popchips commercial showing actor Ashton Kutcher with brown make-up on his face impersonating a stereotypical Indian person generated controversy and was eventually pulled by the company after complaints of racism.[268] In the TV series Mad Men, set in the 1960s in New York City, the character Roger Sterling appears in blackface in the season 3 episode "My Old Kentucky Home". Robert Downey Jr. appeared in a satirical role as a white Australian actor donning blackface in Tropic Thunder. Julianne Hough attracted controversy in October 2013 when she donned blackface as part of a Halloween costume depicting the character of "Crazy Eyes" from Orange Is the New Black.[269][270] Hough later apologized, stating on Twitter: "I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize."[271]

Billy Crystal impersonated Sammy Davis Jr. in the 2012 Oscars opening montage. The scene depicts Crystal in black face paint wearing an oiled wave wig while talking to Justin Bieber. In the scene Crystal leaves a parting remark to Bieber, "Have fun storming the Führer," a poor association to his famous line in The Princess Bride, "Have fun storming the castle." The skit was remarked as poor taste, considering he was chosen as the "safer" choice after Eddie Murphy bowed out following producer and creative partner Brett Ratner's homophobic remarks.[272][273]

Victoria Foyt was accused of using blackface in the trailer for her young adult novel Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden as well as in the book and its artwork.[274][275]

Gay white performer Chuck Knipp has used drag, blackface, and broad racial caricature to portray a character named "Shirley Q. Liquor" in his cabaret act, generally performed for all-white audiences. Knipp's outrageously stereotypical character has drawn criticism and prompted demonstrations from black, gay and transgender activists.[276]

The Metropolitan Opera, based in New York City, used blackface in productions of the opera Otello until 2015,[277][278][279][280] though some have argued that the practice of using dark makeup for the character did not qualify as blackface.[281]

On February 1, 2019, images from Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook were published on the far-right website Big League Politics.[282][283][284] The photos showed an image of an unidentified person in blackface and an unidentified person in a Ku Klux Klan hood on Northam's page in the yearbook.[285][286][287] A spokesman for Eastern Virginia Medical School confirmed that the image appeared in its 1984 yearbook.[288] Shortly after the news broke, Northam apologized for appearing in the photo.[288]

Blackface performances are not unusual within the Latino community of Miami. As Spanish-speakers from different countries, ethnic, racial, class, and educational backgrounds settle in the United States, they have to grapple with being re-classified vis-a-vis other American-born and immigrant groups. Blackface performances have, for instance, tried to work through U.S. racial and ethnic classifications in conflict with national identities. A case in point is the representation of Latino and its popular embodiment as a stereotypical Dominican man.[289]

In the wake of protests over the treatment of African-Americans following the 2020 death of George Floyd, episodes of popular television programs featuring characters in blackface were removed from circulation. This includes The Golden Girls, The Office, 30 Rock, Community, and Scrubs.[290]

Soviet Union

Soviet writers and illustrators sometimes inadvertently perpetuated stereotypes about other nations that are now viewed as harmful. For example, a Soviet children's book or cartoon might innocently contain a representation of black people that would be perceived as unquestionably offensive by the modern-day western standards, such as bright red lips and other exaggerated features, unintentionally similar to the portrayal of blacks in American minstrel shows. Soviet artists "did not quite understand the harm of representing black people in this way, and continued to employ this method, even in creative productions aimed specifically at critiquing American race relations".[291]

The early Soviet political cartoon Black and White, created in 1932, managed to avoid the blackface style, confronting "precisely that paternalistic model of the ever-passive black subject awaiting enlightenment from the Comintern".[292] The cartoon integrated "an avant-garde-influenced visual aesthetic with images derived from the many newspaper illustrations, cartoons, and posters of American racism that appeared in Soviet Russia at this time".[292]

Soviet theater and movie directors rarely had access to black actors, and so resorted to using black makeup when dictated by the character's descent. Soviet actors portrayed black people mostly by darkening the skin and occasionally adjusting the hair style, without accentuating or exaggerating their facial features. In particular, Vladimir Vysotsky performed the role of Abram Petrovich Gannibal, an 18th-century Russian general of African origin, in the 1976 Soviet film How Czar Peter the Great Married Off His Moor, while Larisa Dolina performed the role of Cuban singer Clementine Fernandez in the 1983 film We Are from Jazz. The 1956 Soviet film adaptation of Othello received the Best Director Award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.


Blackface minstrelsy was the conduit through which African-American and African-American-influenced music, comedy, and dance first reached the white American mainstream.[19] It played a seminal role in the introduction of African-American culture to world audiences.

Though antebellum (minstrel) troupes were white, the form developed in a form of racial collaboration, illustrating the axiom that defined - and continues to define - American music as it developed over the next century and a half: African-American innovations metamorphose into American popular culture when white performers learn to mimic black ones.

-- Gary Giddins, jazz historian[293]

Many of country's earliest stars, such as Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, were veterans of blackface performance.[294][295][296] More recently, the American country music television show Hee Haw (1969-1993) had the format and much of the content of a minstrel show, albeit without blackface.[297]

The immense popularity and profitability of blackface were testaments to the power, appeal, and commercial viability of not only black music and dance, but also of black style. This led to cross-cultural collaborations, as Giddins writes; but the often ruthless exploitation of African-American artistic genius, as well - by other, white performers and composers; agents; promoters; publishers; and record company executives.[298][299][300][301][302]

While blackface in the literal sense has played only a minor role in entertainment in recent decades, various writers see it as epitomizing an appropriation and imitation of black culture that continues today. As noted above, Strausbaugh sees blackface as central to a longer tradition of "displaying Blackness".[23] "To this day," he writes: "Whites admire, envy and seek to emulate such supposed innate qualities of Blackness as inherent musicality, natural athleticism, the composure known as 'cool' and superior sexual endowment," a phenomenon he views as part of the history of blackface.[23] For more than a century, when white performers have wanted to appear sexy, (like Elvis[303][304] or Mick Jagger);[305] or streetwise, (like Eminem);[305][306] or hip, (like Mezz Mezzrow);[307] they often have turned to African-American performance styles, stage presence and personas.[308] Pop culture referencing and cultural appropriation of African-American performance and stylistic traditions is a tradition with origins in blackface minstrelsy.[298]

This "browning", à la Richard Rodriguez, of American and world popular culture began with blackface minstrelsy.[298] It is a continuum of pervasive African-American influence which has many prominent manifestations today, among them the ubiquity of the cool aesthetic[309][310] and hip hop culture.[311]

See also


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Further reading

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