“Blackface”: Why Whiteface Will Never Compare (It’s The History)
In a discussion on Halloween and “blackface” emanating from this article, a former classmate declared that he had dressed in “blackface” while in college. He saw nothing wrong with it because he received compliments from black people, and felt people are too sensitive in these matters. It was evident that he had no knowledge of the history of “blackface”. As people tried to explain this history, I wondered how many other people had no idea why many are aghast by the practice. Nick Cannon, promoting his new album “White People Party Music”, posted a picture of himself in white face on Instagram. When did whiteface become equivalent with “blackface”?
The History of Blackface
Blackface minstrels first became nationally popular in the late 1820s when white male performers portrayed African-American characters using burnt cork to blacken their skin. Wearing tattered clothes, the performances mocked black behavior, playing racial stereotypes for laughs. Although Jim Crow was probably born in the folklore of the enslaved in the Georgia Sea Islands, one of the most famous minstrel performers stamped the character in the American psyche.
A white man named Thomas “Daddy” Rice brought the character to the stage for the first time. Rice said that on a trip through the South he met a runaway slave, who performed a signature song and dance called Jump Jim Crow. Rice’s performances, with skin blackened and drawn on distended blood red lips surrounded by white paint, were said to be just Rice’s attempt to depict the realities of black life. Jim Crow grew to be minstrels’ most famous character, in the hands of Rice and other performers Jim Crow was depicted as a runaway: “the wheeling stranger” and “traveling intruder.” The gag in Jim Crow performances was that Crow would show up and disturb white passengers in otherwise peaceful first class rail cars, hotels, restaurants, and steamships. Jim Crow performances served as an object lesson about the dangers of free black people, so much so that the segregated spaces first created in northern states in the 1850s were popularly called Jim Crow cars. Jim Crow became synonymous with white desires to keep black people out of white, middle-class spaces.
Know What You’re Doing
If Nick Cannon or any black actor in whiteface has an all black production with all black funding with the idea of scaring an all black audience from interacting with all white people, then we can equate whiteface with “blackface”. We all know that isn’t the case though.
If you really feel the need to wear “blackface” or feel the need to defend “blackface” or feel it is the equivalent to whiteface, please keep this history in mind and understand what you are perpetuating, defending and equalizing. In light of actress Julianne Hough dressing in “blackface”, the history needs to be elucidated.
Do What You Want
This is not to say you can’t dress as people of different races. For instance, I have no problem with people dressing up as Trayvon Martin. In an earnest effort to draw attention to their son’s tragic death, Trayvon’s parents introduced him into popular culture where he became subject to the masses, including the ignorant and tasteless. Simply put, Trayvon Martin for Halloween is ignorant and tasteless. Trayvon Martin in “blackface” for Halloween is ignorant, tasteless, and racist. Ultimately, there is no reason to think black people would be “depicted” anymore on Halloween than white, asians or latinos, but annually where are all of the people in white, yellow and brown face? It’s 2014. Although I am often proved wrong, I’d like to think we’re better than this.