The strange doings in Virginia have brought blackface back in the news. Reaction to the unearthing of a photograph on the 1984 medical school yearbook page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam attests to the peculiar place of the practice in American culture and the special outrage it provokes: Far more commentators condemned the blackface than even mentioned the figure next to him in the white robe and hood of the Ku Klux Klan.
The controversy became more surreal when the governor denied he was in those photographs but admitted that he had donned blackface to impersonate Michael Jackson in a dance contest – and then a few days later, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring confessed that he too, while a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia, had dressed in blackface, to impersonate the rapper Kurtis Blow.
“It’s a sickness,” Spike Lee tells the Washington Post, in an article on the history and persistence of blackface in America. Lee mentions the montage he put together in his 2000 film “Bamboozled” that featured a slew of beloved entertainers in blackface: “Judy Garland in blackface, Mickey Rooney, Bugs Bunny?”
It is probably not a coincidence that almost all these newly confessed incidents involved the impersonation of entertainers.
Consciously or not, they were plugging into an old tradition of blackface as one of the main features of what was for many decades the most popular form of stage entertainment in America: the minstrel show.
In his 2015 book “Black Broadway,” a history of African-Americans on stage, Stewart F. Lane writes about the complicated history of the minstrel show: “A savage parody of African Americans, strangely, it attracted white and black audience members alike, and even provided work for many black performers at a time when legitimate theater was closed to them.”
It is indisputable that the minstrel show was rooted in virulent racism. The first big minstrel star, in the 1820s, Thomas Darmouth Rice, used burnt cork and dressed in tattered garments to create an ugly caricature of a black man, whom he named Jim Crow – a name that eventually became synonymous with institutional segregation. T.D. “Big Daddy” Rice made his New York stage debut in 1828 and toured internationally. Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass denounced minstrel performers as “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow-citizens.”
But the popularity of these shows, which combined musical performances, dancing, singing, comic skits and variety acts, can’t be attributed entirely to bigotry. “Some of this came out of a genuine fascination with the music, the songs, the dances, the performance styles of black people,” theater and culture critic Margo Jefferson has said. (See her comments in the following CBS Sunday Morning segment in October on blackface, put together after Megyn Kelley’s defense of blackface during Halloween got her fired.)
As early as the 1840s, minstrel shows made stars out of such African-American entertainers as Thomas Dilward, and William Henry Lane, nicknamed Master Juba, who toured with the otherwise all-white Ethiopian Minstrels billed as the “Greatest Dancer in the World.” Lane is considered the father of tap dance.
Yes, the black minstrel show performers were required to wear blackface themselves. Did they consider this degrading? A clue is that several of the biggest stars moved to England.
By the 1850s, New York City alone had ten theaters presenting nothing but minstrel shows. One of the most successful minstrel acts called themselves the Virginia Minstrels, but they were actually formed in New York, making their debut in a billiard parlor in the Bowery.
Wearing blackface, and using routines taken from minstrel shows, Bert Williams (1874-1922) became a major act on the vaudeville circuit, one of the first African-American recording artists, and a huge star on Broadway, a veteran of 18 shows on the Great White Way; he was even the first known African-American film actor. His songs have been featured in Broadway musical revues as recently as the 1980s. Blues singers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were also both minstrel performers early in their careers.
For all its perpetuation of false and debilitating stereotypes, the minstrel show made concrete contributions to American popular arts. The minstrel show as popular stage entertainment virtually disappeared a century ago. But it lived on in Hollywood in what were in effect nostalgic homages as late as the 1950s, and it remains a part of our cultural DNA.
It was for minstrel shows that white composer Stephen Foster wrote some of his still-popular songs, such as “Camptown Races” and “Oh, Susanna,” and black composer James Bland wrote hundreds of songs, including “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” which for more than half a century was the state song of – yes — Virginia.
As I said, a complicated history.