Blackface In Black History Month

Actor/singer Al Jolson in blackface in the 1927 movie "The Jazz Singer"

Blackface. What happened to the medical student who became the Governor of Virginia? Can you believe that a student studying hard to be a doctor would joke around with black shoe polish on his face?

That’s stupid. Too stupid, even years later as that med student serves as governor of his state.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said he was one of the guys in this picture in his yearbook; then he said he was not.

After the recent reveal and ongoing uproar about Governor Ralph Northam, I talked to a couple of friends who attended white universities and asked whether or not they were familiar with white men painting their faces black.

They were and they said it happened frequently. And then I asked white men about it. They, too, said it happens frequently at white campus parties, especially with white frats.

This sounds like some white backroom frolicking from yesteryear, but yesteryear for Northam’s escapades was not so long ago in 1984, when his Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook shows a picture on his page of one person in blackface and another person in a KKK robe. Northam initially said he was one of the people in the picture and apologized, then did an about-face and said, “it wasn’t me” in the picture after all.

Blackface Origins


Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used in America since the late 1700s mostly by non-Black performers to present usually negative caricatures of Black people.

It involves darkening the skin with burnt cork, greasepaint or shoe polish; usually the lips are outsizedly exaggerated with paint, and often wooly wigs, tattered clothes or gloves and tailcoat are added to complete the transformation.


For some reason, white folks have found this funny since the tradition blossomed into the minstrel shows most popular from the mid-1800s to nearly a century afterward until they became politically incorrect.

I fail to see the humor. But I’m a Black woman, and perhaps there is not humor there for me and other Black people. Maybe this is a Black history lesson waiting for exposure to the masses. Puzzling to me is why whites don’t understand the insult and offense that blackface presents to Black people.

Did the New York Times Magazine really portray Aretha Franklin in blackface?

Princeton University Professor Rhae Lynn Barnes writes in the Washington Post, “Blackface is as American as the ruling class. Throughout the 20th century, all-male fraternal orders, schools, federal agencies and the U.S. military collectively institutionalized the practice. Watching blackface performances was a common pastime for U.S. presidents from both parties.

“‘Blacking up’ was seen as an expression of cultural heritage and patriotism throughout Jim Crow America – an era named after a famous blackface stock character – and up until the Civil Rights Movement. Even now, one recent poll by YouGov found that only 58 percent of Americans oppose the practice.”

Jim Crow Minstrel Shows

Thomas Rice (above) named the blackface character he created Jim Crow.

The Jim Crow character that Barnes references was patterned after white entertainer Thomas Dartmouth Rice (1808-1860), who throughout the 1830s-’40s performed a popular song-and-dance act modeled after a slave. He named the character Jim Crow.

The minstrel show that gave us Jim Crow and Amos and Andy was white men imitating Blacks, particularly men. I guess the comedy is in the poor old Black guy trying to fit into American society by hook or crook without education, speaking an ebonic dialect, poorly clothed and portrayed in child-like ignorance.

In the fall of 1847, when escaped slave Frederick Douglass was making plans to begin his anti-slavery newspaper, The North Star, in Rochester, New York, at the same time, the city’s three morning dailies were publishing stories that made fun of African Americans.

These stories adopted the style of the blackface minstrel routines that were immensely popular at the time and contributed to coverage that gave readers only a narrow view of race, gender, and ethnicity; it was a view of racist degradation.

Maybe the blackface is to privately keep white men on top of their game, to reassure white culture that they are superior to these subservient Blacks, to be outspoken but on point, to keep Black men down and prevent them from being viewed in full humanity as full Americans with education, rights, privilege and power.

Still Prevalent Today

A “Real Housewife” dressed up in blackface as Diana Ross for Halloween, while TV talk show host Megyn Kelly wondered on the air what’s wrong with blackface, and got fired.

In the wake of the Northam controversy, a new Pew Research Center poll has found that a third of Americans believe it’s still okay for people to wear blackface as part of a Halloween costume. Ironically, talk show host Megyn Kelly was fired for saying something similar, like what’s wrong with wearing blackface for Halloween?

The use of blackface has certainly never stopped and in fact, may be on the rise. Haute couture Gucci is under a firestorm for selling a black sweater covering the face with a big red mouth opening that surely resembles the Black Sambo character. And of late, their windows have featured caricatures of Black people, so much so that bowing to complaints, the windows had to be changed. No more Gucci.

Gucci’s Black Sambo look?

Prada is catching hell for selling monkey-faced keychains that look eerily like the blackface design described above, and a line of Katy Perry-designed blackface looking shoes are quickly being pulled from retail shelves.

Prada’s and Katy Perry’s missteps.

What’s upsetting about this in 2019 is that as we think we are moving away from racism, we seem to be running right into it, like a strong wind blowing directly into our faces. It would be great if we could let history be history, the horrors, the statues, the confederate flag and the like. But you just can’t get away from these images that diminish.

CNN is currently compiling a running list of white folks through recent years who have gotten caught in the blackface trap. Perhaps the most appalling incident was actor Ted (Cheers, The Good Place) Danson, who not only dressed in full blackface regalia in 1993 for a Friar’s Roast in New York City honoring his then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg, but let loose the N-word at least a dozen times during his “comedy” routine. No wonder they broke up!

Ted Danson roasts his then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg in 1993.
(Read here about the Ted Danson/Whoopi Goldberg blackface debacle.)

CNN’s List Cites:


Louisiana House of Representatives candidate Robbie Gattie dressed like Tiger Woods for a church event;
South Carolina county council candidate Brant Tomlinson dressed like a Jamaican bobsledder for a Halloween party;
Former Florida Secretary of State Mike Ertel, as a Hurricane Katrina victim at a Halloween party;
Illinois state senate candidate Hal Patton dressed up as a Black football player;
Florida state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, who dressed up as his best friend;
New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who dressed like a Black basketball player for a Jewish holiday;
Actor C. Thomas Howell, in the 1986 film Soul Man;
Actress and singer Julianne Hough dressed as the character Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black;
Actor Billy Crystal, as the late Sammy Davis Jr. on Saturday Night Live and at the 2012 Oscars;
Jimmy Kimmel dressed as Karl Malone on The Man Show;
Jimmy Fallon, as Chris Rock on Saturday Night Live;
Paula Deen and her son dressed as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy;
Robert Downey Jr., in the movie Tropic Thunder;
Gene Wilder, in shoe polish in Silver Streak with Richard Pryor;
Spanish soccer player Andrés Iniesta, tweeted a picture of himself posing with two people in blackface;
French soccer player Antoine Griezmann, who wore blackface as part of a costume for a 1980s themed party;
Joni Mitchell, who appeared in blackface on the cover of her 1977 album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.

Why, Though?
In addition, The View’s co-host Joy Behar years ago wore blackface and dressed as what she called “a beautiful African woman.” Dan Ackroyd dressed in blackface as a Rasta man in Trading Places with Eddie Murphy. But ironically, it’s not only white people who adorn blackface; so do Black people.

Which one is popular entertainer Drake? Both of them!

Musician and singer Drake was revealed to have posed in blackface when Pusha T used the photo as cover art for his single. And Queen Beyonce came under fire in 2011 for using blackface in a photo shoot with a French magazine to darken her skin to portray an African queen in a tribute to Nigerian musician Fela Kuti.

Beyonce as the African Queen covergirl

Ironically, in 2018, a white nurse in Missouri was fired from her hospital job after posting a picture of herself in her Halloween costume posing as Beyonce, in full blackface, and standing next to a white guy dressed as Jay-Z, also in complete blackface.

So who let the dogs out? If we dig deep, we will probably find a lot of white people, men especially, still donning blackface behind closes doors at the lodge, the country club, and the private parties.

In my conversations with whites as they admitted that this was a practice, some were embarrassed and ashamed. But to what avail, I asked…only to be met with silence.

What is more upsetting to me about Governor Northam is that he was a doctor who thought it was okay as a med student to wear blackface. Is he supposed to examine and treat Black folk with all the dignity that a doctor takes that oath to do?

Really? Scary.

Hermene Hartman

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