Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used in minstrel shows, and later vaudeville, in which performers create a stereotyped caricature of a black person. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the proliferation of stereotypes such as the “happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation” or the “dandified coon”. In 1848, blackface minstrel shows were the national art of the time, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience. Early in the 20th century, blackface branched off from the minstrel show and became a form in its own right, until it ended in the United States with the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
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 either as unappealingly and grotesquely mannish; in the matronly, mammy mold; or highly sexually provocative. 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.
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. 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.
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 restaurant chain and Darkie toothpaste (renamed Darlie) and Blackman mops in Thailand. 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.
Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Princeton University specializing in the globalization of American popular culture. She is a historian, public speaker, writer, editor, and onscreen commenter. Her research and teaching focus on the histories of racism, racial formation, gender, sexuality, book history, and cultural representation in North America.