It should not be surprising, after reading Tim Brooks‘ roundup with the self-explanatory title, The Blackface Minstrel Show in Mass Media, that so many white frat boys over the years have thought it a goofy thing to darken their faces and pretend to be some caricatured representation of a Black person. Brooks makes it clear how baked into American entertainment the whole notion has been, ever since the mid-1800s. There should be little wonder the practice rears its ugly, charcoal-ed (or shoe polish-ed) head every now and then, given America’s long tradition of both demonizing and fetishizing the supposed otherness of Black life.
Yet it’s jarring to read that blackface minstrelsy was featured on, of all places, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) as late as 1978. Yep, as punk was sparking a culture war and Black Britons were beginning to assert their own identity, The Black and White Minstrel Show broadcast its last episode, having seen its audience dwindle over time (but still in the millions). Fear not, though; a live stage version soldiered on for another decade after that.
But which is more jarring: the fact that blackface minstrelsy even existed in England; or that in the 1970s, millions of people anywhere on the globe would watch it on TV?
The whole premise of blackface as it was created and developed — that white men could put burnt cork on their faces, portray demeaning stereotypes about Black people, and that white audiences could not only find the whole thing entertaining but also consider it accurate — was and always will be abhorrent. One might believe it was shamed out of existence eons ago, seeing as how only miseducated frat boys even consider it nowadays, and to a large degree it was.
To the contrary, Brooks’ detailed research tells us how blackface didn’t die, but found ways to multiply as the entertainment industry grew. From its roots in the live tradition of traveling minstrel shows, blackface found its way into every emerging medium: records, radio, film and television. (Archival label Archeophone Records issued in 2019 a two-cd compilation of recordings and broadcast minstrel shows to accompany the book.)
Brooks, a dogged historian whose Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry (University of Illinois Press, 2004) is an essential music text, didn’t set out to write a full, complicated history of blackface minstrelsy here, citing early on several more comprehensive books on the subject. Blackface Minstrel Show is less a cultural analysis than a blow-by-blow recount of all the ways blackface found its way into mainstream entertainment. Its largest value comes in telling us just how many of those ways there were.
Following a concise recap of its place in those early minstrel performances (which were a mix of satire, novelty acts, and group features — a precursor to the prime-time TV variety shows of the ’50s and ’60s), Brooks chronicles decades of examples of how minstrelsy as a whole spread, unearthing numerous early records and radio scripts of actual minstrel performances, with exaggerated dialect substituting where people couldn’t actually see white people on a stage in burnt cork. (He also explains how early performers toured England with minstrel shows, which is how the genre took hold there.)
Brooks reveals how a lot of the humor in those early shows was corny even for the times. Stale jokes and wordplay, treachly sentimentality, nostalgia for some supposedly simpler time (at least for white people), and genial pokes at haughtiness dominated the content. But minstrel shows were the first American-born form of mass entertainment, and early songwriters Stephen Foster and George M. Cohan owed much of their success to the format. By the early 1900s, the center section of minstrel shows evolved on its own into what would be known as vaudeville, with less of a presence for blackface — but make no mistake, there were still vaudeville performers who blacked up.
It’s also important to note that not all minstrel performers were white. There were several high-profile Black minstrel troupes, especially after the Civil War, with terms like “Ethiopian” and “Georgia Minstrels” used to brand those troupes as, in essence, authentic Black talent, as opposed to the fake white interlopers. In several (but not all) cases, the performers didn’t blacken their faces to play into any racial otherness. There were still Black troupes as late as the early 1900s; Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were among the many early Black stars who paid their dues in minstrel shows.
Blackface Minstrel Show reveals just how pervasive and ingrained minstrelsy was in American life, well into the 20th century. Not only did professional entertainers get into the act, various amateur troupes sprouted up as well. There were even how-to books on staging minstrel shows, complete with comic repertoires.
Alvin Childress as Amos and Spencer Williams as Andy from the television program Amos ‘n’ Andy. (1951) Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
Blackface was never far from the comic heart of minstrelsy. It certainly was at the core of Amos ‘n’ Andy, a popular radio comedy show which premiered in 1926, voiced by white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll (all the characters they portrayed were Black). But the influence of actual Black talent is something of an invisible hand here: Brooks makes a case that Gosden and Correll were influenced by Black performers Flournoy Miiler and Aubrey Lyles, two vaudeville veterans who expanded their basic act into the groundbreaking Broadway musical Shuffle Along (1921). Amos ‘n’ Andy wasn’t the only such act on the air; Brooks tells the story of several such shows on both local and network radio well into the 1930s.
It was thus only a small leap for blackface to be featured in movies. Brooks cites blackface in silent shorts in the 1910s, well before Al Jolson’s famous turns as a blackfaced song-and-dance man in The Jazz Singer (1927) and Mammy (1930). But Jolson wasn’t alone: there’s a picture in the book of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in blackface, as they put on a minstrel show in Babes in Arms (1939).
Adjacent to those blackface scenes, in terms of general offensiveness, were animated shorts with characters sporting exaggerated physical features caricaturing Black people, and films depicting Blacks in subservient roles. But by the 1940s, black audiences were no longer having any of it, and the media industry took note.
While the variety-show format had become a staple in Black entertainment as well as mainstream fare, and many blacks certainly enjoyed their fair share of lowbrow humor, attempts to feature blackface in mass media increasingly drew the ire of Black activists and thought leaders. A late-’40s network TV minstrel show featuring blackface (yes, that happened, Brooks tells us) died a swift death, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People led the charge to rid the airwaves of Amos ‘n’ Andy once it landed on TV (with Black actors playing the outsized Black characters two white guys created).
And there blackface sat, or would have appeared to sit, stuffed into the basement for good. The minstrelsy tradition continued, but mostly without blacked-up white people. (One useful takeaway Brooks offers is how later, more sanitized minstrel shows did not include blackface performances). When blackface did happen in later years, it was often deployed by Black artists themselves in service of a larger point, as in Ben Vereen’s controversial (and misunderstood) tribute to legendary Black star Bert Williams in a 1977 TV special.
But blackface has never lost its unique power to shock and anger well-meaning people, especially well-meaning Black people. The controversy Virgina Govenor Ralph Northam faced in early 2019, after a photo of him in blackface surfaced from his college yearbook, nearly cost him his political career. Blackface is, to this day, a particularly charged racial tripwire, almost like shouting “n——r!” in a crowded theater. It’s so charged that even Spike Lee got side-eyed by some Black observers for his satirical use of blackface in his 2000 film, Bamboozled.
It shouldn’t take much to figure out why this is so, although Brooks repeatedly lays out some basic points for those who still don’t get it. He doesn’t fully dig into why blackface minstrelsy had such a long run, given its problematic nature; that’s a different path of research and consideration (and the answer might not be as simple as “racist white people”). But it’s good enough that he’s provided future scholars a roadmap of this peculiar, disturbing terrain.
We may want to sweep this nasty tradition under the rug, but it’s worth holding our noses and dealing with it. It’s part of America’s cultural DNA, for better or worse. Besides, it’s more than likely that at some point down the line, somewhere in the world, some non-Black knucklehead will think it’s a goofy thing to pretend to be what he thinks Black people are like.