A Disturbing Illustrative History Of Blackface In America

Published August 9, 2017
Updated August 16, 2017
Man In Blackface
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A Disturbing Illustrative History Of Blackface In America
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Throughout the 19th century, minstrel shows were one of America’s favorite ways to kick back and have fun. People around the country would flock out to theaters in droves, ready to laugh at white men in blackface plucking at banjos, banging on tambourines, and pretending to be as dumb as bricks.

It was entertainment. It was, the people thought, simple fun. They just turned off their minds and laughed — either unaware of or unconcerned about the blackface's insidious implications.

Minstrel shows affected the way in which the nation saw an entire race of people. These minstrel shows did more than entertain – they changed the way people thought. For many white people, the only exposure they had at all to black Americans came through the blackface caricatures that they saw on stage.

They would watch stock characters in tattered clothes struggling through a broken, Pidgin English. They’d laugh at the simplicity of these character’s minds — and, often, they’d accept these characterizations as a mirror of reality.

Finally, as public opinion started to turn against slavery, southern whites started playing up the stupidity of minstrelsy's black characters. Whites used the minstrel shows to show black people as dumb and savage, as people in need of the whips and chains of white civilization to keep them from going wild.

Following the Civil War, minstrel shows helped give birth to the Jim Crow Laws. These laws were named after a recurring character played by a white man in blackface who acted the fool – and who, in the minds of white America, epitomized the nature of black people.

Even as black people started earning their freedom, minstrel shows still ruled their lives. The first black entertainers could only get work by playing minstrel roles in vaudeville shows and circuses. They dressed up like caricatures of their own race and pretended to be idiots, the men often wearing dresses and padding their behinds. The only way they could get work was to – in the words of Frederick Douglass, "pander to the corrupt tastes" of the "filthy scum of white society."

But blackface and minstrel shows aren’t just a thing of the past. They’ve lived on for far longer than most people realize. The BBC kept The Black and White Minstrel Show on the air until 1978. Old minstrel songs like "Camptown Races" are still songs we sing to our children. And even Raggedy Ann’s iconic design were both modelled after blackface performers.

Blackface represents a dark period in American history – but one that isn’t a forgotten part of our distant past. The effects of blackface still linger on today, lurking under the surface of modern life.

Next, find out about the disturbing history of Jim Crow and segregation in America.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Oliver, Mark. "A Disturbing Illustrative History Of Blackface In America." AllThatsInteresting.com, August 9, 2017, https://allthatsinteresting.com/blackface-minstrels. Accessed May 18, 2024.