In 19th century America, popular entertainment included minstrel song and dance routines, meant to depict blacks as shiftless drifters or happy-go-lucky tricksters. In addition to blackface, these thespians wore tattered clothing and dusty woolen wigs to complete the caricatures. The minstrel shows were so popular that even black artists resigned to performing in blackface to draw audiences and, perhaps, a living wage.
In the years to follow, worldwide images of blackface infiltrated performing arts, literature, print media, home furnishings and animation. Perennial marketing icons, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are merely softened versions of blackface stereotypes.
In October, three months after the death of Michael Jackson, an Australian talent competition show featured an act which parodied the Jackson 5 by performing in afro wigs and blackface. One of the show’s judges, American crooner and actor, Harry Connick, Jr. (who happens to be white) halted the performance to reprimand the group. Connick explained , “we've spent so much time trying to not make black people look like buffoons, that when we see something like that we take it really to heart," and gave the group a score of zero.
Many photos have surfaced of young Americans partying in blackface, including Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Whitney Isleib. Isleib posted photos of herself on Facebook, dressed as rapper Lil' Wayne at a Halloween party. In many of the photos, she was accompanied by black friends, who seemed particularly comfortable with her costume selection.
French Vogue magazine also caused a stir recently with its spread featuring a white model, Lara Stone, in blackface.
In the age of a black President, does this resurgence of blackface still seize the mind with connotations of racism and hatred? Is it acceptable to pretend to be black under any circumstance? Can blackface now be considered the highest form of flattery or is this a dangerous backslide toward increased racial divisiveness?I’m certain you don’t really need me to answer those questions for you.