The Still Here-Ness of Blackface, Part One

The Still Here-Ness of Blackface, Part One

The reproduction of a 1900 William H. West minstrel (blackface) show

As told by Dr. John Aden, the Volunteer Executive Director of the African/African American Historical Society & Museum of Allen County (AAAHSM):

The origins of blackface come from the minstrel shows that were comprised of African-American theatrical and musical performers who toured a circuit called the Chitlin’ Circuit in the antebellum period…the period when slavery still existed.  African-American troubadours were pursued; slave masters formed these troops of performers initially as a way to keep slaves entertained and distracted.  Then white performers realized there was money to be made in mimicking these African-American performers. They put shoe polish on their faces and red lipstick to extenuate the size of their lips, etc. There’s a whole series of collectible items like dolls and paintings from the period that illustrate African-Americans in this type of portrayal.  These portrayals are deeply racist and white supremacist and fed into the theory of Social Darwinism which is pretty important to understanding white American and European attitudes toward African people.

Let’s back up a little bit…Charles Darwin creates this theory of evolution and published this very famous book, “Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.”  Darwin was a British philosopher and biologist.  He wasn’t trying to apply this theory to racial and social groups; he was looking at turtles and birds in the Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America.  A lot of his contemporaries, people of European decent, took the subtitle of his book as if he was talking about the survival of the struggle of the favored races.  We’re just going to assume we’re the favored race and everybody else we are trying to overpower.  And to Darwin’s credit, he came from a thinking of atheism in his family and he got hate mail from across the Atlantic from white Americans because they thought the theory explained why black people are subservient and lack the intellectual capacity for complex thought.  The whole theory is just a white supremacist theory.  It proves one of the challenges with theories: If you’re the person creating the theory, and it’s about social groups, you’re going to tend to privilege your own social group at the expense of other groups and assume they lack sophistication.  So Darwin wrote back to the hate mail writers and told them that their theories were false and flawed because his theory applied to biology and not races of people.

As I said before, during the antebellum period, slave owners promoted African-American performers as an important way to keep enslaved people distracted from the everyday duties (This might feel controversial, but a pacifistic style of Christianity was promoted in the same vein, to try and keep enslaved African- Americans docile so they wouldn’t resist violently against enslavement.)

The white performers, who lampooned African-American performances, had access to big performance halls like Carnegie, and performed blackface.  And the vaudeville circuit is an extension of these performances.

I don’t want to get too deep into it but in the structure of western languages there are these things called binary oppositions: hot versus cold, black versus white, male versus female, etc.  And they serve as a short hand and make it easy to navigate the language without having to explain complex thoughts and ideas in long-winded ways. You just refer to the stereotypes, and that make it easy for people to make snap decisions and judgments about other groups of people or situations.

So what we know about binary oppositions today is that they don’t actually illuminate the subject they are describing. The assumption that Westerners make is that binary oppositions are universal and found all over the world; they’re not.  In other societies, where they have a more cyclical structure to knowledge, there is a range of terms that are used, like the 56 different words for snow used [famously] by the Inuit Eskimos.  Binary oppositions are unique to the West.