Why Blackface Just Won’t Die
Eric Avila, UCLA

Blackface minstrelsy—the act of a white person painting one’s face black, usually to perform a repertoire of black song and dance for other white Americans—is one of the most cherished traditions in the history of white America. It dates back to the 1830’s and 1840’s, when millions of Americans, immigrant and native-born alike, fell into the stultifying regimes of industrial production and factory work.

In the 1850’s and 1860’s, as white Americans passionately debated “the slave question,” as well as the legal status of some four million former slaves, the minstrel show strengthened its appeal, especially among European immigrants beset with more leisure time and disposable income. By the late 19th century, minstrelsy had emerged as the first indigenous form of mass entertainment in the United States, enthralling white audiences with parodies of African Americans as lazy, stupid, bestial and violent, but also as sentimental, instinctual and innately gifted with the soulful talent of song and dance.

The important thing to remember here is that even as white audiences imagined blackness and black people through their engagement with the minstrel show, they were really imagining themselves as white, as the very opposite of the degraded qualities they projected onto the bodies of blackface performers. Thus when the lights dimmed and the curtain rose, all the many differences that fueled tensions between Irish, German, Polish, Italian, Swedish, English, Bohemian, Russian, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and native-stock Americans magically disappeared under the powerful fiction of shared whiteness that took shape before the spectacle of blackface. Therein lay the appeal of the minstrel show.

Though its stage iterations largely disappeared in the next century, the minstrel show never really went away. In 1927, The Jazz Singer, a film about the son of a Jewish cantor who makes it big in show business through blackface performance (and the first sound film to end the silent era of motion picture production), reignited the appeal of blackface for new generations. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, rock and roll introduced the likes of Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison, young white men who honed their caricature of black dance and music for mass appeal. Even in our own time, white performers haven’t been able to resist the allure of burnt cork. Billy Crystal, Ted Danson, Robert Downey Jr. and other white entertainers have also “blackened up,” enacting their own version of this white cultural tradition.

What explains the enduring appeal of “playing black” for generations of white Americans? Do they borrow or steal black cultural style? Do they love such style? Hate it? Or both? In recent years, U.S. historians have explored the vexing tradition of blackface minstrelsy in American history and have asserted a variety of explanations for its stubborn persistence. For the most part, they have focused upon the white working class, the immigrant white working class in particular, who could afford admission to the minstrel show but could not afford to lose what they learned to value the most in a racialized democracy that has long celebrated white skin as the supreme ideal of beauty, intelligence and citizenship.

In our day, we find college students, members of fraternities and sororities in particular, who are keeping this tradition, with its roots in racial tension and class strife, alive. Sadly, this instance at UCLA evokes a history rooted in the Greek system of fraternities and sororities across the nation.

In 2010, for example, members of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity at UC San Diego hosted their notorious “Compton Cookout.”

In 2012, the members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at the University of Florida sparked an outrage on campus by hosting a party in blackface.

In 2013, members of the Alpha Delta fraternity and Delta Delta Delta sorority hosted a “Blood and Crips” party at Dartmouth College, and the Kappa Sigma fraternity at Duke University hosted an “Asia Prime” party, in which members came dressed as geishas, sumo wrestlers and rice paddy workers.

The members of these fraternities and sororities thus demonstrate their stubborn attachment to the powerful fictions of whiteness and to the rituals that preserve its integrity. Just like the minstrel performers of the 19th century, who said they were like widows because they only wore black for a short while, the students who enact these rituals become “black”—just for a brief moment of fun and revelry—and then become white again, a symbolic return to the racial status quo and the privileges it

Suggested Reading:

  • Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (20th ed., 2013)
  • Yuval Taylor, Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip Hop (2013)
  • David Rodiger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class(2nd ed., 2007)
  • George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Rev. Exp. ed., 2006)
  • Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles (2004)
  • Michael Rogin, Blackface White Noise: Jewish Immigrants and the Hollywood Melting Pot(1996)
  • Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (1995)
  • Alexander Saxton, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth Century America (1990)
  • Robert C. Toll, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (1974)