The scariest thing about this Halloween season isn’t the throngs of people dressing up like Miley Cyrus. Which…by the way…is pretty terrifying.
But what’s even more terrifying is the blatant disrespect when it comes to costume choices.
Dressing up as an unarmed teen who was shot to death? Or the faux-cop who killed him?
What about dressing up as the faux-dentities of the crew that flew on the doomed Asiana Airline flight that crashed in July. Blood, fake monikers and all.
But above all, dressing up as a black person…when you’re not black. Whether it’s to honor your favorite television character, in order to fit in at an “African-themed” party, or portraying a fallacious black culture complete with bling, sideways deuce signs and slanted hats with all of the ignorance and bigotry embodied in a “thuggish” mug slapped across your face…it’s just plain wrong.
Blackface. We’ve been here before and we’re here now. And it’s a damn shame.
We’ve already told you 20 reasons (though we can probably pull up 100 more) of why you shouldn’t dress in blackface this Halloween season (or any time of the year).
But that didn’t sink in. In fact, decades of us telling the world that it is NEVER OK isn’t enough to keep Julianne Hough away from painting her face a darker shade…and for the friends around her to allow her to do it without a conversation about the history of blackface.
A history I’m starting to think many of our Halloween offenders don’t know about.
Hopefully. At least that ignorance would give me some reason to have mercy.
Here are some quick facts that you should know about the history of blackface and why it’s never alright to slather your face with the nearest charcoal, brown paint or MAC foundation and expect us to laugh.
- Black face originated in the 1820s during minstrel shows where white men would portray plantation slaves and free blacks. These caricatures were used to make a mockery out of black people and eventually, this portrayal led to Americans believing that anyone with brown skin subscribed to these stereotypes.
- The minstrel shows lasted from about the 1820s to the 1890s and were the most popular form of entertainment in America. Each show featured a variety of jokes and skits that highlighted the most degrading and ugly stereotypes about black people to make the audience laugh.
- Two of the most famous examples are Jim Crow and Zip Coon. Jim Crow, who was really a white performer named Thomas “Daddy” Rice, would wear blackface while dancing and singing the song “Jump Jim Crow.” Part of his act was to disturb otherwise peaceful environments of white people, usually played out in a rail car or restaurant. As a result, the term Jim Crow became synonymous with segregating black people from white areas.
- Zip Coon (developed in 1834) was played by George Dixon. He success was dressing up as an arrogant, free black slave that attempted to be dignified, but failed in his appearance and inability to pronounce words correctly.
- Both of these characters, and those developed after them, became known as the “coon.” White performers would dress up, paint their face with black charcoal or another stain, and exaggerate their features by bulging their eyes and painting their lips red.
- Enter the other popular characters of minstrel shows: the mammy (usually a heavyset black woman faithful to her master), the Buck (an intimidating black man who adored white women), the pickaninny (or children with unkempt hair), the Uncle Tom (a black man devoted to white ideals) and even the wench (a black temptress, usually played by a man in a dress).
- In what one could argue as a running theme (even in 2013) is the idea that pickaninnies were disposable. Children were usually depicted as unintelligent and impulsive and were easily hurt or killed in minstrel shows.
- In an interesting twist, white audiences in the 19th century refused to accept real black performers unless they performed in blackface. One of the first to do this was a black performer named William Henry Lane (Master Juba), a tap dancer who eventually became so well-known that he was granted permission to perform as a black man without the black makeup.
- Enter vaudeville. Vaudeville was a genre of theater that offered variety entertainment for a more family-friendly audience. It was popular from the 1880s to the early 1930s and gave way for other black performers to don blackface in the few roles available. It was in this degrading way that many black performers got their start and eventually paved the way for black men to perform without blackface.
- As time progressed, blackface moved from the stage to the big screen. In the controversial 1915 film Birth of a Nation, white men donned blackface to portray violent black men or half-witted free black men. In the film, the Ku Klux Klan saves the South and the white race from the ruin of blacks who have gained power. The director of the film, D.W. Griffith, admitted that it was designed to “create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men.”
- Movies turned to cartoons. Animators at Warner Brothers, MGM, and Disney frequently used blackface in cartoons to perpetuate those same stereotypes of the lazy, unintelligent or savage black person. Some of these references can still be seen on syndicated programs today.
- Spike Lee explored minstrelsy and blackface in his 2000 film Bamboozled, a film that explored the effects of nearly two centuries worth of negative stereotypes and images of black people in America.
But despite Lee’s attempt, and the colorful history of blackface, we are still faced with this…
And even this…
But hopefully this brief lesson in the hurtful history of blackface will make Halloween offenders think twice.
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