Blackface is a style of theatrical makeup that originated in the United States, used to affect the countenance of an iconic, racist, American archetype, that of the darky or coon. The term blackface also refers to a genre of musical and comedic theatrical presentation in which blackface makeup is worn. White blackface performers in the past used burnt cork, then later greasepaint, to affect jet-black skin and exaggerated lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tails or ragged clothes to complete the transformation.

  in greasepaint, sporting blackface minstrelsy's typical woolly wig and white gloves in the  , .
Al Jolson in greasepaint, sporting blackface minstrelsy's typical woolly wig and white gloves in the movie The Jazz Singer, 1927.


White comedian Thomas D. Rice popularized blackface, introducing the song "Jump Jim Crow" and an accompanying dance in his act in 1828. The song had a syncopated rhythm and purportedly recreated the dancing of a crippled, black stable hand, Jim Cuff, or "Jim Crow," whom Rice had seen in Cincinnati, Ohio:

First on de heel tap,
Den on the toe
Every time I wheel about
I jump Jim Crow.
Wheel about and turn about
En do j's so.
And every time I wheel about,
I jump Jim Crow.
-- 1823 sheet music

Rice traveled the U.S., performing under the pseudonym "Daddy Jim Crow." The name later became attached to statutes that further codified the reinstitution of segregation and discrimination after Reconstruction.

The shaping of racist archetypes

Initially, blackface performers were part of traveling troupes who performed in minstrel shows. In addition to music and dance, minstrel shows featured comical skits in which performers portrayed buffoonish, lazy, superstitious black characters who were cowardly and lascivious, lusted after white women, who stole, lied pathologically and mangled the English language. Such troupes in the early days of minstrelsy were all-male, so cross-dressing white men also played black women who often were either unappealingly and grotesquely mannish or highly sexually provocative. At the time, the stage also featured comic stereotypes of conniving, venal Jews; cheap Scotsmen; drunken Irishmen; ignorant southerners; gullible rural folk; and the like.

Minstrel shows were a fantastically popular show business phenomenon in the USA from 1828 through the 1930s, also enjoying some popularity in the UK and in parts of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. As a result, the genre played a powerful role in shaping racist perceptions of and prejudices about African-Americans in particular and blacks, generally.

By 1840, African-American performers also were performing in blackface makeup. White minstrel shows featured white performers pretending to be blacks, playing their versions of black music and speaking ersatz black dialects. Reminiscing about such shows he had seen in his youth, American humorist and author Mark Twain commented in dictated notes almost 50 years later:

…I suppose, the real nigger-show—the genuine nigger-show, the extravagant nigger-show— the show which to me had no peer and whose peer has not yet arrived, in my experience. We have the grand opera; and I have witnessed, and greatly enjoyed, the first act of everything which Wagner created, but…the nigger-show [is] a standard and a summit to whose rarefied altitude the other forms of musical art may not hope to reach.

The songs of northern composer Stephen Foster figured prominently in blackface minstrel shows of the period. Though written in dialect, they were free of the ridicule and blatantly racist caricatures that typified other songs of the genre. Foster's works treated slaves and the South in general with an often cloying sentimentality that appealed to white audiences of the day.

Missing image
Bert Williams, shown here in blackface, was the highest-paid African-American entertainer of his day.
When all-black minstrel shows began to proliferate the 1860s, however, they in turn often were billed as "authentic" and "the real thing." Despite often smaller budgets and smaller venues, their public appeal sometimes rivaled that of white minstrel troupes. African-American blackface productions also contained mocking buffoonery and comedy; but for many black artists it was simply good-natured self-parody. Blackface minstrelsy was a practical livelihood. Owing to the discrimination of the day, "blacking up" provided an often singular opportunity for African American musicians, actors and dancers to practice their crafts. Some minstrel shows, particularly when performing outside the American South, also managed subtly to poke fun at the racist attitudes and double standards of white society or champion the abolitionist cause. It was through blackface performers, white and black, that the richness and exuberance of African-American music, humor and dance first reached mainstream, white audiences in the U.S. and abroad.

Blackface remained a popular theatrical device well into the twentieth century, crossing over from the minstrel troupe touring circuit to vaudeville, to motion pictures, then to television. Many well-known entertainers performed in blackface, including Al Jolson; Eddie Cantor; Bob Hope; Fred Astaire; Judy Garland; Doris Day; Bing Crosby; The Three Stooges; Betty Grable; The Marx Brothers; Laurel and Hardy; and actor and comedian Bert Williams, who was the first black performer in vaudeville and on Broadway. Emmett Miller, an important influence on early country stars like Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, and Hank Williams, was also a blackface performer. But apart from cultural references such as those seen in theatrical cartoons, onstage blackface essentially was eliminated in the U.S., post-vaudeville, when public sensibilities regarding race began to change and blackface became increasingly associated with racism and bigotry.

Blackface and darky iconography

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Florence Kate Upton's Golliwogg and friends in 1895. Described as "a horrid sight, the blackest gnome," for many children, he was their introduction to black people. Note the formal minstrel attire.
The darky icon itself — googly-eyed; with inky skin; exaggerated white, pink or red lips; and bright, white teeth — became a common motif first in the U.S., then worldwide, in entertainment, children's literature, mechanical banks and other toys and games of all sorts, cartoons and comic strips, advertisements, jewelry, textiles, postcards, sheet music, food branding and packaging, and other consumer goods.

In 1895, the golliwog surfaced in Great Britain, the product of American-born children's book illustrator Florence Kate Upton, who modelled her ragdoll character Golliwogg after a minstrel doll she had in the U.S. as a child. "Golly," as he later affectionately came to be called, had a typical jet-black face; wild, wooly hair; bright, red lips; and sported formal minstrel attire. The generic, British golliwog later made its way back across the Atlantic as dolls, toy tea sets, ladies' perfume and in a myriad of other forms; and, it is believed, contributed the ethnic slur wog to the English lexicon.

American darky images and Upton's minstrel doll-inspired Golliwogg had a profound influence on the way blacks were depicted worldwide. Black and white minstrel troupes toured Europe and were somewhat successful for a time. There, as in the U.S., there was a history of involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but an ongoing European colonial presence in Africa and the Caribbean, as well. Shared notions of white supremacy contributed to the popularity of darky iconography popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

Unlike in the United States, however, scant resident populations in Europe and Asia of people of black African descent posed little challenge to the racist attitudes of the day. As a result, blackface and darky iconography and the stereotypes they perpetuated prompted no notable objections and, consequently, sensibilities regarding them often have been very different from those in America. For Europeans and Asians, many of whom had never seen a black person in the flesh before World War II, the racist iconography of the blackface darky -- grotesque caricatures of blacks born of whites ridiculing blacks -- as in the United States, became de rigueur. Internationally, darky icons proliferated far beyond the minstrel stage and, for many nonblacks, became reified in the human beings they denigrated. The grinning, pop-eyed distortions acquired a life of their own. By the 1920s and '30s, for example, French posters advertising performances by even respected and beloved performers like Josephine Baker and Bill Robinson routinely were in the darky mold. After the Second World War, Japan flooded the U.S. with darky and mammy kitchen ware, ashtrays, toys and ceramics.

U.S. cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s often featured characters in blackface gags as well as other racial caricatures. Blackface was one of the influences in the development of characters like Mickey Mouse. The United Artists 1933 release "The Mellerdrammer" -- the name a corruption of "melodrama" thought to harken back to the earliest minstrel shows -- was a film short based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Mickey, of course, was already black; but for this role he was depicted with exaggerated, orange lips; bushy, white sidewhiskers; and, of course, his now trademark white gloves.

In the U.S., by the 1950s, the NAACP had begun calling attention to such demeaning portrayals of African Americans and mounted a campaign to put an end to blackface performances and depictions. For decades, darky images had been omnipresent, particularly in the branding of everyday products and commodities such as Darkie Toothpaste, Nigger Head oysters and other canned goods, Picaninny Freeze ice cream, the Coon Chicken Inn restaurant chain and the like. With the eventual successes of the modern day Civil Rights Movement, such blatantly racist branding practices ended in the U.S., and blackface became an American taboo.

Modern-day manifestations

Over time, blackface and darky iconography became artistic and stylistic devices associated with art deco and the Jazz Age. By the 1950s and '60s, particularly in Europe, where it was more widely tolerated, blackface became a kind of outré, camp convention in some artistic circles. The Black and White Minstrel Show was a popular British musical variety show that featured blackface performers, and remained on British television until 1978. Actors and dancers in blackface appeared in music videos such as Taco Ockerse's "Puttin' on the Ritz" and Grace Jones's "Slave to the Rhythm," which aired regularly on MTV during the 1980s.

Darky iconography, while generally considered taboo in the U.S., still persists around the world. When trade and tourism produce a confluence of cultures, bringing differing sensibilities regarding blackface into contact with one another, the results can be jarring. Darky iconography is still popular in Japan today, but when Japan toymaker Sanrio Corporation exported a darky-icon character doll in the 1990s, the ensuing controversy prompted Sanrio to halt production. Foreigners visiting the Netherlands in November and December are often shocked or appalled at the sight of whites in classic blackface as a character known as Zwarte Piet, whom many Dutch nationals love as a symbol of Christmas. Travelers to Spain have expressed dismay at seeing "Conguito,"[1] ( a tubby, little brown character with full, red lips, as the trademark for Conguitos, a confection manufactured by the LACASA Group. In Britain, "Golly,"[2] ( a blackface golliwog character, finally fell out of favor in 2001 after almost a century as the trademark of jam producer James Robertson & Sons; but the debate still continues whether the golliwog should be banished from British culture or preserved as a treasured childhood icon. The influence of blackface on branding and advertising, as well as on perceptions and portrayals of blacks, generally, can be found worldwide. Black and brown products, particularly, such as licorice and chocolate, remain commodities most frequently paired with darky iconography.

The Netherlands' Zwarte Piet

Missing image
A white Netherlander in blackface costume as Zwarte Piet
Zwarte Piet, or "Black Peter," is a blackamoor character in Dutch Christmas lore, described variously as a slave or servant of Sinterklaas. The less sinister, Dutch version of the evil Knecht Ruprecht, Zwarte Piet is often characterized variously as buffoonish, mean, mischievous and stupid. He is sometimes associated with Satan. Once portrayed realistically, Zwarte Piet became a classic darky icon in the mid to late 19th century, contemporaneous with the spread of blackface iconography. To this day, holiday revelers in the Netherlands blacken their faces; wear afro wigs and bright, red lipstick; and walk the streets, throwing candy to passersby, some behavingly dim-wittedly and speaking mangled Dutch as embodiments of Zwarte Piet.

Accepted in the past without controversy in a once largely ethnically homogeneous nation, Zwarte Piet today is greeted with mixed reactions. Some see him as a cherished Christmas tradition and look forward to his annual appearance. Others, most notably, perhaps, many of the country's people of color, detest him. Parents often tell their children that Zwarte Piet will punish them if they have been naughty. As a result, some Dutch children fear Zwarte Piet and have been known to cling to their parents, bursting into tears when approached by Zwarte Piet impersonators. Other white Dutch children believe their black classmates will grow up to be Zwarte Piet. Still others stare and point at black people they encounter on the street, exclaiming, "Look! There's a Zwarte Piet!" Foreign tourists, particularly Americans, are often bewildered and mortified. Googly-eyed, red-lipped Zwarte Piet dolls, diecuts and displays adorn store windows alongside brightly displayed, smartly packaged holiday merchandise. At least once a year in the Netherlands, the debate over the harmlessness, or racism, of such customs resurfaces — along with the usual, smiling golliwog dolls dressed as Zwarte Piet and other yuletide, storefront-darky images.

The "coons" of Cape Town and Auckland

Inspired by blackface minstrels who visited Cape Town, South Africa, in 1848, former Javan and Malaysian slaves took up the minstrel tradition, holding emancipation celebrations which consisted of music, dancing and parades. In the African-American cakewalk tradition, their songs often parodied their former masters and the privileged, white class. Such celebrations eventually became consolidated into an annual, year-end event known as the Cape Coon Carnival.

Today, carnival minstrels are mostly "coloured" (mixed-race), Afrikaans-speaking revelers. Often in blackface, they parade down the streets of the city in colorful costumes, in a celebration of creole culture. Participants also pay homage to the carnival's African American roots, playing Negro spirituals and jazz featuring traditional Dixieland jazz instruments, including horns, banjos, and tambourines.[3] (

The term "coon" has been appropriated by carnival participants over time, who don't regard it as a pejorative. However, the name was changed to the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival in 2003, so as to avoid offending tourists. Former South African president Nelson Mandela endorsed the carnival in 1986, and is a member of the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival Association, which presides over the event. Now officially more than a hundred years old, the carnival has become a major tourist attraction, vigorously promoted by the nation's tourism authority, complete with corporate sponsorship.

A multi-ethnic group of New Zealanders, taking their cue from the Cape Town tradition, have started their own "Cape Coon troupe," calling themselves the "Auckland City Dukes." Wearing modified minstrel attire and pared down blackface makeup, the Dukes participate in the annual Cape Town Minstrel Carnival and enthusiastically embrace the "coon" moniker.[4] (

In the U.S.

The darky, or coon, archetype blackface played such a profound role in creating remains a persistent thread in American culture. It continues to resurface. Animation utilizing darky iconography aired on U.S. television routinely as late as the mid 1990s, and still can be seen in specialty time slots on such networks as TCM. In 1993, white actor Ted Danson ignited a firestorm of controversy when he appeared at a Friar's Club roast in blackface, delivering a risqué shtick written by his then love interest, African American comedienne Whoopi Goldberg.

Recently, the racist stereotypes of blackface have resurfaced in the persona of "Shirley Q. Liquor," a creation of gay, white performer Chuck Knipp, whose "cabaret act" features the controversial character "Shirley Q. Liquor." Knipp plays Liquor in both drag and blackface. Writes Nicolas Boston of a 2004 Knipp performance in the New York Gay City News:

[Shirley Q. Liquor] is described as a single mother of 19 children born out of wedlock and on welfare. When in character as Shirley Q. Liquor, Knipp, a resident of Long Beach, Mississippi, speaks in an exaggerated black Southern accent and mispronounces words. His act consists of poking fun at African American female names, holidays such as Kwanzaa, Ebonics, African American women in jail, and a host of other topics related to blacks.[5] (

Knipp's audience was virtually all-white, and the performance drew criticism and protests from multi-ethnic, multiracial lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups.

Blackface and minstrelsy also serve as the theme of Spike Lee's film Bamboozled (2000). It tells of a black television executive who reintroduces the old blackface style and is horrified by its success.

In 2002 and 2003, there were several inflammatory blackface "incidents" where white college students donned blackface as part of presumably innocent, but insensitive, gags -- or as part of an acknowledged climate of racism and intolerance on campus.[6] ( Further, commodities bearing darky iconic images, from tableware, soap, toy marbles to home accessories and t-shirts, continue to be manufactured and marketed in the U.S. and elsewhere. Some are reproductions of historical artifacts, while others are so-called "fantasy" items, newly designed and manufactured for the marketplace.

Blackface minstrelsy and world pop culture

Despite its racism, blackface minstrelsy played a seminal and precedent-setting role in the introduction of African-American music, dance and humor to world audiences. Wrote jazz historian Gary Giddings in Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903-1940:

Though antebellum (minstrel) troupes were white, the form developed in a form of racial collaboration, illustrating the axiom that defines -- and continues to define -- American music as it developed over the next century and a half: African American innovations metamorphose into American popular culture when white performers learn to mimic black ones.

The black folk institution of the barbershop quartet was enthusiastically adopted by whites, to the point where its black origins were virtually forgotten, to be rediscovered by musicologists in the 1990s.

White performers have continued to emulate black performers out of genuine admiration and out of recognition of the power, appeal and commercial viability of African American cultural expression. Bobby Darin, Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray, Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and his Comets, Roy Orbison, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Dusty Springfield, Janis Joplin, Tom Jones and many more widely are recognized as mimicking African-American performance styles in vocal techniques, musical styling, dance, stage presence and persona (see cool, hip, hipster).

Indeed, allusions to and appropriation of African American performance traditions are virtually standard for rock and roll and pop music, not only at their beginnings, but up to the present day. Black-influenced style is a constant presence in the work of artists across the musical spectrum— from the crooners (i.e., Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, and Peggy Lee) to the blue-eyed soul of the Righteous Brothers; to The Who and Led Zeppelin's blues/rock appropriations in the 1970s, which developed into heavy metal such as Van Halen and Guns n' Roses; to the vocal stylings of Hall and Oates and the careful, formulaic emulation of New Edition by New Kids on the Block in the late 1980s, which spawned the white boy bands of the 1990s such as the Backstreet Boys, N'Sync, and 98 Degrees; to Eric Clapton's blues guitar; to such white rappers as Eminem, Kid Rock, and Vanilla Ice; to vocalists like Michael McDonald, Joss Stone, Teena Marie, Justin Timberlake, Pink, Michael Bolton, Kelly Clarkson, and Christina Aguilera.

The international imprint of African-American cultural expression is pronounced in its depth and breadth, in a myriad of blatantly mimetic, as well as subtler, more attenuated forms. This "browning," à la Richard Rodriguez, of American and world popular culture arguably began with blackface minstrelsy. It is a continuum of pervasive African American influence that is, perhaps, most evident today in the ubiquity of the cool aesthetic and hip-hop culture.

Blackface spinoffs

Related types of performances are yellowface, in which performers adopt Asian identities, brownface, for Latino or East Indian, and redface, for Native Americans. Whiteface, or paleface, is sometimes used to describe non-white actors performing white parts, although more commonly describes the clown or mime traditions of white makeup.


  • Twain, Mark. Mark Twain's Autobiography, Chapter XIX, dictated November 30, 1906 (Albert Bigelow Paine: New York, 1924).

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