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Why there’s nothing funny about using blackface

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Issue 2643
Blackface is treated as a historical anomaly but is still used today by organisations such as fashion brand Gucci
Blackface is treated as a historical anomaly but is still used today by organisations such as fashion brand Gucci (Pic: Gucci)

Recently the Gucci luxury fashion brand produced a jumper which, when pulled over the wearer’s lower head, looks like blackface.

In the early 19th century the only “black” people regularly seen on the stage in the US were whites in blackface playing foolish servants.

This moved to another level when the “father of American minstrelsy” Thomas Dartmouth Rice first performed as “Jim Crow” in New York around 1830.

Rice blackened his face and dressed in tattered clothing to mimic a Southern slave and danced as a buffoon.

It is no coincidence that the use of blackface emerged at the same time as the anti-slavery movement became a threat. Nat Turner led his slave rebellion in Virginia, and the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator was launched in 1831. The term “Underground Railroad” for the slaves’ escape route was coined in about 1840.


Rice was a great success, touring the US and Britain. By 1845 a whole industry of presenting black people to white audiences as lazy, happy and stupid was in place.

With time mocking slaves’ tattered clothes shifted to laughing at the “dandified coon” dressed in fine clothes above his station.

Minstrel culture demeaned and debased all black people. Alternative traditions of black people proudly celebrating their culture emerged in the years of Reconstruction after slavery was abolished at the end of the Civil War.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the US and Britain in the 1870s. The tour started by following the path of the Underground Railroad.

One reviewer wrote, “Those who have only heard the burnt cork caricatures of negro minstrelsy have not the slightest conception of what it really is.”

As Jim Crow segregation grew in the late 19th century, black people increasingly found that they could only appear as caricatures.

Black people had begun to play music for white audiences, but they were now expected to behave like the stereotypes. Bizarrely this often included wearing blackface makeup.

Tragically it was a black singer, Ernest Hogan, who wrote the first nationally successful “coon song” in 1896, “All Coons Look Alike to Me”.

Minstrel shows remained enormously popular through the early twentieth century.

Hollywood took up all the stereotypes. Remember that the first talkie in 1927, The Jazz Singer featured Al Jolson—in blackface.


In Britain both the style and the patronising racism were popularised by music hall performers including GH Elliot, billed as the “chocolate-coloured coon”.

BBC TV launched its prime time Black and White Minstrel Show in the summer of 1958, the year of the Notting Hill race riots.

The Black and White Minstrels were on a bill topped by Motown giants Diana Ross and the Supremes at the 1968 Royal Variety Performance in London. At the dress rehearsal, several came into the wings, still in blackface, to watch the Supremes.

“When Diana Ross saw us she refused to carry on until we’d cleared the auditorium,” minstrel Les Want recalled. “As we left the stage she gave the Black Power salute. Then it all came home.”

A growing anti-racist movement made these racist stereotypes unacceptable, and that’s how they should stay.

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