Halloween is this Saturday. On Sunday, we'll wake up to a story that reads like this: A photo has surfaced on social media, showing a (probably white, but definitely not black) person wearing blackface as part of their (black person) costume, igniting a firestorm.
Always a firestorm. It never fails.
Every Halloween, blackface and its racist origins become a topic of a national conversation -- and not because people are suddenly interested in learning about the history of racial oppression in the U.S. No, it's because a lot of people, sadly, still believe this masquerading of blackness is OK.
In fact, 60 percent of white Americans think people should wear whatever they want on Halloween, even if others find it offensive, according to a recent HuffPost/YouGov survey. And a majority of white Americans -- 52 percent -- think that painting your skin black for Halloween is just fine.
We weren't even going to write a story this year about blackface. We weren't going to take the time to explain that for so many black Americans, blackface carries unavoidable associations of hate, violence and degradation, and that if you choose to wear it, you're basically broadcasting the message "I don't give a shit about black people's feelings." We weren't going to write that story. But uh, apparently we need to. So before painting yourself with bronzer or black facepaint, please consider the history of blackface. And if you still want to afterward, well, knock yourself out. Literally. Please punch yourself in the face until you're unconscious.
In 1828, Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice painted his skin jet black, dressed himself in tattered clothes and walked out onto a New York City theater stage to perform a song-and-dance routine.
“Jump Jim Crow” became an instant hit, and Rice became one of the first popular performers to profit heavily off of black stereotypes -- a trend that persists today. Rice took his inspiration from enslaved Africans, who came up with the dance known as the "Jim Crow" after being legally barred from performing their own native dances. Rice became known as the “Father of Minstrelsy,” credited with popularizing the Jim Crow character in the early 1830s and setting the stage for a thriving industry of blackface performers, including the Virginia Minstrels, the first professional white minstrel troupe.
The performances were synonymous with the mockery of black folks and the promotion of damaging stereotypes, which ended up lasting for generations. White audiences who had never encountered black people in real life watched the actors, who blackened their skin with burnt cork, greasepaint or shoe polish, and thought, So that's what black people are like.
At one point, even abolitionists adopted the patronizing performance style, putting on minstrel shows to convey the ills of African enslavement to other white people. “Gombo Chaff,” one of Rice’s songs, describes a slave master who dies, goes to hell and is condemned to perform the same tasks he'd forced upon his slaves.
Advocates of slavery, of course, had no problem with using cartoonish, reductive representations of black people to advance their political agenda. They created the simple-minded Sambo archetype in order to promote the idea that black people were content being enslaved and would be ill-equipped for independence.
So many of the anti-black tropes that are still with us today came out of the minstrelsy era: the zip coon, a lazy, gaudily dressed black man who made himself out to be more intelligent than he actually was; the brute, a savage criminal with a keen interest in raping white women; the mammy, an ugly, ignorant domestic servant loyal to her white masters; the tragic mulatto, a light-skinned black woman who was sexually desired by white men; and the pickaninnies, poorly raised, unattended black children who were considered stupid and expendable.
“Minstrelsy desensitized Americans to horrors of chattel slavery. These performances were object lessons about the harmlessness of southern slavery,” Blair L. M. Kelley, an associate professor at North Carolina State University, wrote for The Grio in 2013. “By encouraging audiences to laugh, they showed bondage as an appropriate answer for the lazy, ignorant slave. Why worry about the abolition of slavery when black life looked so fun, silly, and carefree? Even the violence of enslavement just became part of the joke.”
The use of minstrelsy shifted after the Civil War. Blackface characters were used to propagate the idea that because Emancipation caused racial violence and social instability, newly freed black folks longed for the "protections" they'd supposedly had under slavery. (This bizarre notion has survived into the age of the iPhone.) Post-Civil War minstrel shows also helped smooth the way for the racial violence that ripped through black communities.
Some black folks felt little choice but to go along with these fallacies. In an attempt to be economically independent, black people in the South would darken themselves with burnt cork, create the appearance of wider lips with soot, adopt Irish names and find work as entertainers -- pretending to be white people who were pretending to be black people, and trafficking in all the ugly stereotypes of the day.
Even though the North had won the war, it was the South's ideas about black Americans that came to dominate the mainstream.
On March 3, 1915, “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s three-hour epic about Southern life, debuted in theaters. The film is set primarily in a South Carolina town before and after the Civil War. It praises the antebellum South and presents black folks as lazy, stupid savages, as Richard Brody pointed out for The New Yorker:
It depicts freedmen as interested, above all, in intermarriage, indulging in legally sanctioned excess and vengeful violence mainly to coerce white women into sexual relations. It shows Southern whites forming the Ku Klux Klan to defend themselves against such abominations and to spur the “Aryan” cause overall. The movie asserts that the white-sheet-clad death squad served justice summarily and that, by denying blacks the right to vote and keeping them generally apart and subordinate, it restored order and civilization to the South.
As black Americans wailed at the film’s depictions of them, white folks up North greeted the movie with fanfare. There were no black actors in the film, only white actors in blackface. If nothing else, “The Birth of a Nation” provides a case study in how blackface helps to exaggerate stereotypes and facilitate violence against actual black people. Riots tore through Boston and Philadelphia, while Chicago, Denver and St. Louis, among other cities, refused to show the film. White mobs attacked black people on the street and a white man in Lafayette, Indiana, killed a black teenager after viewing the film. Sensing the effect it was having on race relations, the Ku Klux Klan even used “The Birth of a Nation” to launch a recruitment campaign.
The history of blackface is complex, but it’s inescapably rooted in the notion that black folks are inherently less than white people, and that they shouldn’t be allowed to portray themselves onstage. While you may think it’s harmless to paint yourself black for Halloween, it’s not. This is the tradition you’re joining, whether or not you know it.
Once you’re done masquerading as a black person ― employing the same techniques used not just to belittle the black experience, but to prop up the systemic subjugation of the entire race ― you get to remove the color from your skin. Black people do not have this luxury. We cannot wash our blackness from ourselves, nor can we eliminate all the stereotypes and all the forms of oppression that come with it.
Halloween should be a safe, fun time for everyone. Please, don’t be hurtful, rude or inconsiderate. Don’t paint your face black.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated that the murder of a black teenager, referenced above, occurred in Louisiana; he was killed in Indiana.