[Trigger/content warnings: lots of racist and ableist imagery and language.]
In 1768, English playwright Isaac Bickerstaffe and Charles Dibdin — librettist and composer, respectively — presented their comic opera The Padlock at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. Dibdin portrayed the role of Mungo, a black slave from the West Indies, and his aria “Dear Heart! What a Terrible Life I am Led” became a popular hit. The song, though a lament, was an up-tempo, marked allegro.
In the late eighteenth century, “Dear Heart” and a number of other “Negro songs” were published in American song collections. These songs were meant to be sung by white singers “in character” — i.e., in blackface makeup and tattered clothing — but their texts were in general sympathetic to the plight of the enslaved. For instance, “The Desponding Negro” tells the story of an African caught and transported in the Middle Passage:
And “Poor Black Boy (I Sold a Guiltless Negro Boy),” from another English comic opera called The Prize (libretto by Prince Hoare, music by Stephen Storace, whose sister Nancy was the celebrated soprano who created the role of Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozzle di Figaro), is sung from the perspective of a repentant white slave-dealer.
Performing in blackface was a practice of long standing in Britain. Morris dance, a traditional form of English folk dance that emerged in the Middle Ages, derives its name from “Moorish,” i.e. African; the dancers were imitating what they believed to be exotic African dances, and the custom of blacking up persists, though it is now frowned upon by folk dance enthusiasts:
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, blackface was a theatrical convention for white actors portraying characters of African heritage, and was not considered denigrating or disrespectful. This began to change (slowly) in Britain in the nineteenth century, when the African-American actor Ira Aldridge made a sensation in England and on the European continent for his portrayal of the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello.
In early nineteenth-century America, on the other hand, white entertainers began to produce comic songs for the concert and stage, in which blacks were treated as figures of ridicule and contempt. The so-called “Father of American Minstrelsy,” Thomas Dartmouth Rice, known as “Daddy” Rice, claimed that he was inspired to create the genre when he came upon a disabled black stable-hand who, as he worked,
When Childish Gambino’s “This is America” dropped in 2018, some critics saw the pose he strikes early in the video, when he shoots the guitar player, as a reference to minstrelsy.
Minstrel shows, or “Ethiopian minstrelsy,” as the genre was called, became wildly popular in the big northern cities of the new nation, and some of the most popular minstrel troupes crossed the ocean and toured to great success in England. The white dancers and singers in blackface accompanied themselves with “Ethiopian instruments” — the fiddle, the banjo, the tambourine, and the “bones.” The typical minstrel show
offered up a random selection of songs interspersed with what passed for black wit . . . the second part (or “olio”) featured a group of novelty performances . . . and the third part was a narrative skit, usually set in the South, containing dancing, music, and burlesque.
In an 1848 article in his newspaper, The North Star, Frederick Douglass described the blackface actors as:
The filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.
Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that such entertainments were flagrantly racist — portraying white northerners’ corrupted ideas of the lives of southern blacks and making them into figures of fun — some scholars of minstrelsy have theorized that white audiences were attracted to minstrel shows not only because minstrelsy propped up white supremacy, but also because of its connection to black culture, however degraded the minstrels’ version of black culture may have been. Even nineteenth-century writers, such as Margaret Fuller, recognized that what was original and innovative in American culture came from black music: white American culture, she wrote, was still an imitation of British culture, while
All symptoms of invention [in America] are confined to the African race . . . [unlike “Yankee Doodle,”] “Jump Jim Crow” is a [song] native to this country.
[Remember that Rice had essentially ripped off the song that the stablehand was singing, a theft that Fuller seems to acknowledge here.]
And another critic wrote in 1845 about the infusion of black music into the culture at large:
Who are our true rulers? The negro poets, to be sure! Do they not set the fashion, and give laws to the public taste? Let one of them, in the swamps of Carolina, compose a new song, and it no sooner reaches the ear of a white amateur, than it is written down, amended, (that is, almost spoilt,) printed, and then put upon a course of rapid dissemination, to cease only with the utmost bounds of Anglo-Saxondom, perhaps of the world.
Ironically, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, who had catapulted to fame playing a racist, ableist stereotype of an enslaved man, later played the sympathetic slave character Tom in a stage version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin — although, as Nick Rugnetta suggests here, it was probably one of the many bowdlerized, even pro-slavery, versions.
In his book Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Eric Lott suggests that
It was cross-racial desire that coupled a nearly insupportable fascination and a self-protective derision with respect to black people and their cultural practices, and that made blackface minstrelsy less a sign of absolute white power and control than of panic, anxiety, terror, and pleasure.
Or, as Julius Lester noted in Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!:
The minstrel shows were a pathetic attempt by whites to try to get some of the vitality of blacks into their own strait-jacketed lives. (Whites would still be dancing the minuet if blacks weren’t around to invent every dance from the Charleston to the Boogaloo.) They had to masquerade as blacks to get outside the strict mores of their society.
W.E.B. Du Bois, in his essay “The Sorrow Songs,” included two minstrel songs — “Swanee River” and “Old Black Joe,” both by white composer Stephen Foster — in his historiography of black American music, which suggests that the cross-racial encounters of the minstrel show were more complex than they may appear.
After emancipation, there were even all-black minstrel troops, who nevertheless still “blacked up” for their performances. Interestingly, black minstrel shows were very popular among black audiences in the northern cities. Why do you think this might have been?
In any event, in the mid-nineteenth century,
The Ethiopian vogue . . . swept over the United States . . . the public clamored for Ethiopian melodies, and songwriters gave it such songs as Old Dan Tucker, Dandy Jim from Caroline, Zip Coon, Jim Along Josey, Coal-Black Rosie [and others].
Old Dan Tucker:
Zip Coon (a “zip coon” was a derogatory slang term for an urban black man, the citified counterpart of the rural “Jim Crow,” who liked to dress in flashy clothes and get into razor fights with his cohort):
Jim Along Josie:
Which later, with some changes, made its way into the children’s song repertoire:
Coal Black Rose — here sung as a sea shanty (Remember “Go Down, You Blood-Red Roses”?):
Boatman’s Dance, attributed, like “Dixie,” to Dan Emmett:
The twentieth-century composer Aaron Copland made a popular arrangement of “Boatman’s Dance” for baritone and orchestra. American baritone Thomas Hampson sings it here, with a hint of an AAVE accent:
Rhiannon Giddens reclaims the song:
Giddens with her old band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops:
The taste for blackface minstrelsy persisted well into the twentieth century.
In England as well as in America:
And it has been used even by artists who one might have assumed would know better.
In 1992, for instance, the white alt-folk singer Michelle Shocked released an album called Arkansas Traveler. According to a review at the time:
[Shocked] is using the album to argue that blacks and whites who performed in blackface in the 1800s, imitating what they believed to be authentic black culture, are the founders of today’s popular music. Musicians who do not acknowledge this tradition are exploiting it, she says.
In particular, Shocked focuses on bluegrass, a style commonly believed to have been invented by Bill Monroe . . . she says Monroe learned the basis for bluegrass from a black fiddle player named Arnold Schultz.
”There is a very common misconception about this music that, say, it comes from Celtic influences-say, Irish music-and that it was brought over to this country and maybe it went through the Appalachians and Kentucky and became Americanized, and now let’s call it bluegrass or mountain music,” Shocked says.
But you can tell a story a hundred different ways. The way I’m trying to tell the story is that this music was as much a black invention as a white one, but that the black part of the history has been written out.
Jump Jim Crow. Jump Jim Crow
How do you, do you walk so slow
Like a little red rooster with one trick leg
Looks like you the one laying the egg
I don’t know when but it’ll be real soon
Going down the road by the light of the moon
Going to the city to see Zip Coon
Hip Zip Coon you sure look slick
How do you do that walking trick
You got a woman on your left
A woman on your right
You all dressed up like a Saturday night
Strolling down the street, feeling fine
Tipping your hat, saying “Howdy, Shine”
If I knew your secret I would make it mine
Tarbaby, Tarbaby, tell me true
Who is really the jigaboo?
Is it the white man, the white talking that jive
Or the black man, the black, trying to stay alive?
You can’t touch a tarbaby, everybody knows
Smiling all the while wit de bone in de nose
That’s the way the story goes
Perhaps Shocked’s efforts are an example of love and theft, like Joni Mitchell’s forays into blackface:
I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard, in search of a costume for a Halloween party when I saw this black guy with a beautiful spirit walking with a bop… As he went by me he turned around and said, “Ummmm, mmm… looking good sister, lookin’ good!” Well I just felt so good after he said that. It was as if this spirit went into me. So I started walking like him. I bought a black wig, I bought sideburns, a moustache. I bought some pancake makeup. It was like ‘I’m goin’ as him!’
Mitchell used this black male persona, which she named “Art Nouveau,” in several contexts. The black man on the left of the cover of her 1977 album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is Joni, in blackface drag.
On her 1979 “Shadows and Light” tour, Mitchell even used film to transpose “Art’s” face over hers at the end of the song “Furry Sings the Blues,” about her encounters with the dying blues musician Furry Lewis in Memphis (at the 4:14 mark):
In 1980, Joni made a short film, “The Black Cat in the Black Mouse Socks,” in which she transforms herself into “Art.”
What are the implications of a white woman taking on a black male persona? “Furry Sings the Blues” is not only a self-revelatory tale of cross-race cultural appropriation, but also of cross-class appropriation: Mitchell describes Lewis’s crumbling neighborhood in Memphis, notes that if you “bring him smoke and drink,” Lewis will sing for you, and ends with the admission that her “limo is shining on his shanty street.”
Is blackface ever permissible? Is it a different thing entirely when an innovative and admired artist like Joni Mitchell uses it? Or not?
Blackface has also been in the news in the past few years. The governor of Virginia (the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War) faced pressure to step down when it was revealed that he appeared in blackface in his medical school yearbook from the 1980s, along with a classmate dressed as a klansman.
Kenan Thompson addressed this in a hilarious SNL skit in 2019:
The design brand Gucci became the subject of controversy for introducing a black sweater/ski mask that mimics the exaggerated makeup of blackface.
White Instagram models have been slammed for striving to appear black.
You may also recall Rachel Dolezal, the head of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, who stepped down after it was revealed she was white.
The complex and fascinating story of British actor and director Anthony Ekundayo Lennon (below), an apparently biracial man whose parents were white.
Is it ever okay for a non-black artist to portray a black person onstage or in other media?
What about the great Spanish tenor Placido Domingo (this guy):
Playing Othello in Verdi’s operatic adaptation of the Shakespeare play, Otello?
It was commonplace for white tenors to play Otello in blackface as recently as 2015, when the Metropolitan Opera officially did away with the practice. The Met’s statement:
This creates a conundrum for an opera company wanting to cast the best talent available. Only a handful of tenors in the world can sing the role at the highest level, and most (though by no means all) opera singers are white. The tragedy of Othello — his destruction at the hands of his jealous white servant, Iago — is very much based on his “otherness.” If everyone on stage is the same color, the drama is lost. Here is Aleksandrs Antonenko in the Met’s Otello; he’s the heavyset guy in the uniform. It’s hard to tell him apart from the rest of the cast.
There are other ways to stage Othello to preserve its dramatic and artistic integrity. For instance, in 1997, Sir Patrick Stewart played Othello without blackface in a highly-acclaimed production that became known as the “photo-negative Othello“: Othello was white, and all the other characters were black.
In 2015, the Washington Post hosted a roundtable discussion of black opera singers on their feelings about blackface in Otello and other roles. The singers’ feelings about these practices may not be what you would expect:
The critic John Szwed has suggested that an artist like Mick Jagger essentially performs blackface without blacking up. What does he mean? Do you agree?
Nas accuses some hip hop artists of playing to minstrel stereotypes in order to make money for their record companies:
Public Enemy’s 1990 “Burn, Hollywood, Burn,” which blasts minstrel stereotypes in the movie industry:
Spike Lee commented on blackface in his 2000 film Bamboozled, about a black television producer who creates a contemporary minstrel show. The show is meant to be ironic, but ends up being a hit. Lee used the following montage in the film.
A meta-narrative from the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder, in which Robert Downey Jr. plays an actor who plays a Black character, explaining method acting to Ben Stiller. TW: in addition to racism, the r-slur is repeatedly used.
Other artists, like Rhiannon Giddens, have subverted the minstrel ethos and reclaimed it. Giddens plays a replica of an 1850s minstrel banjo. She describes how she repurposed a minstrel song, probably “Blue-Tail Fly,” and turned it into a history of the Reconstruction movement for Black education (as well as an exhortation to students today):
Questions for discussion:
- Is blackface ever permissible in our day and age? If yes, what would be the circumstances that would make it so?
- Why do you think white performers have found it so irresistible to “black up”?
- Do you think that minstrel songs should be “reclaimed” by Black artists?
- Should they continue to be taught in school music classes?