* On February 6, Gucci pulled from stores a turtleneck jumper after it was pointed out on social media that the “balaclava” knit resembled blackface. The sweater covered most of a white model’s face, with a cut out mouth ringed with red to give the appearance of oversized lips.
* On February 1, Ralph Northam, the Democrat Governor of Virginia, had apologised after a picture from his 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced, which showed two men, one in blackface, the other in a Ku Klux Klan costume. Northam later denied being in the picture, but he accepted that he had blackened his face with shoe polish on another occasion that same year to portray Michael Jackson.
* Soon afterward, amid a rising chorus for Northam’s resignation, the state’s Attorney General Mark Herring confirmed having worn blackface to dress up as rap icon Kurtis Blow for a university party in 1980. And then came revelations that the Republican Senate majority leader Tommy Norment had been managing editor of a 1968 yearbook that featured students in blackface and carrying Confederate flags, and contained racial slurs.
* While these controversies have ironically come in February, observed as Black History Month in the US and some other countries, blackface has made frequent appearances in day-to-day American life. So, last December, Prada apologised after it displayed products resembling black monkey figurines with large red lips at one of its New York stores, and in October, the superstar television host Megyn Kelly was fired after she appeared to trivialise the outrage that blackface Halloween costumes triggered.
* It has also emerged that the popular comedians and talk show hosts Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon both wore blackface on multiple occasions several years ago.
What is blackface, something that keeps appearing in both apparently lighthearted situations as well as in more serious ones?
It is a form of theatrical depiction of black characters by white performers that was part of the American tradition of popular entertainment known as minstrelsy, which typically consisted of comedy skits, dancing, music, and stand-up acts. Minstrel shows were first performed in the 1830s in New York, in which white men blackened their faces with burnt cork or shoe polish and wore torn clothes in caricatures of slaves on plantations in the South. According to the website of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, minstrel shows depicted blacks as “lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice”.
Thomas Dartmouth ‘Daddy’ Rice, one of the best known figures on the 19th century American stage, created the blackface character Jim Crow. The popularity of Rice’s caricature led to black men being referred to as “Jim Crow”, and many believed his song and dance number Jump Jim Crow to be the country’s anthem. Laws enacted in the 19th and 20th centuries to enforce racial segregation in the Southern United States became known as “Jim Crow laws”.
By the middle of the 19th century, an entire subindustry of minstrel songs and music, make-up, costumes, and stereotyped character templates had been created. Minstrelsy reached the vaudeville stage, Broadway, radio and Hollywood. The Jazz Singer (1927), the first full-length talkie film, featured the entertainer Al Jolson in blackface. Thomas F Dixon’s 1905 book, The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, was made into the film The Birth of a Nation featuring white actors in blackface, and was screened at Woodrow Wilson’s White House. The first depictions of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse featured the character in blackface. Blackface spread to many countries beyond the US, and the tradition survived in the UK until the early 1980s.
Despite its continuing existence in popular culture, blackface is a mocking, deeply offensive, racist portrayal of black people, whose dehumanising tropes strongly suggest the inherent superiority of white people, and reduce blackness itself to a joke. Indeed, at the heart of blackface depictions lies racial derision and stereotyping.
Minstrelsy served as a justification for state violence against black people and to deny them citizen’s rights; in modern times, blackface continues to suggest that black people are appropriate targets for ridicule and mockery. The popularity of “black” Halloween costumes and blackface performances in American universities has been seen as a disturbing commentary on continuing racial prejudice, even as those criticised for their actions have insisted on every occasion that they are not racist, and did not intend to cause hurt.