The accusations are flying thick and fast against Americans of European descent who at some point in their lives have applied black or brown makeup, shoe polish, or face paint in order to pose as Americans of African descent. The general term for this is “blackface,” and according to the torrent of wrath pouring forth from the media, the politicians, and the activist Left, the individual who wears blackface is signaling not just nostalgia for slavery, rape, lynching, and legal segregation, but also support for present-day police brutality, inequities in the criminal justice system, and white supremacist violence.
Accompanying these accusations is a single, unchallenged, politically correct narrative: Blackface, also known as minstrelsy, arose in the 1830s and quickly became the first popular form of entertainment in America. It started as live theater, but in the early 20th century it transitioned into Hollywood movies, radio (where it was conveyed vocally), and television. It was condemned by the civil rights movement and thereafter suppressed. But it creeps back whenever white people get together to have fun, because America is a country where the majority white population spent many years openly delighting in a form of theater whose sole purpose was to mock and humiliate an enslaved and oppressed black minority.
To provide this narrative with some historical ballast, the New York Times, AP News, and other news outlets have been quoting Frederick Douglass’s 1848 description of such well-known antebellum troupes as the Virginia Minstrels, Christy’s Minstrels, and the Ethiopian Serenaders. Writing in The North Star, the anti-slavery newspaper he founded in 1847, Douglass noted that these troupes consisted of white men in blackface clownishly imitating the music, dance, and humor of black slaves, and condemned them 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.”
Douglass’s words are powerful, but the trouble with ballast is you need a lot of it. The Oxford Dictionary defines ballast as “heavy material, such as gravel, sand, or iron, placed in the bilge of a ship to ensure its stability.” Too little, and your ship will capsize. That is why, begging the reader’s forbearance, I add a bit more.
The key question is whether ugly racial stereotypes are, by themselves, sufficiently entertaining to attract a large and varied audience over a period of roughly 100 years. In her magisterial work, The Music of Black Americans, Eileen Southern offers a more balanced assessment: “The practices of white minstrels in the nineteenth century established unfortunate stereotypes of black men—as shiftless, irresponsible, thieving, happy-go-lucky ‘plantation darkies’ . . . And yet, blackface minstrelsy was a tribute to the black man’s music and dance, in that the leading figures of the entertainment world spent the better part of the nineteenth century imitating his style.”1
Many of the more celebrated white minstrels were Irish immigrants, but even before the Civil War, a handful were African Americans. For example, the renown of the Ethiopian Serenaders depended heavily on the contributions of a dancer named William Henry Lane, known by his stage name, Master Juba. When Charles Dickens visited the United States in 1842, he witnessed a particularly galvanizing performance by “this lively young negro, who is the wit of the assembly,” and concluded that he was “the greatest dancer known.”2
Such praise might be dismissed as the amused condescension of an Englishman, were it not echoed a few years later by a more exacting critic: Frederick Douglass. In another article published in 1849 about a rare all-black troupe called Gavitt’s Original Ethiopian Serenaders, Douglass found much to criticize, from the players’ self-disfiguring with “burnt cork and lamp black” to their “plentiful lack of [wit].” But he also found much to praise, from a singer with “a really fine voice” to a “master player” of the percussion instrument known as “the bones,” to a dancer whose “Virginia Breakdown excelled anything which we have ever seen.”
Mindful of his readers’ “dislike of everything that seems to feed the flame of American prejudice against colored people,” Douglass nevertheless argued that “it is something gained when the colored man in any form can appear before a white audience,” and that “even this company, with industry, application, and a proper cultivation of their taste, may yet be instrumental in removing the prejudice against our race.” Black minstrels must, of course, “cease to exaggerate the exaggerations of our enemies.” But if the best ones “bring around themselves persons of equal skill,” they may well “seek to improve . . . more the refinement of the public, than its vulgarity.”
I do not want to exaggerate, but there is a sense in which Douglass’s wish came true after the Civil War. The 1880s and 1890s were a terrible time for African Americans, especially in the South. But that was also when gifted black performers like songwriter James A. Bland, actor Sam Lucas, and comedian Bert Williams shed the trappings of minstrelsy and toured the theaters of America, Britain, and Europe as elegantly dressed and much celebrated artists. The contrast in fortunes with the cruel subjugation of their countrymen is obviously bitter. But as Southern explains, it is a mistake to see nothing but racial subjugation in this latter phase of minstrelsy:
It is true that black minstrels blackened their faces with burnt cork (no matter how dark their skins), made up enormous red lips, and used traditional slapstick jokes and gestures, comic patter-songs, and stylized dances. But they also brought to the stage much genuine humor, original dancing, the poignant songs of their people, and superb solo and ensemble performance, both vocal and instrumental. After the [Civil] war, minstrelsy offered to the creative black man an opportunity to acquire experience in the theatrical arts that could scarcely have been obtained any other way during the period.3
My effort to add ballast to the politically correct narrative is not—repeat, not—intended to justify in any way the odious practice of using blackface as an excuse, or license, to engage in crude and offensive behavior. But it may help to explain some of the more bizarre steps and gestures seen in last week’s performance of the (updated) Virginia Breakdown.
Let us begin with the fast shuffle executed by Governor Ralph Northam on February 1, when the world learned that his page in the 1984 yearbook of Eastern Virginia Medical School features a photo of two partygoers, one dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit and the other in plaid trousers, plaid bow tie, panama hat, sunglasses, curly black wig, and oily black makeup. The governor’s first step was to confess being in the photo, although not in the KKK outfit. Then he performed all the steps required of a disgraced public figure: 1) writhe in visible guilt; 2) reach out to all those who might have been hurt by his actions; 3) express the sincere hope that this will be a learning experience, not only for him but for everyone; and 4) call for the healing to begin.
But the very next day, Northam changed his tune. Prompted, perhaps, by the glee of his Republican foes and the mixed response of his Democratic friends, the governor called a press conference on February 2, and reading from a prepared statement, announced that he was not in the offending photo after all. Then came the bizarre part: neither was he innocent, because a year after graduating from medical school, while serving in the military in San Antonio, he had committed the lesser sin of “darkening my face as part of a Michael Jackson costume” before entering a dance contest. For good measure, he boasted that he had won the contest by performing Jackson’s famous Moonwalk.
Why this odd second act? Was Northam thinking along the same lines as Megyn Kelly, when last October she led a discussion of controversial Halloween costumes while hosting the Today show on NBC? Forgetting, perhaps, that she was no longer on Fox, Kelly declared, “When I was a kid [blacking up] was OK as long as you were dressing up like a character. . . . Who doesn’t love Diana Ross?” When Kelly was subsequently fired, some people blamed this comment, while others pointed to low ratings. In Northam’s case, the ratings appear to be holding steady. Indeed, a poll taken on February 6-9 showed the following percentages of Virginians saying that that he should not resign: Virginians overall 47 percent, Democrats 57 percent, Republicans 42 percent; Independents 43 percent; Whites 46 percent; African Americans 58 percent.
Could it be that one of the legacies of blackface is that a white person accused of stealing “a complexion denied to them by nature” may mitigate the offense by saying, in effect, I didn’t do it out of racism, I did it to pay tribute to an African-American idol whom everybody loves?
Unfortunately for Northam, the name of his idol slipped his mind a minute later, when having set aside his prepared statement, he responded to a reporter’s question by saying, “Yes, I dressed up as . . . oh, uh, what’s his name?” When his wife provided the name sotto voce, he exclaimed, “That’s why I have Pam with me!” At this point the performance turned comic, as another a reporter asked Northam if he could still do the Moonwalk, and, before his body language could register total panic, he was saved by another sotto voce: “In appropriate circumstances.” Smirking like a 12-year-old, Northam repeated the phrase: “In appropriate circumstances!” And everyone laughed as if the Moonwalk were salacious, which it is not.
This bumbling does not inspire confidence. Moreover, if Northam’s story was concocted by his staff (or perhaps Pam), they chose an African-American idol who, unlike Diana Ross, is not universally loved. In fact, HBO is currently in a dispute with the Jackson estate over an upcoming documentary consisting of four hours of evidence, including plenty of eyewitness testimony, that the singer was a serial pedophile. This was not public knowledge back in 1985, when Northam was dabbing “a little bit of brown shoe polish on [his] cheeks.” But here’s another bizarre twist: By 1985 Jackson was already showing signs of emotional instability in the form of serial plastic surgeries intended to narrow and sharpen his nose and make it look…well, whiter.
These surgeries, along with the prolonged use of skin-bleaching chemicals to treat the pigment-destroying disease vitiligo, eventually transformed Jackson from a handsome black youth to a pale, pitiful wraith whose features were distorted beyond recognition. The causes of this weird transformation lie in the sheer misery of the singer’s life, from the beatings he suffered at the hands of an abusive father (who taunted him with the epithet “Big Nose”) to the trauma of a childhood exposed to the harsh glare of publicity. But Jackson got little sympathy from the activist Left; their chief verdict was that he betrayed his race by becoming, in effect, a whiteface minstrel.
Let me close with Attorney General Mark Herring. This Virginia troubadour had a better week than his Governor, no doubt because of two smart moves. The first was to seize the initiative with a statement that, even though no one had unearthed any incriminating photos, he, too, had erred: “In 1980, when I was a 19-year-old undergraduate in college, some friends suggested we attend a party dressed like rappers we listened to at the time, like Kurtis Blow, and perform a song. It sounds ridiculous even now writing it. But because of our ignorance and glib attitudes—and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others—we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup.”
Herring’s second smart move (apart from the word “brown,” which both he and Northam seem to think will have a mitigating effect), was to choose an African-American idol who is still widely loved. If you were a politician in a swing state trying to deflect criticism by mentioning the name of a famous rapper, you could do a lot worse than Kurtis Blow.
Born Kurtis Walker in 1959, this icon of old-school hip hop has never been associated with the type of gangster rap that celebrates drug-dealing and violence, or with the “party” rap verging on porn that provides the soundtrack to innumerable frat binges and other revels indulged in by young and not-so-young white Americans—for example, campus “theme parties” attended by students dressed up as “pimps and ho’s.”4 Quite the contrary: Kurtis Blow became an ordained minister in 1994, and his reaction to Herring’s blackface story shows a balancing of righteous judgment (toward the offense) and merciful forgiveness (toward the offender) that is all too rare these days.
Speaking of rap, it is striking to see the absence, from the politically correct narrative, of the obvious connection between the ugly racial stereotypes found in minstrelsy and their modern equivalents in the more exploitative—and commercially successful—styles of rap. There have been efforts to draw this connection, from Bamboozled (2000), Spike Lee’s hard-to-find satire about a minstrel show becoming a huge hit on network TV, to Byron Hurt’s riveting and still-relevant documentary Beyond Beats and Rhymes (2007).5 But these are rarely cited, perhaps because the media, the politicians, and the woke folk on the activist Left tend to blame America’s cultural grotesqueries on everyone except themselves.
1The Music of Black Americans (Norton, 1971), p. 104. A scholar of Renaissance as well as African-American music, Southern was the first black woman to be awarded tenure at Harvard.
2Quoted in Southern, ed., “Black Musicians and Early Ethiopian Minstrelsy,” in Annemarie Bean et al, eds., Inside the Minstrel Mask (Weslyan, 1996), p. 48.
3Southern, p. 269.
4For a discussion of this type of “theme party,” see Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul (Oxford, 2008), p. 5.
5On the DVD of Bamboozled (now selling for $85 on Amazon), Lee gives an interview in which he says, quite candidly, that the highly commercial styles of rap that emerged in the 1990s amounted to a new version of minstrelsy. Lee no longer talks about this, but Hurt certainly does, often in tandem with Chuck D, the former leader of the politically “conscious” but (for a while) highly successful group, Public Enemy.