Put down the black and brown face paint. Step away from the bronzer 12 shades darker than your skin. That is, if you're at all interested in not being a walking symbol of racism this Halloween.
Wait, what's wrong with blackface? A lot of people, thankfully, don't need this question answered. To many, it's obvious that it's a lazy, non-funny costume bad idea with a depressing history that is the opposite of celebratory. People have even made very simple visual aids to communicate this.
This one gets into even more detail:
But the public service announcements haven't worked. Each Halloween serves as a reminder that a giant gulf remains between people who understand that blackface is in bad taste, or are willing to defer to black people who tell them so, and people who are still asking "But why?" (You know, the ones who are thinking as they read this, "You say it's racist but I can tell you right now I'm not racist, so it's fine if I wear it! Come on, get over it! Stop with the political correctness! I don't understand how this is offensive! It's a joke!")
For the "why" crowd (and for anyone who feels moved to have a dialogue with one of its members), here's an explanation of what, exactly, is wrong with wearing blackface, on Halloween or ever:
The history of blackface
Blackface is much more than just dark makeup used to enhance a costume.
Its American origins can be traced to minstrel shows. In the mid to late nineteenth century, white actors would routinely use black grease paint on their faces when depicting plantation slaves and free blacks on stage.
To be clear, these weren't flattering representations. At all. Taking place against the backdrop of a society that systematically mistreated and dehumanized black people, they were mocking portrayals that reinforced the idea that African-Americans were inferior in every way.
The blackface caricatures that were staples of Minstrelsy (think: Mammy, Uncle Tom, Buck, and Jezebel) took a firm hold in the American imagination, and carried over into other mediums of entertainment.
Blackface has also been seen in Vaudeville Shows and on Broadway. Yes, black actors sometimes wore blackface, too, because white audiences didn't want to see them on the stage without it.
We have blackface performances to thank for some of the cartoonish, dehumanizing tropes that still manage to make their way into American culture.
Beyond that, blackface and systematic social and political repression are so inextricably linked that, according to C. Vann Woodward's history The Strange Career of Jim Crow, the very term "Jim Crow" — usually used as shorthand for rigid anti-black segregation laws in force between the end of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement — derives from an 1832 blackface minstrel number by Thomas D. Rice.
There's no way around it: this particular costume choice has a terrible track record.
No, minstrel shows don't really happen anymore, but keep in mind that it hasn't been all that long since blackface in its original form existed. And it was regularly seen on television as recently as 1978 in The Black and White Minstrel Show.
If respect for people who had to live through a time when blackface went hand-in-hand with day-to-day hateful and discriminatory treatment isn't enough to keep you from wearing it, consider this: there's a case to be made that it's tied up withsome of America's worst racial dynamics.
David Leonard, chair of Washington State University's department of critical culture, gender, and race studies, explained it this way in his 2012 Huffington Post essay, "Just Say No To blackface: Neo Minstrelsy and the Power to Dehumanize":
Blackface is part of a history of dehumanization, of denied citizenship, and of efforts to excuse and justify state violence. From lynchings to mass incarceration, whites have utilized blackface (and the resulting dehumanization) as part of its moral and legal justification for violence. It is time to stop with the dismissive arguments those that describe these offensive acts as pranks, ignorance and youthful indiscretions. Blackface is never a neutral form of entertainment, but an incredibly loaded site for the production of damaging stereotypes...the same stereotypes that undergird individual and state violence, American racism, and a centuries worth of injustice.
See the connection?
He told Vox that, today, blackface reinforces the idea that black people are appropriate targets of ridicule and mockery and reminds us of stereotypes about black criminality, and danger. This, says Leonard, can serve to support implicit bias and discriminatory treatment and in areas from law enforcement to employment.
Plus, in a society that allegedly values racial integration, isn't there something unsettling about the idea that the closest thing to an actual black person at your party could be someone smeared with face paint and wearing an Afro wig? Leonard says this creates a false sense of diversity in at atmospheres that include "everything but the actual person, the community, and the culture." Does that sound like somewhere you'd be proud to be?
It makes no difference whether you feel racist in blackface
Attendees of a 2013 "Africa-themed" birthday party (Facebook)
A common refrain in defense of blackface is that it is all in good fun, a joke, harmless, or not done with the intent to bother anyone. Some have even gone farther. Reason's Thaddeus Russell once wrote that the practice could be understood as a positive thing:
"We will likely never know what motivates contemporary blackface performers. But those who reject the beliefs planted in our culture by Puritans and Victorians might consider the possibility that, like the originators of the practice, they are joining a 200-year, unconscious struggle for freedom."
But here's the thing: not feeling racist when you're wearing blackface does nothing to change how it affects those who see it (and today, thanks to social media, that doesn't just mean your trick-or-treaters, or the guests at the party you attend — it means the world).
Your innermost thoughts don't change the impact blackface has on the people of all races around you, or the way it reinforces stereotypes and the idea that blackness is, at best, a joke.
"In many ways, one's intent is irrelevant," said Leonard. "The harm, whether it's harm in terms of eliciting anger, or sadness, or triggering various emotions or causing [black people to feel] both hyper-visible and invisible at the same time, is there. When someone says, 'I didn't mean it that way,' well, their real question should be not ‘Did I mean it?' but, ‘Am I causing harm?'"
Not getting what's wrong with blackface isn't an excuse
Julianne Hough in a costume inspired by Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black," 2013 (Foxnews.com)
In "Just Say No to Blackface," Leonard wrote that some people feel they should have the option to live in ignorance about what's wrong with blackface. That itself, he argued, says a lot about how racism works:
"The ability to be ignorant, to be unaware of the history and consequences of racial bigotry, to simply do as one pleases, is a quintessential element of privilege. The ability to disparage, to demonize, to ridicule, and to engage in racially hurtful practices from the comfort of one's segregated neighborhoods and racially homogeneous schools reflects both privilege and power. The ability to blame others for being oversensitive, for playing the race card, or for making much ado about nothing are privileges codified structurally and culturally."
So, maybe you don't know anything about the history of minstrelsy, and maybe you don't know anything about the pain and trauma of living in a society that imagines blackness as comical or criminal.
That, according to Leonard, is the problem.
The question, to ask yourself if you claim ignorance is, he said, "Why do you not know, and what have you done to make sure that you continue to not know?"
After all, embracing the chance to mock, dehumanize, and to dismiss the feelings and demands of others, all while re-imagining history so that only things you deem wrong are wrong, is a pretty great way to perpetuate a racist society that treats black people like crap.
Finally, if you really cannot understand what's wrong with with blackface, challenge yourself to figure out what seems so right about it. Leonard suggests that blackface fans ask themselves, "Why do I derive pleasure from this? What's the investment in doing it, and what's the investment in defending it?"
If you can't answer that, but you're still set on doing something predictable and kind of embarrassing, there are plenty of ridiculous topical costumes to choose from this year: may we suggest a sexy undecided voter Ken Bone?
Watch: The racism of the criminal justice system, in 10 charts
In 1991, Clyde Taylor published an essay in Wide Angle that artfully and systematically delineated what many scholars felt intuitively: that the form and politics of The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915) were inextricable from one another. Indeed, Taylor argued that the film’s racial politics held the key to its formal mastery, undercutting the often-taught position that Griffith’s technological achievements could be discussed in isolation from its objectionable representation of African Americans. This was not just a piece of polemic. “The Re-birth of the Aesthetic in Cinema” gave the field an accessible, concrete, and eminently teachable way to approach Griffith’s epic in all of its complexities without having to make excuses for or ignore key aspects of its significance.
Like Taylor’s essay, Nicholas Sammond’s Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation takes a “bad object”—in this case, blackface minstrelsy—and details its centrality to the rise of early American animation and, by extension, the development of the national film industry more broadly. Indeed, The Birth of a Nation haunts Birth of an Industry even if it garners no mention (an absence that reads as a deliberate gesture, given the book’s evocative title, and one that has a lexical effect that parallels the “vestigial minstrels” of his study). In this elegantly written, complex, and multifaceted tour de force, Sammond has given us a historically grounded and theoretically attuned analysis of blackface animation and its persistent uses, which runs throughout the history of moving images.
Sammond’s crucial intervention, as with Taylor’s reading of the racial structures in The Birth of a Nation, is to understand blackface in cartoons as “integral to the form.” In the most succinct version of this position, he writes,
[C]ommercial animation in the United States didn’t borrow from blackface minstrelsy, nor was it simply influenced by it. Rather, American animation is actually in many of its most enduring incarnations an integral part of the ongoing iconographic and performative transitions of blackface. Mickey Mouse isn’t like a minstrel; he is a minstrel. Betty Boop’s sidekicks, Bimbo and Ko-Ko, aren’t references to minstrelsy; they, too, are minstrels.
This is an uncomfortable assertion, at least for those who want to believe in an innocence of animated characters that their history refutes, but it is a necessary one. It is also extremely well supported, and the convincingness of Sammond’s argument makes this book a major contribution to studies of the history of animation, of race and American media, and of the development of American cinema itself. Sammond demonstrates that “it is through the seemingly trivial that fantasies of blackness and whiteness circulate freely and with relatively little critical comment, stabilizing if not producing meaning.” Cartoons have much to tell us about the racial dynamics of the nation’s self image and its attending anxieties.
Adding to the scholarship on animation industrialization and the role of self-reflexive gestures within cartoons, Sammond links these familiar tropes to blackface minstrelsy. He writes,
Since animation shares with minstrelsy as one of its fundamental tropes the regulation of unruly labor—as many blackface minstrel characters were based on a fantasy of the rebellious or recalcitrant African American slave or free person—understanding this simultaneous fascination with labor and with its discipline through racially charged characters is this study’s central project.
Using the aesthetics of animation as its focus, the book
explores how fantastic performative relationships between animators and their minstrel creations modeled larger social and discursive formations in the United States, especially those perdurable racial fantasies that linked caricatures of African American bodies and behaviors to concepts of enthralled labor and its resistance to domination.
In this way, Sammond uses animation as a means of accessing the broader, persistent, history of the United States’s “racial iconography and taxonomy.”
The book is organized to reflect animation’s key trope of repetition; “the examination of cartoons encourages a repetitive mode of reading in which the same objects and practices are viewed from different vantage points, as different facets of the same object.” The chapters, then, are each thematically structured around an organizing perspective: performance, the labor of cartoon creation, the alteration and regulation of on- and off-screen space, and the implications of minstrelsy on racial formation.
The Introduction traces the history of blackface minstrelsy through three distinct moments in American film from the early twentieth century to our contemporary day. By highlighting the persistence of blackface minstrelsy in American culture, this long view helps place the discussion of animation within a wider cultural context. It also gives the reader, perhaps more familiar with the history of animation than with minstrelsy, a primer in its forms and iterations. This ambition will make the Introduction useful for teaching subjects related to American racialized performance outside of animation per se, and especially for understanding contemporary iterations of blackface performance and their sheen of irony. In addressing these topics, Sammond nicely frames difficult questions bluntly: “If you perform racist behaviors and stereotypes in order to demonstrate their absurdity, do you deflate them or invest them with new life by de-stigmatizing them? Is the comic depiction of racism itself racist?”
Throughout the chapters, Sammond focuses on “continuing cartoon characters” who were all trademarks for their makers and the studios behind them; it is remarkable, he argues, that all were minstrels. Each chapter thus offers stunning readings of cartoons such as Bug Vaudeville (Windsor McCay, 1921), The Cartoon Factory (Max Fleischer, 1924), Steamboat Willie (Disney, 1928), Snow-White (Fleischers, 1933), Clean Pastures (Warner Bros., 1937), Mississippi Swing (Terrytoons, 1941), and Trader Mickey (Disney, 1932).
While the relationship between blackface minstrelsy and humor permeates the whole book, Sammond gives it special focus in the conclusion. Here, he explores the contemporary manifestation of the “expectations and anxieties around embodied authenticity,” thereby connecting the comedic self-reflexive “knowingness” of Tropic Thunder (Stiller, 2008) and its invocation of “authenticity” to a longer performative “fantasy of an authentic self that resides somewhere in the interstices of racial difference.” These cartoon minstrels “perform a complex play of interiority and exteriority” that distinguishes them from the live minstrels of vaudeville and cinema.
He also reminds us that blackface is not an embarrassing relic of performance history, but rather it has become “a surprisingly popular means by which to mobilize race as critique—for better or worse” in the so-called postracial present. These recent examples (such as 30 Rock) are predicated on the very inequities they purport to disrupt and are therefore hollow gestures that end up reinforcing the systemic entrenchment of racialized hierarchies. As Sammond puts it plainly, “if one were truly post-racial, why would one perform race at all?” Of course in the Trump era, any pretenses of postracialism have been proved laughable; it was a concept that was met with a stern side eye by most Americans attuned to entrenched racism, but it now seems quaint to think it was once celebrated as an achievement, as if the arc of racialized hierarchies that birthed blackface minstrelsy had found its resolution in the election of Barak Obama (who, notably, had his share of blackface imitators).
Sammond asserts that in these instances of blackface minstrelsy, “we witness iterations of an anxious and mutually constitutive process through which whiteness leans heavily on a fantastic and hyper-genuine blackness for its paradoxically inauthentic superiority.” The question of how to read the persistence of blackface minstrelsy in the Trump era is an open one; if Sammond lacks a clear answer, he nonetheless provides the tools to approach such a question, noting that the very premise of “a shared investment in fantastic blackness as a liberatory force in democratic capitalist America, and the necessary backlash that requires its punishment for attempting exactly what has been asked of it” has skewed more toward punishment than toward liberatory force.
In these ways, Sammond’s study will prove generative not only for scholars of race or of animation but for anyone approaching subjects ancillary to his main focus, whether that is media industry or audience reception. Sammond’s book does not lend itself to quantitative analysis, but it provides a necessary hermeneutic frame for those types of inquiries. Similarly, some readers might desire a more direct treatment of how contemporary audiences read blackface minstrelsy and its vestiges in cartoons, but that terrain has been well covered by scholars, and so Sammond can serve as a counterpoint. Indeed, he explicitly builds his analysis from the presumptive position of a critical observer: for example, looking at recurrent characters such as Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse, Sammond asks, “why the gloves?” The answer, of course, has to do with minstrelsy, even if it was not explicitly labeled as such.
A last note. In a moment where the status of the book as an object is in question, Sammond helpfully provides online access to a rich archive of cartoons, allowing the reader to directly and immediately engage with all of the works he discusses through the book’s digital companion (http://scalar.usc.edu/works/birthofanindustry/index). The site also includes additional materials concerning blackface minstrelsy, vaudeville, and animation, and provides historical and critical context for each media excerpt that complements the printed text.
The Birth of a Nation has haunted the American film industry—and the country—since 1915. With Birth of an Industry, Nicholas Sammond demonstrates that the specter of racialized caricature and its attending performative power dynamics have a longer and more pernicious continuum through which race, industry, and the nation understood and affected one another.
Allyson Nadia Field is Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. A scholar of African American cinema from the silent era to the contemporary, her work combines archival research with concerns of film form, media theory, and broader cultural questions of representation. She is the author of Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity (Duke University Press, 2015) and coeditor with Jan-Christopher Horak and Jacqueline Stewart of L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (University of California Press, 2015). She is currently coediting a book on race and nontheatrical film with Marsha Gordon (forthcoming, Duke University Press). Her essays have appeared in Cinema Journal, Framework, Journal of Popular Film and Television, among others. She received her PhD in comparative literature from Harvard University.
Clyde Taylor, “The Re-birth of the Aesthetic in Cinema,” Wide Angle: A Film Quarterly of Theory, Criticism, and Practice 13 (1991): 12–30. Taylor’s essay has been reprinted in Daniel Bernardi, ed. The Birth of Whiteness Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996).
Nicholas Sammond, Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 5.
Sammond, Birth of an Industry, 18.
Ibid., 270; 276; 274.
- Sammond, Nicholas. Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.
- Taylor, Clyde. “The Re-birth of the Aesthetic in Cinema.” Wide Angle: A Film Quarterly of Theory, Criticism, and Practice 13 (1991): 12–30.