Blackface 101 by Nova Giovanni


Historically, blackface emerged in the mid-19th century, representing a combination of put-down, fear and morbid fascination with black culture.

“For those of us who were never told this history, never paid attention to this history, or totally missed the enormity of it all.”

In this fall season, with Halloween here and gone, we have seen a reemergence of an old concept… blackface. Julianna Hough (I had no idea who she was before) donned it, in a feeble attempt to recreate herself as a Black character from a hit television series. I’ve seen a group of young White men wear blackface dressed as their favorite rappers, then later say they didn’t mean any harm by it, which may be true. More appalling, people even wore blackface this year saying they were Trayvon Martin, a slain Black teen from Florida.

A lot of people in 2013 are offended by blackface without knowing the history behind it, and that is okay and understandable. Perhaps some are wearing blackface without knowing the hurt behind it, and that is understandable but not okay.

Black face wasn’t only disrespectful because of its blatant misrepresentation while attempting to portray Black people,but it boldly said, “we want to have black people as characters, but no black actor is competent enough to play the limited roles asked of them in film.”

The blackface roles in film portrayed Blacks as simple-minded, barbaric, less than human, among other deplorable things. Blair L.M. Kelley wrote on

Minstrel shows became hugely popular in the 1840s exposing white audiences in the North with their first exposure to any depiction of black life. They would often feature a broad cast of characters; from Zip Coon, the educated free black man who pronounced everything incorrectly, to Mammy, a fat, black faithful slave who was really just obviously played by a man in a dress. Black children were depicted as unkempt and ill raised pickaninnies. The running joke about pickaninnies was that they were disposable; they were easily killed because of their stupidity and the lack of parental supervision.

Minstrelsy desensitized Americans to horrors of chattel slavery. These performances were object lessons about the harmlessness of southern slavery. 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.

Now, my question to the people who wear it without seeing the harm in it is, DO YOU STILL THINK IT’S A JOKE?!?!

-Nova Giovanni

Thinking Out Loud, the book, December 6, 2013.