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The Racist History of Blackface

Thomas Rice appearing as "Jim Crow."
Thomas Rice appearing as "Jim Crow."
The Racist History of Blackface
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A picture from a 1984 medical school yearbook has put pressure on a top American politician to resign. It also has renewed criticism of racist images, both in the United States and other countries.

The photograph appeared on the yearbook’s page about Ralph Northam, the current governor of Virginia. It shows two white men. One is wearing clothes linked to the hate group the Ku Klux Klan. The other man has darkened his skin in a style, or look, known as “blackface.”

Governor Northam denies he is one of the men in the photo. However, Northam admits that another time when he was a student, he darkened his skin in an attempt to look like the singer Michael Jackson for a dance contest.

The link between Northam and racist behavior has led to calls for the governor to resign, only one year into his four-year term.

The calls follow criticism of other U.S. politicians for racist acts or words. They also come after nearly 200 years of objections to blackface as offensive and dehumanizing.

Popular with some, extremely offensive to others

Writer Jesse J. Holland explained the history of blackface in a story for the Associated Press.

Holland says that appearing in blackface began in the early 1800s as part of a new kind of American theater called minstrel shows.

For fun, white men would make themselves into caricatures of black people. The men would darken the skin on their faces and hands and make their eyes and lips appear bigger. Then, they would perform as African-Americans who were uneducated, lazy, and likely to steal or be afraid.

These performances were clearly racist, designed to discredit black people. For example, one of the first blackface performers became known for playing an unintelligent man called “Jim Crow.” Later, laws that enforced racial separation were commonly called Jim Crow laws.

As early as 1848, activists such as Frederick Douglass condemned blackface performers as among the worst of white society. He accused them of stealing black people’s coloring to make money and amuse other whites.

Civil rights groups have condemned blackface performances for many years. Spokespeople have said the caricatures present and strengthen racial stereotypes.

Yet blackface remained popular with some whites well into the 20th century. Even in modern times, politicians, actors, and members of the public continue to appear in blackface – although they are often criticized for it.

For example, a Florida state official resigned last month after a newspaper published photos of him appearing in blackface. The official was pretending to be a victim of Hurricane Katrina. The storm struck Louisiana in 2005. It especially affected African-Americans in the city of New Orleans. More than 1,000 people were killed, and tens of thousands displaced.

Similar issues have risen in other countries, notes Jesse J. Holland.

In 2010, a Mexican media company faced criticism for using actors in blackface to appear on a television (TV) show during the World Cup. In 2013, a leading TV station in Peru was fined for showing a popular character in blackface.

And just last year, people in the Netherlands clashed over whites dressing in blackface to act like a dark-skinned helper to Santa Claus.

I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.

Kelly Jean Kelly adapted this story for Learning English based on a story from the Associated Press. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

page - n. a sheet of paper in a book, magazine, etc.

contest - n. an event in which people try to win by doing something better than others

caricature - n. someone or something that is very exaggerated in a funny or foolish way

lazy - adj. not liking to work hard or to be active

stereotype - n. an often unfair and untrue belief that many people have about all people or things with a particular characteristic

pretend - v. to imagine and act out