By: Peter Paul Fedorchuk III, AFRAM 101
Being an actor is all about portraying the life of a character that isn’t, necessarily, you. But what are the boundaries of whom you are acting as? What is considered offensive, and what is considered just? Before the 1830s, a time period began that we call blackface minstrelsy. Theatrical entertainment was at a high, with a boost from whites portraying themselves as blacks. Although the emancipation may have freed the slaves, “equality for all” (14th Amendment) did not come with. Following the emancipation of slavery, the time actually was known as the Jim Crow Era, whose segregation had an enormous impact on blackface.
Blackface first began as a very exaggerated stereotype of blacks. They were actually put into three major categories, as “
- Subservient and servile
- Brutes, aggressive, vicious, violent, hyper-sexualized, and
- Entertaining, happy – especially serving whites.” (Pittman, Ethnic Notions Video Lecture)
The characters Ethnic Notions portrayed that are still used today are: Mammy, Uncle Tom, Buck, Jezebel, Mulatto, and Pickaninny. “Mammy is a source of earthy wisdom who is fiercely independent and brooks no backtalk. Toms are typically good, gentle, religious and sober. The Buck is a large Black man who is proud, sometimes menacing, and always interested in White women. Jezebel/Wench is the temptress. Mulatto is a mixed-blood male or female. In film, often portrayed as a tragic figure who passes for White until they discover they have Negro blood. And Picaninnies” are children that “have bulging eyes, unkempt hair, red lips and wide mouths into which they stuff huge slices of watermelon.” (Padgett, Blackface!)
Learning about all of these characters and the history of blackface and its effect was very shocking and almost overwhelming to me for two reasons. The first of these is that as a child until now, I grew watching films that portrayed every single one of those characters. Some of the films that I remember watching often were The Looney Tunes and The Little Rascals. They both hold characters that represent picaninnies. Being a kid, you don’t really understand what being “racist” is, but watching films most definitely impacts the view you have on the world.
Billie Thomas (1931-1980) “Buckwheat”, from The Little Rascals. African American child used in the series to represent a character of Pickaninny. Beginning of show was a girl until they realized he was a boy later into the series.
Another set of popular films that everybody continues to watch today are Tyler Perry’s Madea series. I do have to say, I grew up laughing to all the jokes his movies held. But after learning about the blackface representations of Jezebel, who represented “hyper-sexualized black women,” and Bucks, who are black men that portray to society as “animalistic, aggressive, and need of being domesticated” (Pittman, Ethnic Notion Video Lecture), I see a clear representation throughout the films of these two specific characters. Kameir tells us in a review that, “the exploitation of historically exaggerated black caricatures is a fundamental feature of Tyler Perry’s work. The Madea films thrive on an ugly mix of minstrelsy and moralism” (Kameir, Tyler Perry’s Madea Minstrel Show). This is really sad to me because I actually did have a certain view of African Americans as a specific character because of films such as these. Not a negative look, but just a stereotyped idea. And I know that I’m not the only one affected by the media with these films. Perry and his films are actually huge blockbuster hits every year, so you know that our society is having their heads filled with inaccurate images of their fellow neighbors and rightful citizens of equality in our nation.
The second reason blackface has a certain attachment to my feelings on the subject is that I am an actor. Or say, a student studying within the Drama Performance (Acting) major. The reason why this connects me to this in particular is because I understand, as an actor, what other actors would do to just be seen as funny or a way to stand out in the industry. I started this topic with the statement, “Being an actor is all about portraying the life of a character that isn’t, necessarily, you.” There is something you have to understand about being an actor that ties down to why blackface is such a negative view for not only society, but the person performing as well. When you perform, you actually submerge yourself into your character. You make their thoughts your thoughts, you make their attitude your attitude. So when actors such as “P.T. Barnum, Edwin Booth, E. Byron Christy, William A. Christy (etc.)” (Rice, Excerpts from Monarchs of Minstrelsy) from the past represented blacks by coloring their faces black, they impacted their own thought on blacks. They weren’t only representing African American’s to the rest of society, but were creating a physical image of them into their own minds.
This is a very big reason why desegregation has survived its toll throughout history.
And looking back at the toll it has held on desegregation on history, how was blackface significant to African Americans when it first began? It actually may have made one of the most significant impacts on the black community since slavery has ended. It was almost a way to look at the blacks around you and laugh in their faces saying, “You ain’t nothing but a color. You ain’t nothing but a joke. You ain’t nothing but a low life. You ain’t nothing. You ain’t a person who belongs with the rest of us.” These are words, and feelings, that African American’s grew up with. They weren’t given a chance to show that they were equal. That they deserved the rights that all the rest of America was getting. And it’s feelings that have marked so many families and thoughts in people’s mind, that we cannot just say that it has left our society today. We see through the news, and even around us, nearly everyday, examples of desegregation.
Throughout history, blackface has not only made its way into society through film. Controversies have begun over the past years with blackface in modeling and advertisements as well. With today’s society, modeling and photography could quite possibly be the biggest influence over us. It sets a permanent image that becomes embedded into our memory. So when we see models and ordinary people, both White and other races, coloring their skin darker, it makes us see African American’s as just one color. A very dark color.
Putting people into categories, especially within color categories, has resulted in such a terrible result on our nation. This all kept going even until the post civil rights era. During this period, black women were still seen with “misogyny, which is complete hatred and zero respect towards women. And mothers fought to protect their families, especially their sons, from street culture.” (Pittman, Black Sexual Politics).
These problems are still around because not only did the desegregation of slavery affect African American lives, but the influence of blackface.
African American’s are not treated just. They are still stereotyped in most often negative ways. They are found to be in most criminal charges. “1 in 3 men imprisoned are black” (Pittman, The New Jim Crow). And black women are still a large target for sexual favors.
Jezebel, the Picaninnies, the Bucks, and the rest of the characters that America made African Americans to be are still here with us today.
And we can’t just stop this view because it’s embedded into our minds. But we can take a stand against films and such that are still impacting the way we treat African American’s. It is time they deserve full equality, and no White person or anyone else should have any right to look down at them.
- Speaks, Onision. “”Blackface” Comedy Controversy.” YouTube. YouTube, 27 Sept. 2014. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.
- Ruffins, Fath, Dale Cockrell, and Ken Emerson. “Blackface Minstrelsy.” American Experience. PBS Online / WGBH, 1999. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.
- Sulmers, Claire. “Here We Go Again: Constance Jablonski in Blackface for Numéro.” Fashion Bomb Daily. Fashionbombdaily.com, 28 Sept. 2010. Web. 9 Dec. 2015. <http://fashionbombdaily.com/here-we-go-again-constance-jablonski-in-blackface-for-numero/>.
- Padgett, Ken. “Billie Thomas 1931-1980 “Buckwheat”” Blackface!p., 25 Aug. 2015. Web. Dec.-Jan. 2015.
- Riggs, Marlon. “Ethnic Notions.” Fandor. Our Film Festival, 1986. Web. 9 Dec. 2015. <https://www.fandor.com/films/ethnic_notions>.
- Kameir, Rawiya. “Tyler Perry’s Madea Minstrel Show.” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
- Rice, Edward Le Roy. “Excerpts from Monarchs of Minstrelsy.” Blackface! Ken Padgett, 1911. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
- Professor LaShawnDa Pittman. African American Studies 101, The New Jim Crow, 2015.
- Professor LaShawnDa Pittman. African American Studies 101, Ethnic Notions, 2015.