Blackface has a history: That’s the bottom line

More than a picture: The fictional depiction of "Jim Crow" is a caricature of a black slave who's portrayed with the qualities of being clumsy and dimwitted. These caricatures were vital to the establishment of minstrel shows that were widely popular in America during the 1830s and 40s.

Incident after incident spurred a panel discussion regarding the historical, cultural and theatrical significance of blackface Wednesday, Feb. 27 in the Vogel Room at the Memorial Union.

The event began with Kelly Erby, associate professor of history, explaining the early 19th century context around blackface and minstrelsy.

“These are both used by predominantly white people to create a caricature of a black person,” said Erby. “It’s more than just about makeup… It’s about behavior that creates a deeply racist caricature and stereotype that mocks black people as unintelligent, lazy, silly, hyper sexual and dishonest.”

Minstrelsy can be tied to deeply racist stereotypes as the movements involved with the dance correlate to old traditions that extend to the days of slavery and indentured servitude.

“We teach in a minstrel show what to expect and set the picture for what black people should look like and how they should act,” said Debora King, adjunct professor for the theatre department. “In my opinion this is codified racism.”

America’s joyful sector of musical theater started with such a hateful and racist-driven beginning that was teaching young American minds about how specific segments of society should look, act and what their place was in society.

“It is musical theater with white supremacy as its basic element,” said King. “A lot of these performances are amazingly unacceptable.”

Blackface and its origins have been drawn back as early as the 16th century.

“It really wasn’t until about the 1830s and 1840s when blackface and minstrelsy really became fully developed in America,” said Erby. “It’s by far the most popular form of entertainment in America during this time.”

By 1848, minstrelsy was widely accepted in America as the top musical theater performance in the U.S.

“The performance of self and the performance of someone else is never without a political dimension,” said Darren Canady, associate professor of English at the University of Kansas. “The dangerous thing is to think that what we’re experiencing is some sort of vacuum that’s unconnected to a larger history… we still have people trying to divorce our current reality from the history that created it.”

The Q&A section of the panel had various community members suggesting that similar discussions continue in regards to topics that are highly attached to racism.

“We are often asked ‘why are you still talking about slavery because slavery is over…?’ I think this is a proof positive as to why we need to continue these discussions,” said Sherri Camp, a genealogy librarian at the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library.

Paintings, films, drawings, artwork forms, documentaries and subtexts have been used as dots on the roadmap as the connection between blackface, minstrelsy and racism continue to reconnect themselves in discourse. These add confusion and prolong the traditional art forms. The most recent being Robert Downey’s Jr. role in “Tropic Thunder” in 2008.

“What I find interesting as a playwright and as someone who cares about narrative is to be playing close attention to the things that are said when college student, governors are seen in blackface,” said Canady. “This idea that I’m just having fun… I’m just playing… it was a mistake. Each time it is a reinforcement of a problematic and dangerous narrative inextricably tied to slavery, to oppression, to lynching… that is a reality.”

The Vogel Room quickly filled with questions like “where do we start? How do we end this kind of thinking? When is change going to come?”

“First we have to work on ourselves and tell ourselves that we need to recognize when I’m doing something that’s not intentional,” said King. “We have to own it as being a part of the dominant culture.”

Accountability was the consensus. America and its citizens must show accountability if the nation hopes to pull itself out of an entwined past to racism, bigotry and narrow mindedness.

“If you try this, then be careful,” said Tom Prasch, professor and chair of the history department. “When you do this kind of stuff it’s often problematic, it’s touchy subjects and provocative and sometimes it’s just not going to work or go well.”

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