How Blackface Feeds White Supremacy

A racist caricature from 19th-century minstrel theater still haunts America.

Comments: 208

  1. Excellent essay; I agree completely. And while we're at it, let's banish drag as well. It caricatures women for "fun and entertainment" in the same way that blackface caricatures people of African descent for "fun and entertainment."

  2. @GBR What if a man wearing drag is in the process of transitioning to become a woman and identifies as female? Also, what if a man is gay and wearing drag is part of his gay identity (in that he is not ridiculing women by wearing clothing that women have traditionally worn, but rather that it's genuinely a part of his social and personal persona and presentation)?

  3. @GBR I think that's a fair discussion going forward...but after there's widespread social consensus on this policy are we going to dredge through social media and vilify people who were doing this years before it was forbidden?

  4. @GBR Here in San Francisco, I have not encountered any woman (and I am one) who is insulted by drag. In fact, you might be surprised (I was) that drag is considered performance and that not only gay men or transgender people do drag, so do straight women and men. Similar to how most people aren't particularly offended by some historical opera or play roles around the world where men play women's parts. I'm sure if you look hard enough you will find a woman who is offended but I do not think that would be majority. Also, why is it so hard for people to understand that if something offends the large group of people that is being depicted, we should stop doing it? That's true of black face and collections of such similar such items. The only exception I would make are Blacks who collect such memorabilia. For anyone else, it's quite an insulting move towards Black people.

  5. Thanks for this terrific essay. As regards your last comment about medical care, I suggest you look at the terrific interview of Dorothy Roberts in the current (April) issue of The Sun magazine. Then again, you may already know all she has to say. I found her comments about medical treatment revelatory.

  6. Very interesting. I am reading Nick Tosches "Where Dead Voices Gather" about the blackface singer and comedian Emmett Miller. Nick provides an extensive history of the minstrel/blackface genre and how it influences popular culture to the present day. When I was a boy, pre-Elvis, I became fascinated with Al Jolson from my parent's and grandparent's generation. His biopic came out around 1953 and blackface, of course, is a big part of the story, and unashamedly portrayed as an historical tradition. I could never understand why white people would black their faces when there were talented real black people around but then I was 5. PS I wholeheartedly agree with the comment made by GBR of New England. Banish drag as the insult to women it is.

  7. As a Virginian I take issue with this quote from the essay -“As a result, generations of Virginians embraced segregation as “the natural ordering of the world” and believed it was delineated by biological law.” We must be careful not to brush with such broad strokes when defining a group of people lest we become the same cancer we wish to stamp out.

  8. @A Citizen Of Virginia, Struck a nerve or two? Loving v. Virginia 1967 and Thomas Jefferson as founder of the University of Virginia. Obviously, there are exceptions, but Virginia's history and laws appear to back up the article's theme.

  9. I've lived in Virginia for most of my 71 years. My fourth grade school year was delayed two weeks by Massive Resistance. And my sister's junior high never convened at all; instead she attended a tutoring group at a church. For 14 years I've immersed myself in the struggle ( to prevent overdevelopment at Fort Monroe (Point Comfort), the nation's preeminent historic landscape for honoring the black self-emancipators who forced transformation of the Civil War into a freedom struggle. In my view this anonymous Virginian's comment is wrong.

  10. Is it untrue? Did generations of Virginians *not* embrace segregation? All I had to do was Google "When did Virginia Desegregate" and I found a study by UVA no less on the intense resistance VA had to desegregation. So, it seems the writer was right as between the civil war and 1954, there would have been many generations. But perhaps more important, your comment illustrates a major obstacle to white America fully atoning for its past. The "yeah, but". There is no "but". The history is real. It's embarrassing and shameful and inhumane and cruel. And we are all responsible for making it right. And the equivocation and excuse making needs to stop. @A Citizen Of Virginia

  11. As a middle-aged white person, I feel obligated to communicate something to my friends who are not, and to whom it may not be obvious and may serve as (very small) comfort: this sort of thing, offensive as it is, must be extremely rare. I don't know where blackface still lives on, but I have never once in my entire life seen it, never even when I was younger, except in news reports and historical articles.

  12. Really? No recollection of blackface? I too am middle aged, a white man who grew up in NJ just across from Staten Island. I can remember watching Warner Brothers cartoons. Mostly these were Bugs Bunny but occasionally they would have some of the older cartoons from the 1930’s and 1940’s. These older cartoons often had vaudeville clips featuring minstrel or other stereotypical portrayals of blacks. These cartoons were broadcast throughout the NYC metro area so numerous kids like me saw them in the 1950’s through the 1970’s.

  13. There was also a Tom & Jerry episode depicting Jerry's foray into the Big city, where he was picked up by a shoe shine boy who absently mistook him for a brush and dipped into a bottle of shoe polish and came out completely covered in blackface.

  14. @M.You must not be a film watcher. Have you at least heard of the first sound movie, "The Jazz Singer"? The film's star Al Jolson is featured in blackface. Images of blackface are all over films and both "I Love Lucy" and "All in the Family" on TV featured blackface in key episodes involving the births of Little Ricky and Archie's grandchild. Blackface images were far from rare.

  15. From this account, it seems as if minstrel shows came into existence from out of nowhere with the express purpose of debasing black people. My question would be whether the stereotypical comic characters described here are instances of a more general use of comic stereotypes in entertainment. I'm not a scholar of this, but consider, for instance, the commedia dell'arte. Doesn't it have the Zanni, "the peasant or migrant worker who worked in Venetian society as a servant, valet or porter," or "dispossessed immigrant worker"? And there are other commedia characters that, from what I read, are associated with certain regions or classes. There are masters and servants. I am wondering whether characterizing blackface and minstrel shows in terms of a "supremacist impulse" isn't a bit overheated. There is a long history of making comedy out of stereotypes based on ethnicity, or social class, or other qualities that the audience might consider to be "other." Hillbillies, for instance: Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, The Beverly Hillbillies. Contemporary tastes do not favor such humor. But I really wonder whether we need to read white supremacy into every instance of this.

  16. @Mark My sense is that there's a difference between the actor's impulse and the effect of the story on its audience, right? Al Jolson was probably a nice guy, but when a television audience laughs at his performances, they're reaffirming a set of attitudes that disproportionately affect people of color. This was true during Thomas Rice's time and it is true of our time today.

  17. @Mark If one studies the American Experience -- as it relates to Black People -- the purpose behind the racial imagery is clear. See e.g., (1) Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery by Leon F. Litwack (Vintage Books: 1979), (2) Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Business, 1863 - 1877 by Eric Foner (Harper & Row 1988) (3) The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. DuBois (Oxford University Press: 2007), (4) Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Social Justice by David Pilgrim (Ferris State University and PM Press: 2015), (5) Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow by Leon F. Litwack (Alfred A. Knopf: 1998), (6) Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Penguin Press: 2019), and (7) The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward (Oxford University Press: 2002). As early as the 1820s mainly White Performers - in blackface - portrayed Black People on stage in minstrel shows. The minstrel show was an early form of vaudeville. The premise of the minstrel show was that it purported to show the world through African American eyes (the white man's vision of the black man). Although the minstrel shows perpetuated gross racial stereotypes, Black People began performing as minstrels, after the Civil War, as a way to get into show business. This article should be read within a historical context, that way it can be put in the proper perspective (at least by some).

  18. @The Truthi Please add Constance Rourke’s classic work “American Humor” to the bibliography of important interpretations of minstrelsy. It is a mind-boggling topic, and the social psychology and impulses that gave rise to its immense popularity among 19th century Americans has had no lack of scholars wrestling with its historical significance. But Ms. Rourke cogently argues that it can additionally be viewed as a pre-eminent American art form of great originality that informed and influenced nearly all of the performance arts that came after. Importantly, she wrote her book in 1930, which predated Freeman Gosden’s and Charles Correll’s now infamous and once wildly popular “Amos and Andy.” Good luck making sense of it.

  19. Reply to @M I was a child in New York City in the 40s and 50s. I remember Amos and Andy well and loved to listen to them. I also remember characters in black face and shows on early TV featuring black tap dancers who somehow never seemed the same as white performers. It was almost as if tap dancing was what blacks were allowed to do. My parents were mixed in a way: Bronx Jew and Brooklyn Episcopalian. Very different. In those days people made them aware of their differences and because of that, they were early fighters for social justice and vocally opposed to all forms of prejudice and separation of people by race, religion or sex. BUT they were very unusual.

  20. Thank you for this insight. It is both a luxury and a problematic blind spot to have grown up without these historical examples in plain view. I did note one oddity: the article references an interesting round-up of racist ads and branding. Lucky the Leprechaun, of Lucky Charms fame, is included in the list and noted as an example of an Irish “stereotype”. I’m very curious whether others would characterize a whimsical, fictional character like this as an example of racism or stereotyping. Are we saying there are no instances where race, ethnicity, or nationality have any acceptable role in a cartoon or brand, or is it still possible to draw a line at blackface without also going down the much wider path?

  21. @Kerry O I think it is essential to draw the line at black face. African-Americans and Native-Americans have been exposed to a level of injustice and exploitation that is unparalleled in American history, and rarely equaled elsewhere of the world. I think one of the reasons that Political correctness has gone amok is that everyone who has ever been treated badly tries to compare their situation to these groups and demands the exact same kind of special treatment. Of course, there are other groups that have been underprivileged and exposed to injustice. But each case is different, and needs to be judged on its own unique history. This article does a good job of explaining why history creates wounds that are unique to the African-American experience.

  22. @Kerry O My Irish immigrant friends, in consideration of the bowdlerization of their culture on these shores call it "wearing the little green hat". And yes, they understand it and, no, they're not pleased.

  23. @Kerry O Remember the Frito Bandito? I do

  24. Just a few hours ago my dad said that he couldn't figure out why Megan Kelly was fired for talking about blackface, and then he asked What even is blackface, anyway? I told him the story of "Daddy" Rice, of the ways in which these stories permeated American culture and changed our public and political discourse. He asked me So what? He wanted to know how these "jokes" could actually affect people. So I told him to read "Black Men in Public Space" by Brent Staples. Then I came home and saw this piece. Thank you, Mr. Staples, for sharing your scholarship and your experience with a wider audience. It is my hope that more readers will engage these ideas, challenge their own thinking, and work toward anti-racist action.

  25. @John D. This is all just overwrought. Megan Kelly is the latest target for so much hand wringing. In no way did she deserve the ridiculous responses that she was given. Sure, she should have known better in this day and age to say something as innocent as she did. But that was just evidence of how innocent she was. Way too PC for me.

  26. @Lake Monster Megan Kelly is no innocent.

  27. The two most prominent uses of "blackface" in modern movies were Disneys Dumbo when the crows sing "When I see an elephant fly" and Fred Astairs famed Mr. Bojangles production number in which Mr. Bojangles himself then at the peak of his career could not have appeared. I don't think Disney ever employed a black person in a creative position. In contrast Jack Benny welcomed Eddy " Rochester" Anderson who was the only member of his radio cast who could speak truth to the egotistical tightwad character that Benny played.

  28. @Bunbury Yes, but in that Rochester was given the role of the King's "fool" - he can say what he wants because he is so insignificant in the social order.

  29. @Lizmill I too thought about the kings fool role but something didn't quite fit. In most cases the fool had to appear to be ridiculous (wearing foolish clothing or acting bizarre or child-like). Anderson never did.

  30. The current LA production of Othello has a production of a play about minstrel performers running during the season, since blackface "entertainment" was used during intermissions of productions of Othello in America. I'm bookmarking this article to show my college students.

  31. I suppose you are right, and make many good points. But am I the only person who is so tired of people who are outraged all the time, calling out the wrongs of others? The times we live in seem to be defined by everyone calling out someone or some group for some offense.

  32. The article's point is not outrage, but an attempt to explain a piece of history that is often ignored and erased. There are people today who have no idea why black people get upset by blackface, and I blame the education system and those who perpetuate it for its whitewash of American history. The experience of people of color is often seen as a sidenote in our history textbooks. People still believe that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War, that black people had all the freedom and opportunities to succeed after the reconstruction amendments were passed, and that there is no lingering structural racism today. That is the result of no one seeing the importance of discussing these matters honestly. It is more important for some people to uphold a patriotic narrative than to lend credibility to some of their fellow citizens.

  33. @WDP This is, in part, an effort to have the discussion about race in this country that we should have had ~150 years ago (similar to S. Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission). Perhaps the outrage that you perceive is there because it's so late. Perhaps it's much more progress than outrage.

  34. @WDP - We grew up minstrel shows, Amos and Andy, and Al Jolson, all of whom gave us hours of wholesome entertainment and enjoyment. Aunt Jemima herself, a beloved icon in the household, as was the chef on the Cream of Wheat cereal box. Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit in the film "Song of the South" warmed the heart and I can still recall a few of the great songs. We embraced them all without prejudice, but as young kids, we saw only the good, not yet brainwashed to believe it was all negative.

  35. An important study, but I am curious as to its timeliness. I am dumbstruck that discussion of racial injustice is seemingly more heated today than it was since say 1975. Isn't the notability mostly because of Trump's election? Why conflate those issues, unless using this as a political weapon? This piece seems to suggest that blackface resonates today, and that a substantial audience still partakes in it, reveling in antique hatred. Perhaps different parts of the country evolve culturally at different times. But in my world, this disappeared about 70-90 years ago... to suggest "blackface feeds white supremacy" in 2019, while thought-provoking, seems predicated on the existence of a mythic "other," the keen-eyed racist who collects archaic drawings...

  36. @rjs7777 Gov Northrop's med school years were ~30 years ago. There also was a recent survey article published which found a widespread use of blackface images in various high school yearbooks (it will take me a bit to find the link again). That was in the last couple of years. I don't think this is as buried in time as you indicate.

  37. @rjs7777 : A few months ago, a contemporary broadcaster on a major network (Kelly on NBC) said that she can't see what's offensive about blackface. That's troubling. Of course it's far less prevalent than it was -- societal expectations are significantly different than they were -- but its continued existence at all is a disturbing sign of how pervasive "casual" racism is. By now -- 2019 -- everyone should understand why this is offensive; no one should have to be explaining, yet again, to white broadcasters and fashion designers and governors and regular citizens dressing up for Halloween that (to quote Amber Ruffin) black people are not costumes. And to paraphrase Alice Walker: Black people aren't here for the convenience / amusement / exploitation by white people. If people really understood and believed that, no one would be donning blackface. Blackface is a barometer that tells us about the depth and pervasiveness of racism.

  38. @rjs7777 It disappeared 70-90 years ago? Ralph Northam appeared in blackface (or in a Klan uniform) in his medical school yearbook in the 1980s, and this became an issue this year. Blackface does still resonate with some white people - including students at colleges who still wear it at fraternity or sorority parties.

  39. And we can add that the first "talking" film from 1927 "The Jazz Singer" featured Al Jolson in Blackface. The song White Christmas first appeared in the 1942 film, "Holiday Inn" starring Bing Crosby and the fim contained a lengthy Blackface performance, ( not by Bing himself ) Thank you for your thorough coverage of this painful topic Mr. Staples. We are an ahistorical country and most folks simply do not know the tragic history and power of these racist images. When I teach American Popular Music History I always cover the Minstrel Show and its powerful place in the evolution of racism in America. My community college students here in the San Francisco Bay Area have for the most part never heard of any of this. It is absolutely a critical piece of American History that needs to be told.

  40. @Glenn Appell--I don't remember seeing Bing Crosby in blackface in White Christmas. However I distinctly remember seeing Crosby in a duet with co-star Danny Kaye singing about how great it would be to see a minstrel show.

  41. I saw “Holiday Inn” on Turner Classic Movies just a few months ago. The blackface sequence was jaw-dropping.

  42. @sharon5101 Bing Crosby did a blackface number in Holiday Inn, not White Chrstmas. White Christmas was another song within the film Holiday Inn. Holiday Inn had song acts for each holiday in the year.

  43. Thank you for a well-written, overview of discrimination to Black American people, lives, limbs, identities and culture within the framework of "Black Face" as a transmitted image transmuting into ongoing dehumanization. Surely needed during these conflicted times as influential individual and systemic stakeholders continue, through harmful, violating words and actions. to seed and develop divisiveness. Lessening of mutual trust, mutual respect, caringness, in words and deeds, mutual help and increased incivility is being harvested.While choosing to remind US, and to teach those who do not know the role of enabling traditions in creating and anchoring discrimination against one part of America's diverse peoples, during an era of increased division, it is also necessary to note her ever-present, toxic, WE-THEY culture. From the time of the Colonies; THEN to NOW. There have always been created, selected, targets. Dehumanized. Stigmatized. Excluded. Marginlized. Segregated. Disempowered. Caricaturized. Fostered by...Enabled by the complacency as well as the complicity of many. Researched as parameters of complex, dynamic wilfull blindness. At times neither looking or seeing. Choices.Wilfull deafness. To existential pains of a THEM still voicing, even as others, pained, alienated and feeling helpless, became muted; too exhausted to express. Wilfull ignorance even amongst the brightest, as this article documents. A culture of willful shamelessness for which words are inadequate.

  44. @Seinstein Yes. Lies!

  45. Excellent piece. Thank you, Brent Staples.

  46. Everything in this article is true, but there is another part of the story that needs to be told as well. I remember seeing a very innovative Minstrel Show in Baltimore a few years back. The troupe was half-black and half-white, and nobody wore black face. No one wore rags, everyone was dressed in morning coats, ascots and spats. (The formal wear that usually is used only for weddings today). They did high stepping dances, played banjos, bones, and tambourines, and sang clever songs in impeccable harmonies. They made no secret about the fact that they were cleaning the traditional shows up to make them acceptable to modern moral standards. At one point, one of the white performers did a hideously racist song from the era, while the other performers, and the audience, cringed. One of the black performers then talked about the compromises and sacrifices that the original black performers had to make in the 19th and early 20th centuries, how they still managed to make a form of entertainment that swept the world, and why they should be honored for that.

  47. @Teed Rockwell There is also another part called Hollywood. For years ( and even today) black actors have actually portrayed and helped reinforce those stereotypes. From Steppin Fetchit to Snoop Dog. Go figure.

  48. I agree demeaning caricature denigrates dignity, intelligence, and class of noble men and women. There is a long history meant to keep others in their place because of fear of equality. Racism oozes fear, false protectionism, and the kind of dis-grace permeating America that remains almost un-forgivable, if not for the burden/weight of not forgiving pulls down the so weighted. Yet, please black face, not meant to demean, does exist, and in fact, provided a critical turning point for my own thinking and understanding back when I was a young white boy of 13, in 1963. "Black Like Me" by undercover journalist John Howard Griffin, completely cracked open my own thinking, and with it this great country, when he went black, using makeup, to see and report with his own white eyes and heart, what we in America were too blind to see. What Griffin experienced and reported, though actually white, remains one of the first remarkable investigative documents that ripped the heart of America open, never to be the same again. I cannot count the number of times I read Griffins account in 1963. He did not experience the centuries of racism that my black friends and their ancestors have. Not even close. But he did give racism a noble stage, for all of us Americans to come to grips with. Brent, I salute your piece and history. I also salute his.

  49. I also read that book when I was young. It was one of few books we read in school about race, and I appreciated it at the time. However, I feel that it’s important to recognize the depressing irony that so many people couldn’t simply hear and learn from the stories of actual black people to experience empathy. Whiteness had to give their experience the stamp of ‘objective’ approval and validation. Not flattering. I’m not assuming you don’t agree, but think it’s important to bring up every time that book is mentioned.

  50. Actually, it wasn’t makeup. He underwent a medical procedure (can’t say exactly what it was) to have his skin darkened.

  51. @Eve i agree fully. That it had to be done was a shame, but also brilliant.

  52. I wish we’d put things in perspective. This isn’t even in the top 100 things that are haunting America.

  53. @Ed No, it is the number one issue facing America. The political polarization impacting the nation is a direct result of racism. Trump's attitude towards Blacks, Latinos, Muslims and members of the LGBTQ community enabled him to become President and causes nearly half of the nation to support him. Even today, Americans simply are incapable of accepting those who are different. They are unwilling to grant basic American freedoms to those who are different. Until acceptance prevails no other issues will be resolved.

  54. @Ed This is my perspective: two houses to the right of my front door, a family every year, as spring arrives begins hauling out the summer decorations. On a brick windowsill sits every year, a figure of a young boy holding a fishing pole. The boys legs are crossed, his face painted black, his clothes multiple colors. In the yard of this home in the year of 2016, the family placed numerous political yard signs supporting various republican candidates. We do converse a bit, his brother lives across the street, his 2016 campaign signs supported the democratic candidates. We also talk, but the conversations are much deeper than those of his brother and family. Growing up in Flint, quite a few of those I knew from my Catholic education through middle school, many of the students families hired and employed African American women as "maids", which my family saw as lazy and nutty. Painting and portraying people as an object of degradation is unhealthy, hateful, and the work of an intentionally lazy mind.

  55. Cultural remnants of racism, like blackface, affect our lives, poison them and cause suffering every day. They help promote discriminatory, disparate treatment in our workplaces and all too often fatalities in our streets. Understanding how such stereotypes originated and how they continue helps move us forward. There are many informative stories published in the Times that are important; this is one of them.

  56. I'd say that blackface image represents this country and its history more accurately than any patriotic symbol.

  57. @J.Sutton Seriously! Only 15 States actually engaged in the slave trade, meaning it has no historical, symbolic reference point for the other 35, other than grave yards and statuary that commemorate the Union Army...of which 365,000 died during the Civil War, which resulted in the abolishment of slavery. Let's tear down the Lincoln Memorial...since that's apparently a waste of space.

  58. @J.Sutton Your're exaggerating. When was the last time you saw a portrayal of blackface in the US? I'm 68 and have never seen one, but have only read about nuts like northam doing it decades ago. These incidents are extremely rare and to say that it "represents this country" is an example of fake victimization.

  59. Thank you for this very informative piece. I enjoy your no-punches-pulled contributions. Though they oftentimes make other folks who would otherwise side with you uncomfortable and defensive, they are always thought provoking. An interesting side observation, however, was that the rise of minstrelsy was roughly paralleled by a rise in the impact of African/African-American musical influences on American music writ large (cultural appropriation is the phrase often used in this context). Aggression directed at those things which one secretly admires but is socialized to condemn is often jarringly violent, heinous, and destructive.

  60. I know that prejudice, bias, and racism exist in many forms, adapted to different eras and new demands. The racism of slavery was not the racism of segregation, which is not the racism of our times. Consistent, however, is its denial--denial is its most powerful element, even more then hate. Like a sleight-of-hand, denial both deflects and facilitates. What is new is now acts of racism are in themselves acts of denial. These acts freeze our attention away from the global consolidation of autocratic power, wealth and privilege. Connect it, and we see a very different picture. Trump's trade deals with China are intended to subjugate American industry and workers to China's demands. He uses affirmative denial to have us think he's creating deals that are best for America. They are not; they will establish China's hegemony over sectors of our economy. Examples: recycling tanked when China stopped buying recycled plastics and containerboard. Soyabeans tanked when China retaliated for tariffs. Now Russia is moving troops to Venezuela, following its pattern in Syria and the Ukraine. What has racism to do with this?Racism's tools provide the strategy and leverage. Racism provides the false patriotism that is the cover for Trump's global sell out. Racism leads the global attack on the human rights covered under our constitution's amendment nine. Blackface is an expression of loyalty to racism's deceit.

  61. @walterhett Yes. Yes. Yes. We lie to ourselves and create an internal hell. Every lie breeds fear and fear creates hate. Time for truth and only truth.

  62. As a British biracial woman in the United States, I appreciate this explanation of blackface because many people don't "get" why this is and was demeaning. Many African-American descendants of people who were brought to this country in chains were robbed of any dignity/culture and continue to suffer from lack of identity going forward. For me, I am saddened by the actions of people in the past but I can't let that stop me from acknowledging why devaluation is devasting to all. Many people today don't feel the outrage that I feel when today's majority tries to take healthcare away from those who need it most or continue to support more automatic weapons in a society that is killing others in alarming rates. This is where my outrage and my actions are directed and not at a photo in a yearbook from the 1980s. Yes, we acknowledge that these actions were wrong in the past; we learn how people were devalued but we go forward to stop things taking place now that devalue and harm. The Blackface of today is gun violence and overt racism towards all people of color.

  63. @Natalie J Belle MD And there's no overt racism and snobbery against working class whites??

  64. From 1968-72 I was a member of a traditional fraternity at a large, well-known, North Carolina land-grant college. We did our fair share of partying and we were not particularly enlightened about race, gender or ethnicity. But we were in the generation that came of age during Viet Nam and we learned to question many things about America. One thing we never questioned was wearing black face or KKK regalia to any party. In my memory it was never discussed but was fully understood to be off the table.

  65. Thank you for an excellent article, Brent Staples. We are beyond due for our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I will be sharing this piece with others.

  66. Good piece. I recommend Spike Lee’s film CSA, which presents similar images in the context of a fictional documentary presented by a television network in a modern America shaped by a Civil War won by the confederacy. Very dark humor.

  67. This kind of behavior is extremely rare and I question the motivation for this article. In my 68 years of living and working with both blacks and whites in Washington DC and Northern Virginia I've *never* seen nor heard of any blackface posturing. But there's was (and is) plenty of victimization. I'm looking forward to an article about that.

  68. @Stan Gomez Your individual and personal experience of having "*never* seen nor heard of any blackface posturing" is what is called anecdotal. There's plenty of documentation to the contrary, provided in a historical context in the article and in the comments.

  69. @Stan Gomez so since you haven't seen it or experienced it doesn't exist?

  70. This article brought to the fore something that has always puzzled me: how is it that, in 2019, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben continue to exist, even when these brands are so clearly based on racial stereotypes? How have they not yet been shamed out of existence? I predict they are one Twitter mob-storm away from extinction.

  71. I'm not surprised that Gucci made the scarf? I think it's a scarf? No matter what it is it's a sign of the times today in many parts of Europe. In Paris I saw black face figurines in the employee dinning halls . I saw them in tourist shops as well. In Scandinavia blackface caricatures could be found on salt and pepper shakers and in various clubs. Even though they couldn't understand why we were offended they didn't seem ashamed to have these things around. They thought they were endearing and said they treated them with respect because they were a part of black culture. I never quite figured out the reasoning. In addition to these stereotypical images it wasn't uncommon to hear jokes about Jews and when confronted they simply shrugged and said that everyone knew how Jews were when it came to money etc.etc.etc. fill in the stereotype. This problem is a problem in humanity and can be found almost anyplace where the predominant culture is white.

  72. If one studies the American Experience -- as it relates to Black People -- the purpose behind the racial imagery is clear. The following works provide perspective: (1) Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery by Leon F. Litwack (Vintage Books: 1979), (2) Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Business, 1863 - 1877 by Eric foner (Harper & Row 1988) (3) The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. DuBois (Oxford University Press: 2007), (4) Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Social Justice by David Pilgrim (Ferris State University and PM Press: 2015), (5) Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow by Leon F. Litwack (Alfred A. Knopf: 1998), (6) Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow Hardcover by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Penguin Press: 2019), and (7) The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward (Oxford University Press: 2002). As early as the 1820s mainly White Performers - in blackface - portrayed Black People on stage in minstrel shows. The minstrel show was an early form of vaudeville. The premise of the minstrel show was that it purported to show the world through African American eyes. Although the minstrel shows perpetuated gross racial stereotypes, Black People began performing as minstrels - after the Civil War - as a way to get into show business. This article should be read within a historical context, that way it can be put in the proper perspective (at least by some).

  73. @The Truth I'm surprised your bibliography doesn't include a book that was a finalist for the Zora Neale Hurston-Richard Wright Legacy award for nonfiction in 2007, written by Louis Chude-Sokei, a Nigerian-born Jamaican scholar who was/is the chair of Black Studies at Boston University. It's nominally about Bert Williams, but is far-outside-the box compared to, say, Caryl Phillips's more recent book about Williams, nominated for the fiction award titled "Dancing in the Dark." You should be able to find it by its subtitle: "Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy and the African Diaspora."

  74. I recently learned that the character of the Cat in the Hat was based on blackface minstrelsy. It's hidden in plain sight in every children's library in the country.

  75. @J.M. — great, another innocent thing nobody ever noticed, but someone has to dig up and feel guilty about. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

  76. This article well points up how such white "fun" at black expense was simply taken for granted. One comes across it in the strangest of places when one is not looking for it. When reading into the history of law in the United States, one cannot miss slavery and lynchings, but at least there were people objecting. In reading professional legal literature from the turn of the 20th century, when there is a joke to be had, often it is at the expense of blacks.

  77. Thank you for this fascinating essay. We have some real problematic issues to deal with as a society (other than just Trump). Should we punish the old white power structure for doing things that were perfectly acceptable when they were younger? Did they know better? I believe they did but chose to do them anyway. So, do we let them make a sincere apology and allow them to remain in power? I don't know.

  78. @Anthony You don't know? YOU DON'T KNOW? You don't know because you don't want to know. The brutality of "the old white power structure" that did "things that were perfectly acceptable when they were younger" is documented in the historical record and it is staggering. This kind of airy "gosh, I have no idea how to address any of this" is the part and parcel of the willful ignorance that allows the cruelty to this day. So you need an idea for what we can do? We can start by paying reparations as a nation to the African-American community for the violence inflicted upon it "when it was perfectly acceptable."

  79. I loved the article, though it has provoked some memories from my childhood. I remember seeing the Aunt Jemima icon on syrup bottles while walking through grocery stores with my mother, back in the 1950s. This was in small town Southern Illinois. At that time, I believe I associated the smiling and rotund face as warm, approachable. It sold product. At the same time, on nearby shelves there was also the very muscled Mr. Clean, who was bald and white. If Aunt Jemima is by definition, Blackface, then what do we do with Mr. Clean? Is it demeaning of white people (perhaps, of the working class) to depict them as over-muscled, and so, by the nature of things, destined to work for you, and to get their hands dirty (where you might not)? Or, perhaps, Mr. Clean is itself a racist image, because the icon announces that you can let a white man into your home, and feel safe, so why bother with those products that show black people doing your housework? Now, this might have some truth to it. Perhaps, Mr. Clean is D. W. Griffith's answer to the challenge of finding good help. But, could it also be that we are stretching things a bit too far to read a racial subplot in so many things, or, even if this can be justified, to isolate it from the other subplots that seem always to be going on? These are questions, not answers.

  80. @Joe Goldiamond There's an interesting article about "Mr. Clean" in Wikipedia. Apparently his white clothes, earring, etc. has more to do with being a sailor than anything you suppose.

  81. @Joe Goldiamond That the image of a white man with muscles is used to sell a cleaning product to (mostly) white people is not racist or demeaning. I suspect you know that. The pervasive linking of white people to cleanliness and black people to dirtiness is also not demeaning to white people. Honestly, get a grip. Our collective love of Aunt Jemima, rooted in childhood pancake breakfasts, does not cancel out the history of the image. No one is asking you to hate Aunt Jemima. Just to know who she is.

  82. The article is accusatory in attempts to perpetuate the notion that white folks are the root cause for the dysfunction, discontent and irresponsible and violent behavior among younger people of color. Truth is, I believe many are victims of self-imposed, imaginary shackles, blaming white folks for their inability to move on and become responsible, productive citizens. After 154 years, the blame-game continues, and I'm not buying into it.

  83. @November-Rose-59 Good one. You should try comedy.

  84. @November-Rose-59 If you have time and inclination, please go to "The Atlantic" and look up Ta-Neihisi Coates' essay, "The Case for Reparations." It is an absolutely eye-opening explanation for why many African Americans have not been able "to move on and become responsible, productive citizens," even after over 150 years.

  85. Often, I will hear reference to some matter equally offensive to Jews or Native Americans. And, as with black face, I have no knowledge of the history behind the offense. We need to put an end to offensive stereotypes. At the same time, if any of the offenders are unaware of the offense, they should not lose their jobs or otherwise be severely punished.

  86. @michjas How about offensive stereotypes about white southerners? White seniors? Rural whites? What about those stereotypes?

  87. As a white child of San Francisco's Bayview district in the 60s (then predominantly black) I saw and felt first hand the advantages handed me over my black neighbors and black classmates. It was much worse then and a lot more violent. Not for lack of trying by extraordinary leaders, laws, private business and everyday politicians have we tried to advance beyond racisms. And at the workplace and our schools progress has been extraordinary but still not enough. But ask yourself, whether white or black, when you socialize, or date or marry or move how many of the "other" is there with you?

  88. @Joe We still have freedom of association in this country.

  89. All excellent points. Let's rethink St. Patrick's Day as well. "Celebrating" a culture by unbridled intoxication denigrates people of Irish descent for "fun and entertainment."

  90. @Mike This Irish American agrees with you 100 percent. I absolutely detest the mascot for Notre Dame too. It is demeaning in my opinion.

  91. The history here is very interesting, but what is missing is when exactly it was pronounced by the black community that whites pretending to be black by coloring their skin was not acceptable behavior. This is important information given that we are now condemning people, some from rural backgrounds, for wearing black face decades ago, when I have no memory of this being a widely known issue. I was raised on Hollywood movies where beloved stars occasionally wore black-face, and that was my only experience ever seeing this done. My first memory of this practice being condemned as racist was in the '90's and something Spike Lee was working on brought it to my attention. At any rate, symbols don't cause racism, they are a symptom of it. They may help perpetuate racism and should be condemned, but I believe this just offers whites a cheap way off the hook, all we have to do is condemn racist behavior and we're good. Things that actually might raise blacks as a group economically such as assuring that poor children in this country, who are disproportionately black, receive an equally funded primary education, would actually require the privileged to open their wallets which is a lot tougher to make happen than to to get them to stop putting on black-face. When blacks have equal economic power, all else will fall in place.

  92. @alan haigh Yes, I can't understand why the black community in the Reconstruction era South or any period before the Civil Rights Movement wouldn't let their offense be known. It's not like they would have to worry about a lynching for expressing that opinion, right? (sarcasm - in case anyone misses it) Even today some people apparently have a problem with the black community or any other community stating that blackface is not acceptable.

  93. @alan haigh Oh, come on! Everyone should know that it is not nice to make fun of other people, for any reason - blacks, Hispanics, women, cripples, etc. When I took my first trip to the South at 10 years old, my mother and aunt who were originally from Florida, wanted me to pose for a picture next to a "pickaninny." I did and still have the photo in Key West to prove it. I am standing next to a little black girl, both of us frowning. Nobody had to tell me that was wrong even though my relatives were laughing. When they referred to a car driven by black people as a "box of chocolates," I knew that was outrageous. Obviously, I have never forgotten. I grew up on Long Island and had no experience with black people, but had been taught in Catholic school that everyone is equal in the eyes of God.

  94. @alan haigh You want to know when Black people said blackface was unacceptable? Frederick Douglass said so 15 years before the Civil War. Of course, no White people really listened. It was all too much fun. But even when White people finally decided blackface was unacceptable and did speak up, people still make the case now that the very things condemned 50 years ago were all in good taste and enjoyed at the time. We are told about how Laurence Olivier did Shakespeare in blackface, and his Othello's grace and poise was appreciated. No it wasn't. This very paper, in their theater review, complained about both the blackface and the buffoonish stereotype he chose to portray. Mickey Rooney was also condemned in the press at the time for his racist caricatures against Blacks and Asians. No one noticed that either. Now, the constant refrain is "Why wasn't it offensive when he did it?" Well, it was offensive, and you closed your ears. The problem is not that no one spoke up. It's that people didn't care and feigned ignorance to brush away the problem.

  95. So this was a great piece work. I am 60 and thought I new a lot about the use of black face, boy was I wrong. Which made me realize that burying the past only guarantees its future. Maybe things of this nature need to be brought into the light of day, instead of being buried. I think the Jewish religion has it rite " never forget " . It's like the JUMANGI game, discarded just to be found again and misused. Do not just call it bad educate people as to why it is bad. We have a so called president who could use an education in biodiversity, among a lot of other subjects!

  96. Thank you. While I have very little hope that facts and the study of history has any impact in today's America, you article concisely presents the reasons why blackface is so despicable. It is interesting that Americans were critical of blackface in the 60's but now seem more willing to defend the practice. I suggest that the same conclusion can be drawn with respect to American's overall attitude towards racism. Very sad.

  97. The Worlds Best Book of Minstrelsy (1926, The Penn Publishing Company, Philadelphia) by Herbert Preston Powell with illustrations by Charles Clark, was a popular guide for white middles class churches, charitable organizations, schools and fraternal organizations in producing their own minstrel shows.

  98. Thank you for a very informative essay, Mr. Staples. That being said, apparently it means nothing if you're a Virginia politician.

  99. There exists a deep, perhaps unbridgeable, chasm between black Americans and white Americans which should dismay every sentient person in this country. Somewhere between the history of real oppression and the currency of today's "micro aggressions" lies the reality of the future of black-white relations. I suspect that those relations will only become truly empathetic and trusting on an individual level. I truly mourn for the missed opportunities we seem to squander to look past the caricatures and sweeping generalizations made by the fringes of black or white societies.

  100. Obviously, most or all of the blackface as depicted in this article was meant to hurt, or mock. And no rational person denies the centuries of horrific oppression suffered by minorities or its effect. But, there are issues that have arisen lately. First, is every example mockery? Adults know how offensive blackface is, but Meghan Kelly lost her job simply by asking a hypothetical question about a kid in a Halloween costume with no mockery intended. It is racist to suggest that a white child, could not celebrate a black person, say Barack Obama, even by using blackface. The modern culture of victimization ignores innocent intent. People shave their heads to show empathy for those suffering from cancer. No one thinks it is mockery b/c the intent is considered. Also, what if an offensive use of blackface or any ethnic mockery occurred long ago or by a young person or both? Do we not forgive at least most transgressions of the young, even sometimes for heinous crimes? Also, have we lost the ability to understand that times change and what was once acceptable, or considered humorous, is no longer deemed so? Or that people who were trying to be offensive can change? I just watched an old movie '66 where a now elderly well-known actor, I'm sure following direction, disguised himself as a Chinese immigrant by acting out demeaning stereotypes. Should we now destroy his career and his reputation? Some would say yes. Exaggeration often drowns out the important message.

  101. @DHEisenberg Not sure how you could have read that excellent article and then made that post. Nearly everything you mentioned is articulately and rationally refuted in the article. Meghan Kelly didn't lose her job because she posed a question. She lost her job because her already poor ratings fell even further because decent people recognized her comments as ignorant and insensitive. Did the author recommend that Bing Crosby and Mickey Rooney be labeled racists and their legacies destroyed? No. He mentioned them to demonstrate how the poison of blackface seeped so far into the culture because people accepted it and excused it as entertainment or youthful indiscretion. That has to stop, so people can never justify it's appearance again.

  102. @DHEisenberg Race is not a costume, period. Its an esy concept to teach anyone, even a child. So, no matter the intent, it's wrong. The end, admiration of said person, doesn't justify the means.

  103. @DHEisenberg: Well, maybe it's legitimate to ask a question. But this question about halloween costumes has been answered, and the answer is, it's offensive. Then I suppose, if you want, you can say, well, I don't mind, I'll send my child out to be offensive to other children. But you can't keep asking the question in good faith, if you refuse to hear the answer.

  104. I wish we were moving past the frat party blackface. Sadly, we are not. In 2010 when I was in medical school in the Deep South, some students in the class below me defaced their white coats (solemnly given to them in a ceremony just weeks before) and turned them into blackface caricatures that were aimed at demeaning a historically black university across town. They thought it was good fun at a Halloween party. I found it nauseating. I can’t imagine how my black classmates felt. It is one of the most shameful memories of my life that I left the party rather than confront the offenders. My silent disapproval may as well have been silent approval. And the worst part? They were allowed to continue in their studies. The offenders were known to be from upper class families and had lived lives of privilege. A couple of years later, their attitudes towards minorities had not changed. It’s one reason I’m reluctant to give money to my alma mater. Shame on us all for allowing them to persist in their ignorance.

  105. I've always wondered: What was the original aim of fraternities and sororities, other than to be exclusive (and often snotty about it)? How did fraternities in particular become such proud bastions of debauchery and ridicule of others? I think universities would do well to stop supporting this sort of organization, unless it truly is given over to improving life for others.

  106. @Caitlin I've always wondered: What was the original aim of fraternities and sororities, other than to be exclusive (and often snotty about it)? How did fraternities in particular become such proud bastions of debauchery and ridicule of others? I think universities would do well to stop supporting this sort of organization, unless it truly is given over to improving life for others.

  107. As a freshman at the University of Vermont in 1968 I was horrified to learn of a longstanding fraternity tradition at the school called "Cake Walk." Fraternities would have their best blackfaced 2 man teams compete in synchronized dance steps called "Walken 'fo da cake." It seems so ironic now that Vermont is arguably one of the most progressive states in our country.

  108. This essay won't, of course, sway hard core racists. But most racism today, I believe, is unconscious and unwitting, and part of the cultural background of those who steadfastly think they are are not at all biased, yet in many ways are. The ill effects of such subtle racism can be largely overcome by a conscious and deliberate effort to behave evenhandedly in our treatment of others. Given human nature, that awareness requires frequent reminders. So thank you, Mr Staples for this potent reminder.

  109. @Mosttoothless Unfortunately it’s considered racist to treat all people the same without regard to skin color. I heard that on a TED talk on NPR yesterday.

  110. Talk about beating a dead horse. I think we have heard enough about blackface. It was a different time, a different culture. I bet there are things we do now that are acceptable, but in 50 years or so will be considered insensitive or cruel. Societies change.

  111. @Aaron Adams Different time? Like, last week in a frat house near you. The presence of the past in everything we do is important to understand. Honestly if you are totally clued in to the history/persistence/deep meaning of blackface in our culture, then just skip the article and go on your woke way. Kicking back against it seems a bit defensive, it's really interesting. I learned a lot from it.

  112. A different time and culture? No, it wasn’t. Blackface still happens. That’s kind of the entire point of the piece.

  113. I think the point is that all you have to do is scratch the surface of our “evolved” society and the bedrock of racism is still there. Society has NOT truly changed.

  114. I would SO love to go off on GBR of New England for his / her uninformed comment about drag portrayals demeaning women. Not only have I never seen a drag performer embody anything other than a strong woman, as a gay man, I can tell you from my heart of hearts that if I ever had the impulse to do drag (and I do), it would be as a complete celebration of the girly-girl component of my psyche -- something blossoming from within, absent of malice. But that is not at issue here, so to contribute to the topic germain to this article I would ask -- how many readers are acquainted with a Disney character who goes by the name of Sunflower? As I suspect most of you are not, I am referring to a figure excised with surgical precision from the acclaimed Disney classic Fantasia. A little digging -- I know YouTube has clips -- and you will learn that as part of Disney's original cut of The Pastoral segment of Fantasia, there was, amidst the preening cartoon centaurettes, an attendant helping the fair-skinned characters pretty themselves. And that would be Sunflower. Aghast as I was to learn about this squelched detail from a movie I admire, nothing could prepare me for seeing her actual image. She is as grotesque a depiction of the pickanniny as could possibly be imagined. Go see. Fantasia was intended to be a sophisticated embodiment of the heights to which animation could soar. But Sunflower is an absolute horror. Racism at its mindlessly, casual worst.

  115. @Brian But it’s ok to stereotype Europeans?

  116. The early minstrels were a strange mix . Some had a sincere love of African-American music of the time (the banjo is an African-American instrument), but then they presented their version of that music is a deeply racist setting. As time went by the minstrels got further away from the music, and even deeper into racist stereotypes. They were the first of a long line of while performers, adopting African-American music styles - jazz, blues, rock n roll, rap, etc. While the African-American community is clearly the well-spring of American music, hopefully we can learn to accept the gift of music, without besmirching it by denigrating the original creators.

  117. @TomL I think Irish, Scottish, and English traditional folk music is as much of a "wellspring of American music" as African influenced music.

  118. The article fails to dig deeper into the racist nature of fraternity and sorority organization. It should be noted that these are the current and former bastions of white supremacy, as well as economic segregation. Our country is more stratified than ever, giving these people and they’re antiquated view points greater power in our materialistic wealth obsessed society. It is by their exclusionary nature that they continue the segregation of all those they see as less than, namely people with less money and fewer connections. By glossing over these facts we empower them further. We should look past the minstrels of the yesteryear to confront the overseers of today. We are not free, merely the pawns of the wealthy few. Slavery is now defined by debt and low wages, it is socioeconomic and no longer racial. Whiteness now means those who can afford to look down upon others for purely economic reasons.

  119. @Herbert Johnson But don’t spend anytime on the political party of slavery and segregation. It controls the House of Representatives today. Better to concentrate on those evil sororities. They are politically powerful. Yet I don’t recall who the Thetas endorsed in the most recent congressional elections.

  120. Mr. Staples, this was incredibly informative! Thank you. I want to add two points: 1. This is not in the past. As the last line of the the essay points out attitudes toward black people put in place medical care, police care, and public policy that has been demeaning to blacks and effected both their physical wellbeing, livelihoods, and psyches. This is not "old history." It is the origins of present policy and present education and economic gaps. 2. The focus here is on racism. However, as uncomfortable as it may be something should be said about the narratives and what made people laugh. Not just the stereotypes--but humor. And the tigers circling a tree until they turn into ghee. The stories also drove interest and the characters became the normalized background of the stories or the exoticized difference that heightened the delivery. If you could do a history of Halloween and costumes, this would also help us.

  121. Thank you! As a white 75 year old I have wondered, often after watching some old movie, why this was never talked about! At least not to my knowledge in the media. Some of the early movies I've seen on TCM were great eye openers to this horrible racism, especially one Al Jolson movie. TCM, I feel, is to be commended on showing such movies as a reality-check, educational tool, though they are very hard to watch. The impact of blackface was never ever addressed in the education system in Ohio, even in my OSU history courses. It's great to see you open this discussion with all of this information, most of which is new to me. One can only hope that it enlightens those who most need it.

  122. The tiresome response to columns like this one by Mr. Staples centers on the argument that these outrages lie in the unenlightened past and that we should simply "get over it" and focus on the progress we have made. (See the response of Aaron Adams.) Even if we could find examples of blackface only in an earlier era it would still require us to confront the implications of a culture which dehumanized a significant portion of the country's population for generations. The study of history includes much more than a celebration of our past achievements. The contempt expressed by blackface helped to support a system which exploited the labor of African Americans to create an economic cornucopia which benefited whites almost exclusively. But in ways that lie outside the scope of Staple's essay, this strain of racism continues to infect our cultural values today. As bad as blackface was, an even more vicious form of caricature occurred when movies and television used black actors to convey the message of racial inferiority. The television version of Amos 'n Andy, as well as any number of B-grade movies, offered black actors desperately-needed income to humiliate themselves on screen. Today, this unsubtle form of prejudice has disappeared, but the tendency to use minority performers to play criminal roles has not. Staples argues that we have not entirely shed our racist past, and the supporting evidence is not hard to find.

  123. This article was beautifully written about an abhorrent train of events that has influenced children and adults. A continuous flow of information about the roots of racism, the subliminal indoctrination of black is less, and the calling out of present behavior that reflects this supremacy in the slightest way should be printed and reported by every avenue of communication. The time is right for this bombardment.

  124. Thank you for this article and the excellent click-through article citations. My daughter is 14 months old and one of our favorite children’s cds has a song called Jump Jim Joe on it, the original being Jump Jim Crow. Even though the word is changed, the song makes me uncomfortable. “Shake your head and nod your head and tap your toe,” actions the children are meant to imitate. Hearing those lyrics innocently sung is chilling, knowing what they refer to, sort of disguised in this catchy game-song. Just another example of how a very NOT innocuous symbol is woven into our daily lives. Thanks again.

  125. The media portrayals of black people do much to reinforce the idea that black Americans are either people to be laughed at or feared. The fear issue is particularly true in crime procedurals. People of color, it seems, are the go to character in these presentations. Add to that the what seeming is a more positive view of the black athlete. I say seemingly because again to some degree a majority white audience is "using" a person of color for entertainment. All of this diminishes the humanity of all of us. Colin Kapernick ripped the curtain away from pernicious form of bigotry when he showed that a man of talent could be sidelined because of his race and his belief that a person of color, even an athlete, had the right and responsibility to present himself as a human being with rights, not simply an object to be used by white audiences.

  126. @John Locke Poor Colin's little demonstration would have made MUCH more sense if he had begun it while he was still the starting quarterback. Since he only pulled this publicity stunt AFTER he had lost the starting position, it only looks like sour grapes. Don't forget, all users of blackface that have come to be publicized have been Democrats. So much for Dems representing minorities.

  127. There comes a time when we have to put the past away not continually dwell on something that cannot be changed. I think it is a stretch of imagination to possibly correlate historical figurines and vaudeville with the white supremacy movement of today. But to continually beat the horse after its dead becomes problematic. If every ethnic group were to react the same as the black culture regarding every little suspected slight we could fill libraries full of complaints. We don't see the Irish continually dwelling on the fact that they are portrayed as drunks, or Italians protesting their portrayal as all being part of the Mafia. Mr. Staples could have more poignantly addressed the recent episode of Jussie Smollett as a more accurate piece of perpetuating stereotypes all the while getting away with breaking the law. Every conceivable stereotype was utilized in this act perpetrated on the city of Chicago by a bad actor. God for bid that this con had been perpetrated by white person blaming Blacks for assaulting him. Mr. Staples time would be better spent looking to the future and not dwelling on the past. We are allowing one segment of the population to rewrite American history with denial and tremendous focus on the past. The removal of statuary throughout the South is not indicative of white supremacy it is more accurately a portrayal of our history and as such should be left as a reminder of the disturbing past slavery.

  128. As a white man who has dated a black woman and gotten to know her family and community all I can say is that the “just get over it already” belief system behind this comment is a direct result of not looking at the past. Pretending the despicable ways this country has treated the descendants of slaves, overtly and institutionally still to this day is why the AA community is struggling. Who does it serve, friend, to tell the world to stop trying to get race relations right? Who does it serve to say get over it already? Btw, I don’t recall anyone hunting down the Irish and hanging them out in the open and then burning the body in the public square. Also don’t recall anyone writing the rights of the Irish out of any state constitutions. Also don’t recall anyone trying to keep Irish kids out of public schools or bathrooms or the front of buses. Etc, etc.

  129. The sad part is still having to explain why blackface is racist and provocative, which gives too many people who define themselves with hate an excuse to act disingenuously.

  130. So. Where did you discuss Spike Lee's formidible messages about black-face in his film "Bamboozled"? You did not. If you intend to inform people about black-face and you omit "Bamboozled", you owe the reader an explanation. You have omitted an enormous piece of information. (hint: it's an uncomfortable film for people of ANY color to watch)

  131. I sometimes find in France or French cultures images of black people with sharp elbows and knees, and very big toothy smiles, sometimes playing instruments. One of the apartments which we rented in Essaouira, Morocco, was decorated this way in these "African" themes. I thought most Americans would find this racist ... we rarely see such caricatures of white people this way. I was wondering if I was overtuned to racism, as people sometimes talk about snowflakiness, or what these people (who are not black) would say if I told them that Americans could see these designs as racist. I guess there are advantages to growing up with lots of dialogues about racism, open conversations, when we can understand and identify racial symbolism that reduces the dignity of a man. In the end, I said nothing, not wanting to offend. I myself felt vaguely offended though not outraged. On the scale of racism, getting shot by cops is probably at the high end and deserves protest. White supremacists marching and insulting neutral observers deserve some outrage. We in the US indeed have a long way to go.

  132. @Debra Cops have a right to protect their own lives, even if you don't think they should have that right.

  133. Very timely, Mr. Staples. I look forward to your forthcoming denunciations of top hats, hoop skirts, and all the other signs of white peoples' humiliation and subjugation of oppressed minorities.

  134. Reading this opinion piece and also reading about Jussie Smollett in the same daily newspaper, is certainly a juxtopostion of amazing contrasts. But maybe not.

  135. Anyone who claims that “it’s all in the past” needs to visit rural America. Go to a popular bar and just listen for an evening. It’s still here.

  136. Most people today can’t place the civil war within the correct century let alone decade. And few could explain how WWI began or what the Korean conflict was. So expecting them to know about the racist historyof blackface is unrealistic. I remember attending an American Idol party 15 years ago where people dressed up like the stars of that show, including One who dressed and darkened her face to look like Randy Jackson. Tying that action to the blackface of 100 years ago, as some do, is wrong. There are a whole host of words that have a racist history ( like gyp and chintzy) but are sometimes used today without any intent to be offensive. A coffee shop once known as Beaners changed names because some thought it was racist (though my Latino relatives could care less). Bottom line, like the boy who cried wolf, the oversensitivity about certain words and even actions is driving people apart and not making them more sensitive to others. We need to be a bit more nuanced—so while the blackface on Northam’s blackface is clearly offensive, the AG who dressed like a rapper and blackened his face is not.

  137. Segregation was one reason for blackface. American's loved Black music--Jazz, Blues, Gospel, Ragtime (Scott Joplin). But they had to go slumming to get the music without the musicians. Blackfaced whites were the (poor) substitutes. But would whiteface demean whites? Clowns do it often. Without the background, the meaning changes.

  138. Has the world lost its sense of humor? For centuries, mankind has dressed as what it is not for entertainment with no idea of denigrating the culture or persons being copied. People have dressed as animals, other cultures, the dead and even flora/fauna with no mal intent. Blackface is no different. Blacks may have been suppressed in other ways but blackface is not one of them. If we are ever to be one as a people and a nation, we need to move on and enjoy each other again. Let's laugh together.

  139. To make fun of somebody because of the color of his/her skin is deplorably sick and arrogant. And yet, institutionalized segregation remains, to our shame; just witness the deep inequalities in jobs, housing, education, health care, a subconscious bias we would do well in shaking off by educating ourselves, and allowing justice a say. Otherwise, no peace in society can be had; it's that simple. And that urgent.

  140. As a white woman born right after WWII, who grew up exposed to TV shows like Our Gang, Amos and Andy, Aunt Jemima, and later Gone With The Wind, I deplored racism and still deplore racism. I find it disgustingly offensive, mean spirited, and ignorant behavior upon the white people who think that it is OK. This piece hurts to read it. I continue to be sickened that this is a part of who we are as a nation. I have asked myself many times, does not anyone see racism as a terrible waste of human potential? Just see the movie The Green Book and digest what a good education can do for a person of color!

  141. You were so close, and then you went and said that last bit.

  142. As an Asian-American, it is shocking to me how many of my white colleagues and friends are completely ignorant of this history and content. I may be more interested in American history than the average person, but this history in particular should be a standard part of every history class in America.

  143. Ignorance can be "intentional" and unintentional, decent and indecent, so thanks for this article, it will help. I grew up not knowing that blackface was racist, and probably didn't know that it was until I was in my twenties. But then, born in the middle of the last century, I was also ignorant of how badly women were being was just part of the culture. So educating America is very useful, to let the decent people understand that blackface is wrong and betrays the user as one who cheers on white supremacy. I went to the University of Connecticut in 1964 and remarked to my father that it was odd that there were simply no black people on campus, other than a couple of men I met who were African citizens. Those were wildly racist times, but many of us simply didn't know it. Racism rises when its symbols, and that includes blackface, are about, and racism falls when its symbols are called out and tossed to the curb. Hugh

  144. Bravo, NYT. An extraordinary, well-written article. Burt Williams was a black singer who became nationally famous when he recorded on cylinders for Columbia. In 1911, he became a sensation when he appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies. Incredibly, despite the fact that he was black, and despite his enormous popularity and fame, he was required to appear on stage in blackface, considerably darkening his skin.

  145. Black youths rarely if ever take offense to a white kid sagging his pants. Why not? The white kid's imitation appears as a form of flattery. It's the white kid's way of expressing affinity for black identity. Another example of this can be dreads. Blackface was sometimes intended to flatter the talents of African American entertainers, and not necessarily to denigrate. Mr. Staples, like all other blackface alarmists, NEVER mentions Al Jolson. The HYUGE problem with not mentioning Jolson is that he was the greatest entertainer of the first half of the 20th century . . . and that he was much appreciated by many blacks in his era, as someone empathic to their condition. Jolson was the single most important performer in the history of blackface. Jolson also frequently broke the color barrier, and went out of his way to help black entertainers in an era when that would normally spell one's ruin. A more balanced discussion of blackface is needed. In this era, we have replaced our capacity for empathy with polarizing righteous indignation. Let us stop trucking in black vs. white, left vs. right and come to appreciate anew the entire spectrum of humanity.

  146. @Kenneth H. How do you know he was appreciated by blacks? Also, read the poem by Langston Hughes "We Wear the Mask" if you want to know the truth about situations and circumstances blacks were in and how they felt about it.

  147. @Kenneth H. How do you know he was appreciated by blacks? Also, read the poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar "We Wear the Mask" if you want to know the truth about situations and circumstances blacks were in and how they felt about it.

  148. This is enlightening, and it is clear that black face is no longer cute, funny, or whatever. However, I am not sure how hard to be on people. Sometimes we all need to be slapped in the face, and then we go "oh my gosh! This isn't right!" So I don't really care about people who did these kinds of bad things in the past, as long as they did not reflect a pattern in their lives. My first playmate was a boy named Woody. He was black. We lived in Veteran's Village after WWII. My parents caught grief for being friends with his parents, taking them grocery shopping because we had a car and they didn't, and for letting me be friends with Woody. My father's reaction "He fought too." Yet, my favorite book my mother read me was Little Black Sambo. So cut people in the past some slack for stupidity. Let's focus on going forward. It's inappropriate, now everyone knows it, and anybody who still does it deserves condemnation. But let's drop the gotcha stuff. We all have things in our past we would like to have do-overs for.

  149. @Dan: "Little Black Sambo". I wish there was an innocent way to enjoy a book like this, in which a child wins out over threatening tigers. Similarly I regret some of the minstrel songs, which in themselves were pretty good tunes. But we have to be realistic, we can't just wave our hands and make the racism go away. Maybe something can be salvaged somehow, but it won't be just by denying the racism. It's appalling how much those racist images and assumptions permeates the culture, showing how the racism itself underlies society.

  150. @Dan- Stupidity killed 6-million plus in the gas chambers of Germany. Stalin killed many just for the fun of it. We are bombing now, and in the past, hundreds of thousands of ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’, men, women and children of all races and nations. Not to forget our Civil War where whites both from the North and South killed the hated enemy, aka other whites. And yet today, we tour Germany, tour Japan, vacation, move to retire from the North to South or vice versa and buy products and services from our once hated enemies. Ironic isn’t it for a parent of a dead American Vietnam warrior to know that our president went there to bloviate and eat noodles with our current ‘enemy’. Hate of others from wrongs over a thousands of years ago runs deep the Middle East. What a sick mess the human species is. Fairness, real opportunity for all and education can turn the tide, but it doesn’t appear to me that those are easy commodities to find anywhere. Odd as it might be, a common enemy to our entire species might bring out our best, but unfounately it appears that our current common enemy is always us.

  151. @Dan Little Black Sambo was, to my recollection, from India (maybe Punjab?). There was a Bengal Tiger in that story. To be fair, many copyright infringements did appear and published the story in what we now consider a racist drawing style and portrayed the child in a stereotyped fashion. And the story of a small child in a jungle was very popular among young children, possibly from a primordial fear of nature, large fierce killer animals, and possibly/probably due to some adults trying to reinforce racism.

  152. When I arrived in France in the 70’s, I remember how shocked I was to see a pastry (chocolate covered meringue) commonly available in patisseries which was called “tête de n...” I also remember how long it was before the manufacturers of the chocolate drink “Banania” got rid of their offensive advertising featuring a childishly grinning Senegalese (former French colony) soldier repeating a slogan which caricatured his inability to speak French. And there were countless other examples. American advertisers and entertainers often drew on degrading black stereotypes from slavery for their inspiration, while the French found theirs in their former African colonies - same difference.

  153. This well-documented piece was very helpful for one who knows little about the story of blackface. Education helps to promote understanding. Thank you.

  154. As a medical student in the late sixties i lived and worked in a black community and with many others worked hard to get more black students into medicine. We knew there was a lot to overcome, but it is sickening to know that almost two decades later there was such racism in at least one but probably many other medical schools.

  155. I am so dismayed by the gist of most of these responses. Apparently, most are white people again telling black people what ought to affect them and what is important to them. One person said she had never heard of this minstrelsy stuff and another said that there were more important things than blackface minstrelsy. Therefore, it appears, Staples ought not to have written the article or that he shouldn't have been so exercised over the matter. This is just an (unconscious) attempt to say that what whites do not know or do not think concerns them--especially about a minority--is not worthy of discussion. But the sad fact is that minstrelsy is the backbone of American entertainment--and dare I say, American culture. Those who do not know this will continue to damage white/black relations by unconsciously continuing to perpetrate this malicious bit of white supremacy.

  156. @Gordon Thompson I agree with you that this article is important, but really? Minstrelsy is the "backbone of American entertainment"?! And if I, as a white person, disagree with you in good faith, I'm merely "unconsciously continuing to perpetrate the malicious bit of white supremacy"? I think what you're doing is explaining that the only way a white person can absolve himself from the charge of being a racist is to public declare that he's a racist. And that's where we are on race in America, 2019, folks!

  157. "Apparently, most are white people ..." You give two examples and then generalize to "most", so you are committing the fallacy of hasty generalization. "One person said she had never heard of this minstrelsy stuff ..." From that you conclude that the commenter is "white"?! That's racist "logic". Has every "black" or "Asian" person "heard of this minstrelsy stuff"? "... and another said that there were more important things than blackface minstrelsy." Post an exact quote instead of your paraphrase. "This is just an (unconscious) attempt to say ..." That's mind-reading.

  158. @Livonian : I implore you to read White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. I think it would be very informative for you. Minstrelsy was definitely the the backbone of American entertainment. Birth of A Nation is still hailed as a cinematic masterpiece technically and it's success birthed Hollywood. Even after Hollywood allowed Black entertainers to perform on screen, they were limited to roles that portrayed them as the minstrel shows did. This isn't ancient history either. One of the reasons the Cosby Show was such a hit in the 80's and early 90's was because it was the first time an African American family was shown as successful, educated, loving and very, very funny without having to rely on stereotypes. It was revolutionary. White people have a tendency to not see how pervasive racism is in all of American culture because it isn't hurtful to their psyche in same way. It is mortal injury by a thousand cuts.

  159. Thank you for this deeply personal piece. It contributes to informing my decision to cancel my subscription to the Times. Anyone who wishes to can point to a behavior from the past that was hurtful, harmful, offensive, etc. It can be experienced as personal or as an affront to an entire culture. So, learn from it and move on. I learned from it long ago as have millions of others. That is, apparently, as good as it gets. But for some, that isn’t good enough. So, the Times trods out these dead horses for further beatings every week or two. Beating dead horses is atrocious to watch, so I’m turning my back and walking away.

  160. Had Mr. Staples done a bit more homework, he would have found that the Gucci balaclava came in various color combinations. Not just the one pictured in the article. Further, Mr. Staples seems to take Gucci's apology as further proof of guilt. Think about it. Last year Gucci was voted “the hottest brand on the planet” in the Lyst Index. So they decided, "Let's celebrate white supremacy by making balaclavas in various colors." Or maybe, after Al Franken and similar incidents, they realized that guilty until proven innocent is the order of the day. Best to just confess as quickly as possible and shorten time in the news cycle.

  161. @Mark I would suggest you are misreading history if you wonder "whether characterizing blackface and minstrel shows in terms of a 'supremacist impulse' isn't a bit overheated." The history of blackface does not originate with some comedic impulse based on stereotypes. It is rooted in racism and has to be understood on a continuum that started with slavery. It is people with white skin degrading people with black skin for no other reason than the color of their skin. In reality, blackface was not "based" on stereotypes, it "created" pernicious stereotypes that persist to this day in subtle and not-so-subtle forms, e.g., blacks are inherently lazy or less intelligent. This is the reason it continues to feed white supremacy which, by definition, "is the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society." Fortunately there are hopeful signs that prejudice and racial stereotypes decrease with each succeeding generation. Unfortunately, the current political climate is evidence that we still have a long way to go.

  162. Until I read this article, I hadn't seen a blackface image in years and, if so, mainly in historical publications. I don't believe such images are prevalent anywhere in America. How has this become an issue in Mr. Staple's mind now? Is he seeing these everywhere? Do they still exist? Sure, but rarely. Are they racist? To the extreme. But among all the modern expressions of racism in this county, these legacy caricatures of black people are hardly a 'thing' now. I'd just like to know where Mr. Staples is finding them.

  163. These racist caricatures were also exported to other countries, through stage and screen. Surprisingly, BBC Television produced and aired "The Black and White Minstrel Show" from 1958 to 1978, and was screened in other European countries. This program won the very first Rose d'Or (a sort of European Emmy) in Montreux in 1961. The television program spawned a stage show that ran at the Victoria Palace for 10 years, and that stage show itself went on a multi-year tour in New Zealand and Australia. Even though internal concerns were raised by Barrie Thorne, the BBC's Chief Accountant, requesting that the show be pulled from the BBC's schedule as early as 1962, the program survived until 1978. That the show even made to the air to begin with is dumbfounding.

  164. The CEO of every maker of food products must read this article and, tomorrow morning, order that demeaning caricatures of human beings be driven from their packaging. Remember, these are your very customers you are insulting, but you have the power to change that with one order from the executive suite. Do so.

  165. This comprehensive scholarship, is unfortunately tainted by being "tendentious, " in the service of advancing a belief rather than a full understanding of a complex issue." An illustration of this is Will Rogers, among the handful of most famous, and I would say revered, Americans of the first half of the last century. Rogers was an entertainer and political commentator, who was accused once of being anti-black. An example is his words in this 1932 film "Too Busy to Work" when playing a derelict (who was the unknown father of the estate owners adopted child) he joked with the rotund black woman behind the soup kitchen From TMV review: Eventually, Jubilo (Rogers) finds his way to the Hardy household. .... he befriends the family servant (Louise Beavers) by affectionately calling her "Mammy." "Do you have some food for this poor pickaninny" .... this appeal to her Southern roots scores Jubilo a slice of apple pie and the offer of food and lodging in exchange for work. From Wiki article on "Pickaninny" While this use of the term was popularized in reference to the character of Topsy in the 1852 book Uncle Tom's Cabin, it was used as early as 1831 in an anti-slavery tract "The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Brent Staples has provided a competent polemic to advance the thesis that blackface is and always was an invidious expression of hatred and contempt for people of color. The absence of a rebuttal, should not imply that it doesn't exist.

  166. History. Let's be very radical and call that Revisionist History. Mr. Staples provides a fascinating look at the phenomenon of minstrel shows, Aunt Jemima cookie jars, and Uncle Ben's rice? Racism made be the one of - or the - most potent motivating forces in world history. Not just in American history, which we all know about. Some historians have opined that the reason the Japanese ravaged Manchuria, China - in the run-up to WWII - was not because they needed coal, or iron ore, or slave labor, or prostitutes. It was because they envisioned a Pan-Asian sphere of influence in the Pacific. (Without the white-man, who they saw as holding a knife to their throat) But it was a racial concept: the Japanese were racially and culturally superior to the Manchurians, the Koreans, or - for sure - the Chinese. And who invented slavery? The Chinese, the Romans, the Vandals, and the Huns took prisoners and reduced them to slavery. But it was the Arabs who fostered the slave trade in Africa. And they weren't adverse to reducing human beings to slavery themselves. Look what they do to women - today, not 100 years ago - in Saudi. The Americans have a lot to answer for on this score. But so does everybody else. And to apply - retrofit - the cultural norms of 100 years ago to current American society seems a bit intellectually dishonest to me. But it's pervasive. That's why you can see an op-ed piece like this in the mainstream New York Times.

  167. Ok. I think the point has been made that blackface is bad, ad nauseum. I completely agree. But at this point it is low-hanging fruit.

  168. Thank you for this sobering essay of our shame. PLEASE keep these reminders of our horrible history coming. Perhaps one day it will sink in.

  169. I work in a school library and just attended a workshop put on by my district on racism is children’s literature. We were given a presentation on how the character of the cat in the hat is based on blackface minstrelsy. Blackface is hidden in plain site in every children’s library in America.

  170. As a child I clearly remember watching the Amos and Andy show on TV. I also clearly remember the Little Rascals and Farmer Grey, each shows characters were politically incorrect for today's audiences. Yet in the fifties this was entertainment. I didn't program these shows, the networks brought these shows into our homes. If there is any recriminations to pay attention to it is the fault of the networks. These were remarkable plain men, they were not intending to degrade and denigrate a people, they just didn't know better. Remember Al Jolson, a Russian Jewish emigrant who made a fortune as " The King of Blackface", he was not a racist, he was an entertainer who's shtick was making believe he was a Black. He was not a racist, yet throughout the fifties he was whom you thought of when Blackface was performed. Now we are in another century, entertainment has certainly changed. Those parodies of the past are as antiquated as fighting lions in a coliseum . News organisations like the NYTimes, CNN, and others are attempting to make an issue of this. When the three leaders of the state of Virginia are removed from office due to Blackface and rape accusations I will be convinced that these are important issues, until then these are just race baiting stories.

  171. You'll get no argument from me on this. Here's the part that's puzzling to me. I have lived in New York my whole life and not once have seen someone wearing black face in real life. So maybe I am confused but....when I think of the challenges young African American children face...this has never made my top ten list. I would love to read galvanizing, disruptive Op-Eds on how to force the DOE to provide amazing K-8 education for underserved communities. I would love to read inspiring Op-Eds about how to end teenage pregnancy, the number one driver of poor outcomes for children. I would love to learn about how Google and Facebook are spending their considerable profits on developing best of breed computer science classes in Harlem and the South Bronx so that those kids become feeders for MIT and Stanford. I don't know. Maybe I just confused? Or maybe the stuff I find interesting doesn't make for a sexy Op-Ed that gives people a quick fix of anger and indignation.

  172. "The most egregious versions of the stereotype were banished from the public square by the end of the 1960s", the author states. We have to go back to yearbooks from the 1980s (which is 30+ years ago) to find some clueless or stupid instances of blackface. I have not come across anyone I know who has seen blackface in the past couple of decades. If it happens, it's extremely rare and has more to do with misunderstanding (dressing an admired black artist for Halloween), or concept creep (it looks like blackface - the Gucci clothing depicted; speaking of which, am I still allowed to wear my black ski mask when skiing on cold, windy days?). I understand the history. But with all due respect, why are we having this conversation over and over again in 2019? And how does it feed white supremacy again, in 2019?

  173. I hope this country is finally fighting the last bastion of the Civil War. As a country we are teetering on the edge of collapse unless we address implicit and blatant racism, sexism and hate. I pledge as a white American to work on my white fragility and fight the nuance of racism whenever or wherever I see it.

  174. Gucci did not apologize for "blackface clothing" that was a feature of its collection. It expressed regret that people took offense to a product that was not intended to represent blackface. It was not a blackface outfit, nor was it intended to be. It may be that America is "haunted by blackface"--but facts matter, even on the left, and misrepresenting facts to serve an argument does a benefit to no one.

  175. Yes, look at photos of black families from 1940s and '50s. Nicely and accurately dressed, no obese people, the same wonderful faces, but what had changed to become what's now?

  176. When I moved to South Carolina from New Zealand in 1967, an Air Force brat, I'd been lucky enough to been given a global perspective. With this ability to look at social situations objectively, I knew there were good people and there were bad people and that the color of their skin or how they spoke had no impact on the kind of human being they were. I was, at age seven, shocked and overwhelmed by the abject racism I saw in South Carolina. To this day, very little has changed. Driving from Savannah to Greensboro, we passed a "monument" manufacturer whose goods were displayed on the side of the highway. Among the concrete cupids and flamingos were of course lawn jockeys. The only painted ornamentals were, of course, the lawn jockeys–in black face with huge red lips. They got the monument part right, a living, breathing modern-day monument to racism.

  177. Spike Lee already wrote this piece. It is called “Bamboozled.” White audiences’ affective engagement with blackface minstrelsy is a little more complex than Brent Staples suggests and includes an element of affection, just as forms of black culture have been incorporated into mainstream culture in manifold ways. Blackface is largely a relic of the past. Northam’s yearbook photo is from 1984—more than three decades ago. Mr. Staples’s thinking has not evolved much from the days when he wrote “Just Walk on By.” He needs to become a little more cosmopolitan.

  178. Surely, this is getting *old* by now.

  179. While I would share Mr. Staples concern for the racial caricature that blackface feeds, it is a tiny, minuscule factor in today's issues facing the African American community. This is a huge problem in the United States today. Avoiding real issues and inflating non sequitur ones. I'm 53 years old and grew up in Kentucky. This article contained more examples of blackface than I have seen in my entire life.

  180. This story illustrates America's original sin, still an evil force, personified by our present leader.

  181. I was a kid in California in the 1950s and went to integrated schools from kindergarten on up. It wasn't until my family moved to Texas for a couple of years that I ever saw overt racism directed toward children and adults of color. Of course at school I heard a few kids use racial and religious slurs, but never anyone among my middle-class family or friends. My only exposure to blackface in California or Texas was a movie, "The Jazz Singer," starring the best-paid and most world-famous actor of his day, Al Jolson. I also recall seeing numerous TV clips of Jolson in blackface singing "Mammy," a featured song of the movie. Given Jolson's great prominence I find it odd that Mr. Staples ignored Jolson's role in popularizing and legitimizing blackface. It is ironic that Jolson, a Russia-born Jew, undoubtedly experienced discrimination based on his religion and ethnic origin, and certainly would have objected to anyone promoting negative stereotypes to Jews. To quote Ted Gioia of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University, "Blackface evokes memories of the most unpleasant side of racial relations, and of an age in which white entertainers used the makeup to ridicule black Americans while brazenly borrowing from the rich black musical traditions that were rarely allowed direct expression in mainstream society. This is heavy baggage for Al Jolson."

  182. Mr. Staples, I came to the US as a child. My parents, immigrants from Southern Europe, worked several jobs to make ends meet and relentlessly made sure that I and my siblings spoke standard English and acted American - mainstream American. It wasn't easy, but I graduated from highs school, got a scholarship to college, and became a teacher of US history in an inner city public school. As a scholar of US history, I love reading your article, but in the hands of young African-American men, articles like yours may just fosters race division. Don't you think that we should stop worrying about the past and start from the here and now? Let's stop thinking of ourselves in terms of race and skin color! As a teacher, what I am noticing is that many of my African American students are reluctant to embrace the 'white' way of life. They associate middle-class behavior to 'white' behavior, preferring to embrace a counter-culture that is bringing them nowhere. When I encourage those students to go to museums and to the symphony or opera, they tell me that 'those things did not interest' them. Please, write about positive things that our kids can aspire to. Help me and other teachers expose students to the good of mankind and, yes, of this country too.

  183. It’s depressing to me that you think the message you’re imparting to your students is positive. The opera, the symphony? These are your solutions to fostering cross-cultural understanding? You don’t find it ironic that the two art forms you mentioned were developed on the European continent that you yourself emigrated from? Do you engage at all with the art, music, or literature that your own students enjoy? Or do you see it as lesser? I’ve been to the opera and symphony, and as a woman have often found the experiences alienating. Very often the hero’s of operas wrong and rape women with impunity. The female characters themselves are flattened and meaningless, symbols of virginity or lasciviousness. I seek out female musicians and composers, because I am sick of the overwhelmingly male viewpoint of the arts. I can imagine your students have a similar experience because of the even more limited black representation in opera and symphony. It boggles my mind that you don’t see the racism in your own comment; the euro-centrism. This article is positive. It does give students something to aspire to: compassion, social change, and wariness of a system that will often prioritize white amusement over black personhood. Maybe you should read the article again.

  184. @Michael M You are a scholar of US history and yet you ignore the enormous pain inflicted by our history of slavery and of Jim Crow, of bias on many fronts includling law enforcement and education? We have yet to deal with our two hundred plus years of minimizing and victimizing women (of all colors). Go back to your books, sir. You still have a lot to learn -- and not from all the good things alone. The problem with the US is that too many of us think that we are already "perfect." We are not, and all of us learn the most from our mistakes as well as our achievements.

  185. @Amy My husband and I used to have season seats at the opera but about three years ago I just couldn't ignore the stupidity of the plots and their biases anymore. My husband would encourage me to just pay attention to the music, but the truth is: I couldn't take the stupidity of the characters (except in the comedies), and the violence, the deceptions, the ignoble personally directed treatment of women. We stopped going. Loved the music and the theatrics, but could not stomach the patriarchal plotlines in which the women were victimized: too dumb to be tolerated.

  186. It's so encouraging to see how society is rejecting these stereotypes as soon as they occur. In each of the examples here, public outcry caused the offending behavior to be withdrawn and apologized for. That a sign of lingering bad apples, and a formerly rotten barrel having shifted to woke. It's wonderful to see that the culture can change in positive ways.

  187. What's missing from this analysis is the fact that at that time every group was stereotyped and characterized. Jews, Poles, Irish, Swedes - it was just the way things were. That doesn't make it right, but it wasn't that African Americans were picked on in this regard as much as it lasted longer. They weren't able to take control the way the Irish, Italians and other groups did - perhaps because they were more rural and isolated than minorities in the cities.

  188. Very enlightening piece--well done! But the generation growing up in the last half of the 20th century gets a "bye" in my book up until maybe the year 2001. Because up until that time there were, in fact, books such as "Origin of the Races" by Harvard's Carleton S. Coon, wherein it was actually taught that there were different "races." So, since it was the teachings, de rigueur, so to speak, how can those who believed be singled out for racism? EXCEPT, ALL the talk and beliefs about different races went out the window when the findings of the Human Genome Project finally became public. That's what should be taught in our schools; that regardless of looks, station, gender, etc, there is not enough genetic variation among anyone on earth to classify them as a different species, hence, race. Some people just have darker or lighter skin than others--but there are no races among Human Beings. Grind that into young minds just like the abc's and most of the racism thing eventually disappears.

  189. at this rate we'll be reading about minstrel shows, aunt jemima pancake syrup and mark twain, the racist, 1,000 years from now. rather than focusing on today's issues; such as violence in african american communities, employment disparities between white and african american communities we insist on doubling down and parsing the evil of bad deeds done 100 years ago. debating deeds/cultural mores from a hundred years ago in the context of what is acceptable today and then apportioning blame to today's society is silly.

  190. I am moved and appalled by Brent Staples' article. Thank you for giving us complacent "white" people an education we sorely need. I thought I understood why blackface is painful to those who are portrayed in these caricatures, and why I cringe every time someone wants to watch "Gone With the Wind". Now I understand in a much deeper way. It makes me weep. Yes, I got rid of Aunt Jemima products years ago. But on a tour I just made of my pantry I found the smiling chef holding up a bowl of Cream of Wheat, and a package of Uncle Ben's with his knowing grin. Yes, the faces have been made more dignified but the "history" they hold is there, hidden under the surface. I'm thankful the propaganda agenda is now out in the open. Let's own it and stand up and say "No more! We don't want any more of it, and we know why."

  191. '... the "history" they hold is there, hidden under the surface.' What "history" are you referring to? Slavery? Black people as good cooks? Wheaties cereal boxes often feature black athletes. What "history" do you see in those images? What about Bubbies pickles, which feature a white woman on the label? Here is what the Bubbies web site says: 'As John describes the Bubbie persona, “She’s the essence of the kindly Jewish grandmother who happens to be passionate about things like cooking and pickling. She stands for all Old World grannies who pamper their family with wonderful foods they’ve hand made using authentic ingredients and traditional recipes.”'

  192. @ M. Then you are not reading newspapers or watching television. There have been numerous reports of young people at schools and colleges doing blackface for fun and games. Less than one mile from where I live there’s an exclusive private school where 6th graders got outed for it recently. Where and how do they learn it? The minimization of the pain caused is disheartening.

  193. A thought provoking article. I am 67 and grew up in the racially mixed town of Beloit, Wisconsin in the 1950's and 60's. I have never experienced anyone doing black face (not to say that it didn't happen). What surprises me is to see people who have recently done this as part of some frat or Halloween costume thing or for other reasons. Quite frankly, I believe most white folks are repulsed by such behavior. I was also educated in Catholic schools, was an alter boy and never ever was abused by a priest. Not that it didn't and doesn't happen. The point is that some white person does black face and by implication all whites are stained, or all priests are child molesters because some were (are) abusers or all cops can't be trusted because we have some rogue ones. Yes folks, bad behavior comes in all races, genders, ages, incomes etc. Thanks for the article.

  194. Here we go again. Yet another attempt to expose and explain the mendacity behind Blackface in whichever form it comes in. At this point it would be fair to say that most folks who find nothing wrong with it, also don't comprehend the racist history behind it. But then again, through the ages white America has so successfully ignored and downplayed the brutality of its own racist past that it's not surprising this caricature has managed to hold on, and even thrive into modernity. And given the recent and significant rise in white supremacist and white nationalist activity that has left scores of unarmed Americans dead in its wake -- it's time to retire this symbol of hatred and subjugation of a race that was brought here in chains, denied basic human rights and yet built this country with the toil and sweat of their brows. There's nothing funny or entertaining about Blackface. And I say this not only as an American, but as a person of color.

  195. All valid points, to be sure. I only hope, though, that we do not make the mistake of removing these sordid details from our history. "Birth of a Nation" is repugnant, surely, but it represents a moment in film and cultural history that we must remember. The same is true of the racist Disney and Looney Tunes cartoons of the war years. I am curious, though - both Billy Crystal and Jimmy Kimmel have worn blackface in more recent times, as Sammy Davis Jr. and Karl Malone, respectively. I do not believe either has apologized or expressed regret for these caricatures.

  196. Blackface, which is the belittlement of another human being, is an act of violence. It creates hurt. Who has never felt that? Sometimes that hurt, in the persons who are mocked and belittled, can endure for a very long time - even a lifetime. Mocking of others starts as a form of cruelty among schoolchildren, and when some of those children who enjoyed mocking others get older their mocking may subside outwardly, but inside, the cruelty of finding things in others to consider inferior - like the color of others’ skin - continues, and few things in American society, if any, are more cruel, destructive, and violent than the thousands of manifestations of racism that plague us. Northam is a perpetrator of race-mockery, and he himself should have exposed what he did in 1984, and should have demonstrated sincere remorse for it - if that’s what he felt - a long, long time ago - LONG before 2019, when he was outed for it. To allow him to continue to be the governor of Virginia is to condone whatever gave him his feelings of superiority and impunity, in 1984, as a medical school graduate, when he mocked and belittled a culture - that of African-Americans - that has suffered centuries of racism and racist acts of violence, subjugation, and demonization in this country: it is inarguable that African-Americans have suffered far, far more than any other group in our history. If Northam were truly worthy to be governor, he would have long since “unburied” and owned up to his racist past.

  197. While I understand the importance of blackface in the history of prejudice, I also think it needs to be seen in the context of the times. At the same time that blackface was at its peak, the Irish were depicted as drunken brawlers (an image continued to this day in the Notre Dame symbol), the oriental was a sly, bucktoothed rascal with bad eyesight, the Scot was a penny pinching miser, etc. We have, to a large extent, gone beyond such caricatures and that progress should, in my opinion, get at least equal time in the discussion.

  198. The only drag about living in the past (1830) is that sooner or later you got to come home to the present day realities. Nice history lesson but that was you know like 100 years ago ,time to let it go and move on. Nobody laughs at old jokes much indeed sometimes we even wonder what was so funny. People have moved on most are respectful and in this PC day almost are over playing the hand. There will always be racist people of many colors it’s just the way some humans are. Yes it was insensitive but it was also Old history. That’s what’s nice about history it’s easy to judge and it should be equally easy to move on that’s why it’s called the past. Do dust off the hard feelings and welcome to the 21st’s much nicer here.

  199. I am glad the issue of "black face" herewith is not disappearing from the front page of the NYTimes. Born in Holland and raised in Australia, I have lived here for 40 years. There is much to learn and this article teaches me. In the country of my birth there is still a struggle to define "Black Piet", who with a number of black cohorts, goes round with St. Nicholas in early December, dispensing rewards and punishments. So "harmless" is this practice seen that you can order up a visit to your house and pose with said characters. In the country where I was naturalized, Australia, we displaced the indigenous people, we had a white Australia policy and we keep (to this day) boat people on the islands of Nauru and Manus. People complain if they see a woman in a burkha reading the news. Racism is world wide. With the election of Obama we thought the arc of justice was bending towards equality for all. Trump has set us back.

  200. Until recently I knew absolutely nothing about the topic of blackface performance, other than that it was a racist, offensive practice. Then I listened to some of Rhianna Giddens music, and that led me to do a little reading. I learned that minstrel shows were often the only way African American musicians could get to perform before white audiences in the 19th and early 20th century. Sometimes they actually performed in blackface makeup, a practice Frederick Douglass condemned. Giddens reclaims the music, transforming racist lyrics, and of course she doesn't perform in blackface. Here's a link to a talk she gave at an International Bluegrass Music Association conference. It touches briefly on the subject of blackface, but it's much broader than that.:

  201. "This is the historical backdrop against which these photographs deserve to be seen." This is an excellent history lesson, thorough and well-written. You are right that Americans need to learn their history. It is absurd as you suggest for persons of stature in the media to have no idea about our past. Their ignorance of world history is a scandal, too, but that is another story. I have no complaint with your point, but I do wish that the point could be made that this is not the only story worth telling. America is not only about racism. What has been neglected should be emphasized, but I notice of late a kind of hysteria around racism and issues of this kind, such as blackface. This is important, but one might study such matters in the larger context of the national story. It seems that nothing at all is being taught except these dire tales of national failure. There is so much out there that can only be described as awesome. Why dwell on what makes people unhappy?

  202. Yes, exactly. Now consider how men in drag feed misogyny. Americans should ask themselves how the devaluation of women embodied in them affects the way male professionals like lawyers, teachers, police officers and - especially - doctors do their jobs.

  203. Unbelievably, Mr. Staples didn't include Al Jolson's use of blackface and the black community's contemporary reaction to it. Nothing he wrote applied to Jolson, and explaining that would have added depth to his discussion.

  204. This story basically confirms my distrust of elitist Hollywood, Broadway and other self-edifying forms of "art". These were (and still are) elitists trying to tell the rest of us, white, black, native-American, Asian or whatever, what to think.

  205. As a kid in California in the 1950s I went to integrated schools from kindergarten on. It wasn't until my family moved to Texas that I ever saw overt racism directed toward children and adults of color. Of course at school I had heard a few kids use racial and religious slurs among themselves, but never heard anyone among my middle-class family or friends use such expressions. My only exposure to blackface was a movie, "The Jazz Singer," starring the best-paid and most world-famous actor of his day, Al Jolson. I also recall seeing later clips of Jolson in blackface singing "Mammy," a featured song of the movie. Given Jolson's prominence I find it odd that Mr. Staples ignored Jolson's role in popularizing and legitimizing blackface. It is ironic that Jolson, a Russia-born Jew who undoubtedly experienced discrimination based on his own religion and ethnic origin, certainly would have objected to anyone promoting negative stereotypes of Jews. Yet in the modern (film) era he was the person most responsible for making blackface an accepted form of entertainment in the US and abroad. To quote Ted Gioia of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University, "Blackface evokes memories of the most unpleasant side of racial relations, and of an age in which white entertainers used the makeup to ridicule black Americans while brazenly borrowing from the rich black musical traditions that were rarely allowed direct expression in mainstream society. This is heavy baggage for Al Jolson."

  206. Ask a black person and I’ll bet you’ll find there was never a day when things such as blackface and other negative stereotypes was acceptable – ever. As a high school teacher in an urban Midwest school district I can attest to the damage assuming racist projections from another day were... just the way it was can do to our youth. Each year I ask my students if they wish to investigate their own family history, their genealogy. They answer comes with heads down and shaking – no. It’s not a trauma they desire to self-inflict. I feel fortunate that my students have changed my perspective on race and where we are today regarding the subject. Two weeks ago I walked into a local antique store and found a collection of mammy’s and assorted blackface memorabilia for sale. My first thought was, how would I explain these things to my students so that they would have a sense of pride in what was being sold. I’m still working on that explanation. What Mr. Staples writes was how it was growing up, if not worse. It is also a societal tragedy that we seem to have more energy in defending than simply saying, “I’m sorry, it was wrong. What can we do to remedy?” But, what I find most troubling is not the facts presented in the essay. It is the whitesplaining defenses I am reading in the comments. As I like to tell my “I’m not a racist” white friends, I’m a 58 year old white man. I’ve been white all my life. You’re not fooling me.

  207. Some readers are saying that the past is the past, let it be. I wish that that was true, however events do not happen in a vacuum. Past events of racism are part of the continuum that continue to shape opinions that the bearer may not be aware of. If you read the current Frederick Douglas biography the most striking things is the fear and terror that black people lived under in this country. Cut to present time and we still see fear and abuse from the law today. Also discrimination in our country isn't a figment of someone's imagination. The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) had specific direct laws saying it would not lend money to African Americans and even that if a white person used the FHA to purchase a home they could not sell it to a black person. If you take the time to go back and read the vitriolic hatred of blacks by whites enshrined in our laws and customs you would understand how really bad racism is and not blame the victims by saying "Buck up. You can do better" because our country spent hundreds of years making sure they don't have a chance. Do your research.

  208. It really isn't odd how injustice takes such a circuitous route in the process of being exposed. Almost as though there are some men dedicated to planning the hesitation involved at the upper levels of society, not just here, but throughout the world. What is odd is how so many more of us accept their dictates whether through the gloved source of religious belief or the more open methods of entertainment. When neither of these standbys work there is always the law which again is written by those with a vested interest in the status quo. It is men and in fact only men of any skin shade who insist on continuing this farce which may be why, at least here, women are throwing down the gauntlet and challenging the status quo. I trust all the youth of our nation, not just female, will no longer put up with the lies, obfuscations, secrecy and half truths in which they have been submerged. While their baptism by the mostly elder men in control shows no concern whatsoever for their well being, the question is will they remain steadfast or succumb to this age old plot of male superiority?