Blackface: History And Legacy

Blackface: History And Legacy

The history of blackface and how it influenced race relations today
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Alright kids! So I had some serious writer’s block and couldn’t decide what to write about, so I flipped a coin to decide. It landed on tails, so now I have to do an article on a serious and relevant topic, so in light of this, I decided to do it on a very controversial topic: race. More specifically, I’ve decided to do it on “blackface,” an act in which white Americans would put on makeup and portray African Americans in various forms of media. The act of blackface helped to perpetuate many stereotypes about African Americans that still exist today. Blackface has a long and foul history, so sit down and buckle up, because we’re going on an adventure through time.

Blackface first began in the 1820s at the start of the era of minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were shows put on by white people wearing blackface and consisted of comedy skits, dancing and music. They usually portrayed blacks as lazy, dim-witted, buffoonish, superstitious and musical. As minstrel shows gained increased popularity over the course of the 19th century, the portrayal of blacks in these shows caused Americans to form distinct stereotypes about African Americans and most people expected blacks to conform to at least one of these stereotypes. These include the “mammy,” the motherly figure who was the core of plantation families; the “dandy,” who was a northern black man who attempted to mimic white, upper-class dress and speech to no avail; and the “Buck,” a large black man who is proud, sometimes menacing, and usually chases after white women. Makeup for blackface usually consisted of a layer of burnt cork over cocoa butter (substituted with black grease paint in later years) and red or white lips painted around their mouths. Costumes were gaudy combinations of formal wear and performers usually spoke in a “plantation” dialect. Entertainment included imitating black music and dance as well as a variety of jokes, skits and songs that were based on stereotypes of black slaves. In early years, minstrel shows were used to romanticize slavery and portrayed slaves as simple and cheerful, always ready to please their master. Overtime, they became a source of cheap entertainment at the expense of black people.

By the start of World War I, minstrel shows had mostly died out, but by then, blackface began to see its way into other forms of media, notably movies. Perhaps one of the most notable acts of blackface in film was D.W. Griffith’s "The Birth of a Nation". The film portrayed African Americans (played by white men wearing blackface) as unintelligent and aggressive towards women. Later, blackface was used by the star of "The Jazz Singer," who portrayed a Jewish performer using blackface to perform jazz songs on stage. Blackface took shape in many other forms over the course of the first half of the 20th century. The radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy, whose popularity resulted in a subsequent television show, saw actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll don blackface and speak in exaggerated, stereotypical voice characterizations. Many cartoons during this time, dubbed the “golden age of animation,” featured many of the same racist stereotypes that find their roots in minstrel shows. Walt Disney, for example, released "Fantasia" in 1940 and "Song of the South" in 1946. "Fantasia" had to have several shots cut from "The Pastoral Symphony" due to the fact that these shots featured racist stereotypes while "Song of the South" was flat out called racist due to the poor way it portrayed race relations in the post-Civil War south. Movies, television, and radio all apparently endorsed blackface and poor stereotypes of blacks during this time, with very few efforts beyond protests by the NAACP being made to stop it.

“Okay,” I hear you saying, “but that was then, right? Blackface was a big thing back then, but that isn’t an issue with television now, right?” Well, not exactly. The Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s resulted in blackface in being banned from television, especially after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 eliminated “separate but equal” laws. However, the stereotypes that were created and endorsed by blackface entertainment would have a lasting effect. For example, shows such as "Diff'rent Strokes" and "The Jeffersons" incorporated various stereotypes that were popular during the minstrel era, such as coons and mammies. Also, the 70s saw the rise of a genre of film known as “Blacksploitation” films. Such films often centered on a black anti-hero with a supporting cast consisting of stereotypes of pimps, whores, and criminals and most, if not all, were African American. The antagonists of said shows were usually white cops or politicians who were corrupt and exploited poor black communities. These films received huge backlash from African American community leaders, arguing that they were offensive and were a major reason that blacks were still oppressed during this time, and by 1980 the entire genre had died as a result. But what about today? Well, even today, television and movies still seem to capitalize off of black stereotypes. "The Cleveland Show," for example, has been criticized for pretty much being "Family Guy" in blackface that played on negative black stereotypes for humor. Similarly, Tyler Perry shows and movies are sometimes criticized for utilizing these same stereotypes. Perry’s most famous character, Madea, is based on the “mammy” stereotype, for example. Characters from shows such as "House of Payne" and "Meet the Browns" also incorporate blackface stereotypes.

So we’ve talked about blackface as portrayed on T.V. and movies, but what about in real life? Blackface is a very relevant topic and one of the most controversial. In today’s context, the actual use of blackface is used to mock and belittle African Americans and is seen by most, if not all, people in the black community as one of the highest forms of insults, second probably only to the n-word. But besides the actual act of blackface, the legacy left by it is a major issue today. Remember, minstrel shows back in the 19th and early 20th century gave many whites their first glimpse into black culture and helped set the ground for many of the stereotypes surrounding black culture up to the present day. The “mammy” stereotype, for example, has become the overbearing, strict, no-nonsense maternal figure. Even if some stereotypes have died down, new ones have taken their place. These include stereotypes about gang-bangers, drug addicts, and the ever popular “kid who never knew his dad” stereotype. If you’re black, then you must know at least 3 guys in a gang, you must come from the hood and you just must love rap music. You probably smoke weed, you probably drink Hennessey and you probably stole that watch you’re wearing. These are all stereotypes that can find their roots in the stereotypes that were originally created as a result of blackface.

Look, I know that the issue of race is a touchy subject, but it’s something that needs to be talked about. Blackface is an issue that has left a lasting legacy over the last two centuries. If we ever hope to move forward as a nation and as a species as a whole, we must learn from the mistakes of our ancestors. History doesn’t have to repeat itself if we don’t let it. And so ends our history lesson. I hope we all learned something from this.

Cover Image Credit: Vinyl Me, Please

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'As A Woman,' I Don't Need To Fit Your Preconceived Political Assumptions About Women

I refuse to be categorized and I refuse to be defined by others. Yes, I am a woman, but I am so much more.

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It is quite possible to say that the United States has never seen such a time of divisiveness, partisanship, and extreme animosity of those on different sides of the political spectrum. Social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are saturated with posts of political opinions and are matched with comments that express not only disagreement but too often, words of hatred. Many who cannot understand others' political beliefs rarely even respect them.

As a female, Republican, college student, I feel I receive the most confusion from others regarding my political opinions. Whenever I post or write something supporting a conservative or expressing my right-leaning beliefs and I see a comment has been left, I almost always know what words their comment will begin with. Or in conversation, if I make my beliefs known and someone begins to respond, I can practically hear the words before they leave their mouth.

"As a woman…"

This initial phrase is often followed by a question, generally surrounding how I could publicly support a Republican candidate or maintain conservative beliefs. "As a woman, how can you support Donald Trump?" or "As a woman, how can you support pro-life policies?" and, my personal favorite, "As a woman, how did you not want Hillary for president?"

Although I understand their sentiment, I cannot respect it. Yes, being a woman is a part of who I am, but it in no way determines who I am. My sex has not and will not adjudicate my goals, my passions, or my work. It will not influence the way in which I think or the way in which I express those thoughts. Further, your mention of my sex as the primary logic for condemning such expressions will not change my adherence to defending what I share. Nor should it.

To conduct your questioning of my politics by inferring that my sex should influence my ideology is not only offensive, it's sexist.

It disregards my other qualifications and renders them worthless. It disregards my work as a student of political science. It disregards my hours of research dedicated to writing about politics. It disregards my creativity as an author and my knowledge of the subjects I choose to discuss. It disregards the fundamental human right I possess to form my own opinion and my Constitutional right to express that opinion freely with others. And most notably, it disregards that I am an individual. An individual capable of forming my own opinions and being brave enough to share those with the world at the risk of receiving backlash and criticism. All I ask is for respect of that bravery and respect for my qualifications.

Words are powerful. They can be used to inspire, unite, and revolutionize. Yet, they can be abused, and too comfortably are. Opening a dialogue of political debate by confining me to my gender restricts the productivity of that debate from the start. Those simple but potent words overlook my identity and label me as a stereotype destined to fit into a mold. They indicate that in our debate, you cannot look past my sex. That you will not be receptive to what I have to say if it doesn't fit into what I should be saying, "as a woman."

That is the issue with politics today. The media and our politicians, those who are meant to encourage and protect democracy, divide us into these stereotypes. We are too often told that because we are female, because we are young adults, because we are a minority, because we are middle-aged males without college degrees, that we are meant to vote and to feel one way, and any other way is misguided. Before a conversation has begun, we are divided against our will. Too many of us fail to inform ourselves of the issues and construct opinions that are entirely our own, unencumbered by what the mainstream tells us we are meant to believe.

We, as a people, have become limited to these classifications. Are we not more than a demographic?

As a student of political science, seeking to enter a workforce dominated by men, yes, I am a woman, but foremost I am a scholar, I am a leader, and I am autonomous. I refuse to be categorized and I refuse to be defined by others. Yes, I am a woman, but I am so much more.

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My Small Town Upbringing Taught Me To Accept Everyone As They Are, Regardless Of Color Or Creed

We were all friends and it really didn't matter who identified as what or who was what color because we didn't see any of that, it just didn't matter.

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I know a lot of people say that once you go to college you'll never want to come back home. I thought I was going to be that person for sure, but I was wrong. It's common for people to get a little homesick while they're staying away at school, but the stigma that college makes you forget about where you come from still exists. I've always been one of those people that think, no matter what, you should NEVER forget about where you came from. Where you come from determines a lot about who you are as an individual and plays a part in where you may be now. Whether you're in school, in the workforce, or joined the military, it's crucial to remember your roots.

I come from a textbook definition smalltown, called Palmyra. When I say "textbook definition," I mean the everybody-knows-everybody kind of town where you are recognized as "So and so's son/daughter." Most of my family members went to my town's high school, so I was known in that school before I even went there. I graduated with less than 70 kids (yes, really) who I've pretty much gone to school with since I was in kindergarten. So, it's safe to say that my town is pretty small and my description of my town as being "textbook definition small town" is accurate.

When I came to Rutgers University, I knew it was big, but I did not let my "small-town mentality" get in the way of adapting to my new life here. In fact, I could not wait to come to Rutgers and start somewhere new. I could not wait to escape my town. I needed to get away. Everyone always told me that as soon as I went away to school, I would never want to come back. I surely thought the same way, but I can honestly say that those people and myself, were wrong. I have never appreciated being from Palmyra more than I do now.

Although I graduated with such a small amount of kids, a lot of us were like family. And because of that, none of us realized our differences. I'm not saying that we were all the same because that's far from the truth. However, because we were such a tight-knit class, we never really experienced any diversity issues. I'm sure a lot of people say the same about their town because everyone likes to look past the issues, but Palmyra really did not have any exclusivity. Even teachers from Palmyra would say all the time that the kids from Palmyra High School are just simply nice. We aimed to include everyone because each other was all that we had and it's pretty much all we knew.

We were all friends and it really didn't matter who identified as what or who was what color because we didn't see any of that, it just didn't matter.

We all realized that not many kids can say they know every single kid they graduated with, so we took our size, which many people would view as a downfall, and we ran with it… we made it something BIG.

You would think that coming from such a small town, you wouldn't experience any diversity. Comparably, you would think that going to such a big university, like Rutgers, you would experience diversity in all aspects of your education. Surprisingly enough, that's not true. It seems as though Rutgers tries almost too hard to push the diversity aspect that it just draws attention to the fact that many students at Rutgers come from many different races and ethnicities, which ultimately gives kids the incentive to break off into their familiar groups. We acknowledge the fact that physically we are diverse, but in actuality, the groups formed among the study body do not mingle.

A lot of kids that go to Rutgers are not used to being exposed to such diversity.

For example, many kids I have talked to at Rutgers came from schools where they graduated with hundreds and hundreds of kids and a lot of those kids experienced things that I could never relate to. I had one friend tell me that kids at his school used to have parties where only the white kids would go and other parties only the black kids would go because that's just how their school was. The black kids typically hung out with other black kids and the white kids typically hung out with other white kids. Or there are some kids here that I have talked to that said their school was predominately one thing or the other. In Palmyra, we're made up of everything. Not even race-wise, but with anything. We all just hung out together and no one seemed to think twice about it.

It's crazy to me that even with such small numbers, Palmyra kids were exposed to so much.

Most people, when I tell them my class size, react in almost a disgusted way, as if my town being small was a disadvantage. But, as I compare some of my experiences with others at Rutgers, it seems as though my small number has a lot more than other people's big numbers. This is not to say that Palmyra is better than anywhere else, but I feel as though being from a small town is looked down upon when it needs to be glorified for all that it is. With such small numbers, we managed to form a family that is not split apart by our obvious differences. Everyone found their niche and felt comfortable being in their own skin. Being at Rutgers, I recognize things about my personality and the way I view things that can be attributed back to my small town upbringing

Even though our numbers are small, our views aren't. So, to my palmyra fam, or any small town people who can relate, never forget your small town roots. You'll be thankful for them when you realize that big things can come in small packages. And, as cliche as it is to say, there really is no place like home.

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