Jumping Jim Crow

The origins of blackface and its modern form.


© Shepherds Place Farm/Facebook

Four year old

Kiarah Bates, Editor

On August 2nd, a Facebook post of a young girl dressed as the Disney Princess, Tiana, was posted. The costume consisted of Tiana’s green dress and a lily crown, but the thing that stood out the most was the brown make-up smeared across the little girl’s face. The image sparked outrage across Facebook, users accusing the parents of being racist for applying blackface to their white daughter. 

We had a similar situation like this earlier in the year when a picture surfaced of Governor Ralph Northam in a costume consisting of blackface from his 1981 medical school yearbook. Many believe that the parents and Northam were not in the wrong for the costumes and marked it as “enjoying Halloween,” but is that the case? 


The Origins  

Blackface originated in the mid-19th century during the Harlem Renaissance and Great Migration. “The portrayal of blackface in the U.S. dates back to the 19th century, where white performers in blackface played characters that perpetrated a range of negative, belittling and demeaning stereotypes about African American people,” (Source: ADL.org).

  Minstrel shows used blackface as a form of entertainment; the performers painted their faces with burnt cork or shoe polish while wearing tattered and torn clothing to depict slaves. It was created by white entertainers who did not want to implement black people into their shows. One of the well-known stage characters performed in the blackface was known as Jim Crow. No, not the crows from Dumbo, but this character also had similar racial implications behind it. 

Thomas Rice created the character after observing and studying slaves in the south. “While performing at Louisville, Kentucky in the early 1830s, he learned to mimic slaves while performing in blackface. One day, he noticed a black stableman dressed in ragged clothes named Jim Crow. The man had a crooked leg and a deformed shoulder. While he worked, the man performed a song and dance called ‘Jumping Jim Crow,'” (Source: Blackface.com). Rice later played the character across New York stages and gained popularity across the state, earning the name “Daddy Rice, the father of American Minsterly.” (Source: Blackface.com)

However, Rice wasn’t the only one.


The Fading Face

William Henry Lane, who was also known as Master Juba, was one of the first black entertainers to perform in blackface. Lane was recognized as one of the most influential black performers in the past, credited with the creation of American tap dance. “Lane developed a unique style of using his body as a musical instrument, blending African-derived syncopated rhythms with movements of the Irish jig and reel” (Source: BlackPast.org) 

Dance Informa.

Lane performing in blackface while dancing and singing in connection with his African roots inspired other black performers to do the same. The performances later caused a decline in blackface minstrel shows from the 1930s to the Civil Rights Era (Source: ADL.org). However, blackface has somehow slithered its way into the 21st century.

Modern-Day Black Face 

For a long time, blackface has been ideally viewed as socially acceptable behavior because of the undermining of its history. It resurfaced into this generation, camouflaging itself into costumes during Halloween parties. In 2009, Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader Whitney Isleib was posted a photo of herself on Facebook dressed like the rapper Lil Wayne with blackface. “NBC host Megyn Kelly set off her controversy when she defended blackface as a Halloween costume and questioned why it is considered racist” (Source: ADL.org). 

It took a movement known as “My culture is not a costume” and a governor being in blackface for many to realize that it wasn’t gone as we thought. However, it isn’t brought up in classrooms or conversation much as it should be; it seems to be avoided like if someone brought it up, it would cause a more significant issue than it already does. Though, if it isn’t brought up, we will have more situations like Whitney Isleib, Megyn Kelly, Governor Northam, and the little girl dressed as Tiana. 

Some unanswered questions are: Were the parents wrong for putting their daughter in that costume? Is blackface still happening in today’s society? Are people just not willing to confront it? The answer to all these questions is yes because no matter how much others want to believe it is just make-up on someone’s face, there is a history behind it, a history that can’t just be unwritten from the books. No one should be surprised if they get backlash for smearing brown make-up over their faces. My culture isn’t your costume.