The Atlantic

Blackface Was Never Harmless

In 1869, an Atlantic writer remembered darkening his face with burnt cork and acting out exaggerated caricatures of blackness with little reflection on the racial oppression and violence around him.
Source: Frances Benjamin Johnston / Library of Congress

Long before the future leaders of America were moonwalking with shoe polish smeared on their cheeks, the first blackface minstrels took to the stage in the early 19th century. Beginning in the decades leading up to the Civil War, troupes of white men, women, and children darkened their faces with burnt cork and traveled the country performing caricatures of blackness through songs, dances, and skits. These performances, arising out of Pittsburgh, Louisville, Cincinnati, and other cities along the Ohio River, became one of America’s first distinct art forms and its most popular genre of public entertainment.

From the beginning, minstrelsy attracted criticism for its racist portrayals of African Americans. Frederick Douglass blackface performers as “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.” In

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

Related Interests

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic7 min readTech
It’s a Winner-Take-All World, Whether You Like It or Not
Not long ago, I reached out to a writer I respect, and posed the uncomfortable question authors find themselves forced to ask: Would she write a blurb—the endorsement you see on the back cover—for my new book about how a person can navigate a career
The Atlantic4 min readPsychology
Dear Therapist: The Child My Daughter Put Up for Adoption Is Now Rejecting Her
She thought that her daughter would want to meet her one day. Twenty-five years later, that’s not true.
The Atlantic7 min read
The Man With 17 Kids (And Counting)
After becoming a sperm donor, Tim Gullicksen wanted to get to know his donor kids. Now he invites them all out to a lake in California every summer.