Life of the Mind: Rhae Lynn Barnes on an American Stain
A Princeton Scholar Explains the Insidious and Pervasive History of Blackface
When the news broke that both the governor and the attorney general of Virginia had worn blackface as students in the 1980s, Rhae Lynn Barnes wasn’t surprised. An assistant professor of history at Princeton and the author of the forthcoming book Darkology: When the American Dream Wore Blackface, she studies the history of blackface minstrel shows, which date back to the 19th century and persisted openly until the civil-rights movement, when African American activists successfully fought against them. Barnes spoke to PAW about the history of amateur blackface minstrel shows and how the vestiges of their popularity can still be felt in American culture.
What are the origins of blackface minstrelsy?
Blackface is a makeup technique that’s been used for hundreds of years — think Shakespeare’s Othello. But in terms of blackface as we understand it today in the United States, you have to look to the Jacksonian era. Starting around 1828, a white celebrity named T.D. Rice began performing as the character Jim Crow. His song was called “Jumpin’ Jim Crow.” It globalized very quickly — he traveled to perform throughout the British Empire — and became very popular.
In the 1840s, we see the rise of the Virginia Minstrels, which is the group that created the three-act minstrel show. This show was an entire evening of blackface entertainment, as opposed to being a one-off character or dance performance. Throughout the show you’d have classic American music by the songwriter Stephen Foster — songs that we still know today like “Camptown Races” and “O! Susannah.” And it was tremendously popular. In the 19th century, blackface was seen as the No. 1 entertainment form and the U.S.’s major contribution to global popular culture.