NPR logo The Legacy of Blackface

The Legacy of Blackface

Artists Take On Roots of Racist Performance Tradition

A woodcut print of famous white minstrel T.D. Rice (1808-1860) performing as the Jim Crow "trickster" character. Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

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Detail from Mark Steven Greenfield's Spin Virus, 2003. Courtesy Steve Turner Gallery hide caption

Greenfield's 'Post Minstrel' Exhibit Online
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Courtesy Steve Turner Gallery

Detail from Iona Rozeal Brown's Untitled I (Female), 2003 Courtesy Michael Stamberg Fine Art hide caption

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Courtesy Michael Stamberg Fine Art

The blackface minstrel act was a very popular form of entertainment in 19th-century America. It was also a highly racist depiction of African Americans. So why are so many black artists so infatuated with the minstrel legacy?

Al Jolson in Blackface

Scenes from the entertainer's earlier films:

Listen 'Mammy'

Listen 'Hooray for Baby and Me'

In a two-part report for The Tavis Smiley Show, producer Roy Hurst explores the roots of blackface minstrelry, and how the legacy of the act still haunts some forms of black popular entertainment today.

Artist Mark Steven Greenfield is one of several African-American artists who's using the iconic images of the blackface minstrel in his paintings and sculptures. Only in Greenfield's case, he's changed the expressions on the faces of many of those images to express outrage or anger.

In another series of works, Greenfield takes photos of turn-of-the-century blackface performers and superimposes a subversive message that looks like an eye chart. One typical message: "Mammy Should Have Whooped Yo Ass."

Greenfield explains his use of blackface icons this way: "These images have haunted us for a very very long time — unless we exorcise the demons that these images have conjured up, we'll never really be free."

And in some ways, he says, the crude and outlandish images and behavior that typified the minstrel show are still evident in hip-hop and black comedy. "They're bagging and sagging — they got the hats turned around, they got the whole thing," Greenfield says.

Years before the name became synonymous with racial segregation laws, Jim Crow was a showbiz act — a performance first made famous in New York City by a young white actor named Thomas D. Rice.

Some time around 1830, Rice learned a popular African-American song-and-dance routine, based on the myth of the trickster figure, an escaped slave named Jim Crow. His face blacked out with burnt cork, Rice perfected the act and sparked the tradition of the minstrel act.

The audience for these shows was largely working-class whites, and at first the blackface character was actually a smart and sympathetic one. But as time went on, the minstrel show took on a more racist tone.

Producer Roy Hurst would like to thank the following experts for their help with this series:

• Kelly Madison, Assistant Professor at California State University, Los Angeles.

• Mark Golub, Professor of Politics and International Relations, Scripps College.

• W.T. Lhamon, Jr., George M. Harper Professor of English, Florida State University.

The song "Jim Crow" featured in this series was performed by John Freeland Jr. and Sean Corey Campbell.