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This week has people across the country looking back at their yearbooks. That's because Virginia has been rocked by political scandal involving an old yearbook photo and blackface. Both the state's governor and attorney general have admitted to wearing blackface decades ago. Florida's secretary of state recently resigned for posing as an African-American Katrina victim. And this week, the fashion house Gucci pulled a sweater that looked like blackface. NPR's Debbie Elliott has this look at the history and prominence of blackface in American culture.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: At the Virginia capital this week, Fredericksburg businessman Kevin Williams struggled to understand why anyone would blacken their face.
KEVIN WILLIAMS: Who is that funny to? It's just - it's not funny. There's nothing funny about blackface.
ELLIOTT: Williams is African-American and has lost faith in the elected officials caught up in the scandal.
WILLIAMS: It's unnerving to me that there are people still today that think that that's OK, and it's just not.
ELLIOTT: At the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, CEO Christy Coleman says there is a lack of understanding about blackface.
CHRISTY COLEMAN: They are literally watching black people in their moments of levity and privacy. It's being invaded and then co-opted and distorted. There's a violence to that.
ELLIOTT: Blackface has been around since the 1830s, first showing up in minstrel shows where white actors would perform as black characters.
GREGG KIMBALL: It's really the first truly American theater.
ELLIOTT: Historian Gregg Kimball at the Library of Virginia says it was an early form of popular entertainment and largely in Northern and Midwestern cities.
KIMBALL: I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire. When I cleaned out my great aunt's house, there was a minstrel program (laughter). Our town had no black people in it, so this was not, like, a Southern thing. It was an American thing.
ELLIOTT: An American thing that used exaggerated stereotypes of black people, says Dwandalyn Reece. She's curator of music and performing arts at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
DWANDALYN REECE: They're lazy. They're unintelligent. They're prone to thievery - crooks.
ELLIOTT: By the turn of the century, the racist caricatures were popularized in vaudeville, and eventually radio, TV and film. Here's a record from 1928.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY ACT, "THE TWO BLACK CROWS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Did you rob John Smith's henhouse?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Oh, no, I never robbed no henhouse. No, sir. I was home that night.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What night?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The night I robbed a henhouse.
ELLIOTT: That's a recording from New York of a comedy act called "The Two Black Crows." The white actors wear blackface, floppy hats and have big, white lips. Reece says a roster of these kinds of recurring characters developed.
REECE: The mammy figure. There is also the figure of Jim Crow, "Jump Jim Crow."
ELLIOTT: A PBS series recreated "Jump Jim Crow."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUMP JIM CROW")
THOMAS RICE: Come listen, all you gals and boys. I'm just from Tuckahoe. I'm going to sing a little song. My name's Jim Crow.
REECE: And creating that caricature, it proliferated and came to stand for segregation, racism and treatment - unfair and inhumane treatment - of African-Americans.
ELLIOTT: Reece says for many Americans, particularly outside the South, these popular images were the only lens to view African-Americans, and it was a distorted view. You can see that through exhibits at the museum.
REECE: Over here, up here, we have a Sambo figure with a blackface with enlarged white lips and then the laughing figure with the big, bulbous eyes and red lips and mouth.
ELLIOTT: The minstrel caricatures started showing up on toys, games, books, even postcards, everyday household items. Reece says there was a tremendous market for them.
REECE: You really see how it starts to shape people's attitudes along race and the prejudices and biases that come out of that.
ELLIOTT: What's happening in Virginia, Reese says, provides something visceral and concrete to have an honest dialogue about race and the dehumanizing impact of blackface. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Richmond, Va.
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