In the 1840s, blackface was the most popular “art form” in America. “Almost any show you would see would be in blackface,” said Jake Austen, co-author of Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop. Stage actors rubbed their faces with burnt cork, shoe polish or greasepaint, transforming themselves into ersatz slaves for variety “minstrel” shows and, later, vaudeville. Pre-emancipation, it was black-on-white; post-emancipation, black-on-black was preferred. African Americans in blackface were considered more authentic and they did not take the compliment lightly. “When everybody is agreeing that black people are better at the most popular thing in America than white people are, there’s a sense of pride,” said Austen.
But, 150 years later, blackface is no longer something to be proud of; it’s something to apologize for. Last week, in a misguided attempt to pay tribute to her favorite Orange Is the New Black character, Crazy Eyes, actress Julianne Hough arrived at a Halloween party in Beverly Hills with her skin painted brown. “I am a huge fan of the show Orange is the New Black, actress Uzo Aduba, and the character she has created,” she tweeted on Friday after realizing her faux pas. “It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way. I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize.”
Hough would have blended in seamlessly at the “Disco Africa”-themed Halloweek masquerade party held in Milan that same night. Fashion insiders like designer Alessandro Dell’Acqua, who appeared in Facebook photos in minstrel-style blackface alongside other dark-washed party goers, quickly learned it is in fact fashion-backward to turn your skin into racial couture. (The industry has taken a while to figure this out: Vogue Netherlands used blackface on model Querelle Jansen in May and Numero magazine bronzed up Ondria Hardin in February for a spread titled “African Queen.”)
But the modern minstrel show’s favored new venue appears to be social media. Two Florida men took couples costumes to a new low on Friday when one (William Filene) wore blackface to portray African American shooting victim Trayvon Martin, bloody shirt included, while his buddy (Greg Cimeno) dressed up as his killer, George Zimmerman, in a “neighborhood watch” t-shirt. For the photo caption, which appeared on Facebook, Caitlin Cimeno wrote, “Happy Halloween from Zimmerman & trayvon.” None of them have commented publicly on the incident. But Cimeno has removed her profile and Filene has since reportedly locked his photos.
The proliferation of Halloween blackface may be scary, but it’s not particularly surprising. As Austen put it, Halloween is a holiday in which “you’re supposed to have irreverence. That’s what masking is about—you’re doing something that’s daring or dangerous.” But this is the wrong kind of dangerous—people like Hough and Dell’Acqua are worryingly ignorant about their makeup’s historical context. “I think that we’re getting farther away from people understanding the history of blackface,” Austen said. “The reason it’s stupid to put on blackface is because you can’t separate that from the history of minstrelsy, and minstrelsy involves dehumanizing, insulting caricatures of black people.”
These caricatures were borne in part out of slavery. “A lot of slaves would protect themselves from punishment by being beloved,” Austen said. “But it wasn’t just protection. It was, in a lot of ways, subversion. If you pretend to be simple and lazy, you get out of work. A lot of songs that survived slavery also seem to have a lot of coded messages—a code to escape or a code that was a subversive way to insult your masters.”
The masters had their own reasons for imbuing blackface roles with goofy character traits. “They have to dehumanize or they can’t treat people like they’re not humans,” said Austen. “Inventing this idea of this carefree person who is simpler, it was a fantasy that not only allowed you to not think that you were punishing these people because they were happy, but it also allowed America this fantasy to be what they wished they could be.”
White working class and immigrant Americans used blackface as an outlet to deal with “profound” social change, said Matthew Pratt Guterl, Chair of the Department of American Studies at Brown University and author of Seeing Race in Modern America. These changes included an emerging factory system that turned Americans into assembly line workers with reduced rights and individuality. “The demonization of black people in popular working-class culture is one way to work through anxieties about class,” Guterl said. “It’s a way for them to position themselves above black people.”
Though the practice lost popularity during the early 20th century, the release of Al Jolson’s hit musical The Jazz Singer in 1927 heralded what Austen referred to as “blackface nostalgia.” But 30 years later the Civil Rights Movement smothered any remaining sentimentality under the banner of equality. Despite appearances, Guterl believes young Americans still have a sense of this legacy. “They know full well that there’s a tawdry history to these forms, they just don’t think it matters to them,” he said. “They are unbound by our past.”
That seemed to be the case at UC Irvine in April when the Asian American fraternity Lambda Theta Delta uploaded a YouTube cover of Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie,” featuring Jay-Z, in which one member appeared in blackface. According to CBS Los Angeles, the video originally included the disclaimer, “No racism intended,” suggesting the students were aware of the makeup’s implications. But they included it anyway. Guterl considers this a perversion of contemporary society’s fluid approach to identity. “We live in a moment where people feel a certain degree of permissiveness—a willingness to be playful with identity,” he said. “And there are people who exploit that willingness to be playful with identity.”
Playful or not, anyone planning to pull a Hough on Halloween better be prepared to be exploited. “I think social media has really made us hyper attentive to this,” Guterl said. Such was the case for an Australian girl named Olivia Mahon, who decided to throw a “This is Africa”-themed 21st birthday party and post the photos on Facebook. Thanks to the presence of blackface and KKK costumes, her offensive fete went viral and earner her instant infamy. In response, Mahon apologized, writing on Tumblr (in a post which has since been removed), “In no way was this party intended to hurt anyone’s feelings or upset anyone at all.” But in the same message she added, “I am not a racist person at all so I didn’t think anyone could possibly take it that way.” To this, Guterl has the perfect answer.
“Nobody dons blackface just to be black,” he said. “You don it to reaffirm your whiteness.”