Background Information
  • The first book I turn to to teach K-12 and college students the history of blackface is Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings of Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy which is an edited collection of short essays on blackface history. It also contains a few primary sources that are helpful with students and a lovely introduction by Eric Lott. I have been told it is available via PDF online and in library databases. My forthcoming book, Darkology: When the American Dream Wore Blackface expands both the chronology and geography of blackface history, arguing that counter to what historians previously believed, blackface on the American stage accelerated in the twentieth century and expanded westward and throughout America’s global empire making it more omnipresent worldwide.
  • For an overview of my argument, check out my article “Yes, Politicians Wore Blackface. It used to be all-American ‘fun.'” in The Washington Post. It discusses why young men performed blackface in such high rates and its connections to political power.

  • I also discussed the Governor Northam scandal on Democracy Now! and Back Story, both of which you may find helpful as primers for classroom discussions. Please be warned that the Back Story episode contains a turn-of-the-century audio recording that uses the N-word.

Before you work with students on the history of blackface, it’s important to establish that your classroom is a safe learning environment and that any derogatory comments will not be tolerated. It is also important to stress why we are learning blackface history: if students can see, track, and record how grotesque gender and racial stereotypes and caricatures were created, constructed, and circulated, you are able to take harmful – and ingrained – tropes and turn them on their head. We can take away their power by disproving their claims and showing how and why they were created in response to significant gains by African Americans’ freedom struggles. 

Classic Recordings of Stephen Foster’s famous songwriting for blackface minstrelsy:

Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress. Inclusion of the recording in the National Jukebox, courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.

Old Folks At Home Performed by Felix Arndt (1914)

Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress. Inclusion of the recording in the National Jukebox, courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.

Suwanee River Performed by Walter B. Rogers (1904)

Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress. Inclusion of the recording in the National Jukebox, courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.

Famous examples of the Reappropriation of Antebellum Blackface in 20th Century Mass Popular Culture

Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer was the first film released in America synchronized to sound. It chronicles the life of a Jewish American blackface actor. The “Mammy” song was re-released on vinyl, sheet music, player piano scrolls, and later VHS. The famed “Mammy” pose with Al Jolson singing while on one knee is an iconic gesture used in many amateur minstrel productions school children were required to perform between 1930 and 1970 in the United States.


The famous “Steam Boat Willie” song or “Turkey in the Straw” which plays on nearly every ice cream truck in America is actually Zip Coon’s minstrel song, popularized in the nineteenth century for blackface shows. Steamboat Willie created by Walt Disney is often recognized as the first animated cartoon synchronized to sound in 1928. When you watch this clip, pay attention to the subtle references to blackface culture and the use of violence.



This clip, below, is a film representation of a “Stump Speech” typically found in the second part of blackface shows called the Olio. You can read textual versions of these from pages 135-141 in Inside the Minstrel Mask.



In this clip from a technicolor biopic about Stephen Foster called Swanee River (1939) starring Al Jolson, you can watch an example of a “minstrel circle” and “endmen” perform the Stephen Foster classic “Camptown Races.” This clip also includes a soft shoe dance (the minstrel precursor to tap dancing).



Here you can watch rival cartoon examples of amateur blackface shows staged by Paramount and Disney characters using mid-nineteenth century blackface songs as the soundtrack. This is a blackface reinterpretation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. If you are interested in teaching the use of blackface in animation, the best book on this topic is Birth of an Industry.



Finally, it’s important to think about the recirculation of blackface in major motion pictures like Babes in Arms and Babes on Broadway starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Both films were directed by Busby Berkeley and show how closely blackface was associated with American patriotism.


Class Assignment

Provide students with a list of Stephen Foster songs. Have the students select one iconic song like “O! Susanna” and have them locate two digitized versions of that Stephen Foster song on sheet music. They must find one published between 1830-1880 and one from anytime between 1881 to 2019. As Stephen Foster is in the public domain and considered a part of the classic Americana songbook, it is very easy to do. You can find digitized versions of his sheet music on the library websites for the Library of Congress, the Digital Public Library of America, Brown University, Duke University, UCLA, Harvard University, and many many more. Once the student has selected two, have them compare and contrast the cover art and imagery on the two sheet music covers in a paragraph. Next, have them compare and contrast the lyrics–are they in dialect? Are they sanitized? What stories do the lyrics tell?

Blackface Research Projects 

If you would like to have your students conduct a research project into minstrel shows in your community, please e-mail me at and I can help you directly.

Protecting students while teaching difficult histories

One of the most powerful and important things you can do to close your classroom discussion on the history of blackface history is to emphasize these painful stereotypes were myths. Blackface was created as a way to try and create a monolithic stereotype that discredited millions of diverse African Americans who have made substantial and important contributions to American life and culture. I show my students a brief slide show of actual African Americans in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to remind them that it was this power and success that we need to hold in tandem with these stereotypes.

Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).

10 responses to “Blackface America from Jumpin’ Jim Crow to Govs. Northam & Ivey

  1. Page 80 of Print the Legend, chapter 2, illustrates how George Catlin used his “Indian Gallery” to portray Native American culture. The chapter reads, “But nothing so clarified the intended meaning of his paintings as the spirited lectures that carefully shaped his listeners’ interpretations of his pictures, or the extravagant theatrical touches that underscores what Caitlin saw as the romance of Indian life” (80). As soon as I read this, I immediately thought of our conversation in class today about 3-part actions of the minstrel shows. The shows had a clear visual component through the use of blackface and particular clothing items, but it seems that one of the elements that truly hit home was hearing the captivating sermons and speeches during the “Olio” portion of the show.

    Through assessing both performance and visual-based methods of entertainment, it is clear that the use of theatrical speeches was a key element used to capture attention and convey an unrealistic representation of African-American and Native American identities. It is likely that hearing a person speak directly to an audience was more alluring than purveying solely visual forms of entertainment, which thus led audience members to become better “informed” about the topics at hand.

  2. Performance culture in Antebellum American confirmed and spread negative stereotypes of non white peoples. Blackface minstrel shows institutionalized racism and embedded discriminatory and mocking attitudes towards blacks into the threads of society. The subject of performances were mocking portrayals of black people as uneducated, incompetent fools with comedic dress of “old clothes [and] ancient hats” to fit the part (Inside the Minstrel Mask, 123). The black makeup itself “offered a way to play with collective fears of a degraded and threatening—and male—Other, while al the same time maintaining some symbolic control over them” (Inside the Minstrel Mask,13). Likewise, Operators “shaped and molded public response” to Indian Galleries, which featured a variety of artifacts, pictures, and sometimes actors (Print the Legend, 78). These galleries reproduced two typecasts of Native Americans— the noble warrior or dangerous savage— as “instructive and narrative accounts” that fit into the nation’s imperialist history (Print the Legend, 80).

  3. “The emergence of this expanded market for photographic views of Indian life made it far less likely that a photograph of a native American person would be made for the subject… more probable that the picture would be made as a n object of commerce, intended not as a private remembrance, but as a piece of a public story” (217). As photographic technology began to become more advanced and it became possible to create many paper copies of the same image, photographers began to focus less on creating personal portraits of Indians and instead focused on how best to market their “otherness” and culture for profits. The images themselves had no content, no context to their origin, until photographers added their own. By accompanying the images with a story, they could twist and alter the way the public would perceive the subject of the photo: “If the portraits alone might seem to suggest any number of possible readings, the words restrict and clarify the ways in which Hayden wanted them to be understood” (235). Because of how little power the subjects of the photos actually had over the way others would view them it is very difficult to know for sure if the descriptions that accompany them are even slightly truthful, or if they are just facades created by the photographer to sell more copies.

  4. In the mid-eighteenth century, entertainment transformed the way Americans viewed their lives and society and encouraged them to consider politics and opportunity while being enthralled by minstrel shows and adventurous depictions of the west.

    Minstrel shows offered white Americans a chance to reaffirm their whiteness while engaging in humorous shows that poked fun at political causes, such as the women’s rights and abolitionist movements. These shows were wildly entertaining and allowed for audience participation, which provided for excited audiences. While the shows themselves targeted political causes, attending the shows was a matter of political participation in and of itself due to the fact that the location of the shows coincided with the political and ethnic affiliations of the audience members. Disagreements amongst theater troupes and venues often caused theater-goers to unleash their political strife unto one another in the streets, with the shows often serving as the catalyst for all-out brawls.

    Photography and panoramic paintings of the West, though seemingly apolitical, also offered the audience a chance to engage in politics. The paintings detailed battles and outcomes of future events, but more frequently romanticized the West as a place of hope, opportunity, and triumph, untouched by the political strife of the North versus the South (57). Depictions of Native Americans, too, altered how the public in the East-many of whom had never encountered a native american before-viewed these people and the policies directed at them. Many used the paintings as a way to travel, while others took the message more literally and went out west to see the landscapes themselves. Often times these travels were met with the opposite of triumph, and many returned empty-handed (66).

  5. In Antebellum America, visual and performative images were used to assuage anxieties surround the security of white superiority in a rapidly shifting, modernizing world. With changing technologies, mass migration, and political upheaval, white spectators consumed blackface minstrel productions and photographs of Native American life to cling to investments in white superiority and reassure spectators of minority group’s inferiority.
    As Robert Toll argues in his essay Social Commentary in Late Nineteenth Century White Minstrelsy, minstrel performances encompassed a whole host of anxieties about race, politics, and urban life. Rendering race and rapid social changes comprehensible, blackface minstrelsy allowed white spectators to “laugh at some of their own difficulties and anxieties while being assured that someone was more ignorant and worse off than them” (87). The foolish antics of Jim Crowe and lampooning sketches of urban black intelligence with Zip Coon tackled the fears and fantasies of black threat to white power. Natalie Davis also tackles the function of blackface in relieving social anxieties in her safety valve theory, which Eric Lott discusses in his essay Blackface and Blackness. Davis’ safety valve theory suggests that the role of blackface was to “deflect attention from social reality” by “on the one hand perpetuat[ing] certain values of community…and on the other hand criticize political order” (15). White spectators found unity in the fantasy, where in the audience space of blackface performance viewers could take comfort in collective whiteness while viewing content that lampooned and comedically deflated potential real world threats to white superiority.
    White superiority was also reinforced through the collective social fascination with Native American photography. With the advent of more modern photographic technologies, these photos quickly escaped the desires of the subject to instead encapsulate the desires of the white public, who were endlessly fascinated with the “vanishing race” of Native Americans (217). The fascination with these subjects was, in part, due to Native American’s supposed inability to adapt to more “modern” cultures. For this reason, white spectators were able to collect images of a race whom they believed was tragically noble but inherently inferior, and doomed to fade away into nostalgia because of an inherent inability to compete, or be equal, with white culture and technology. By collecting these photos, white spectators were able to reaffirm their superior mental, technological, and social culture while at the same time admiring a “simpler” time.

  6. Visual culture in Antebellum America was based in the dehumanization of African-Americans as a means of entertainment, which is largely seen with the mass popularity of the character Jim Crow. This is so much so that an entire era of segregation in America was founded and named on this racist blackface character and what he stood for in Antebellum America. The popularity of this character was a direct reflection of the identity of the time, and has continued to perpetuate negative and horrible stereotypes of African-Americans. In Inside the Minstrel Mask, it reads, “From the class that come the Jim Crows, the Zip Coons, and the Dandy Jims, who have electrified the world. From them proceed our only truly national poets” (52). If people sought entertainment, they were met with these racist characters, which influenced people’s views on all black people of the time—that all black people were as happy-go-lucky and stupid as Jim Crow. This prominence of racist characters did not leave much room for people to make their own genuine opinions of black people, but let entertainment do the work for them.

  7. During American Antebellum, performance culture was at an all time high. Minstrel shows dominated the entertainment scene with blackface which in turn spread the stereotype of ignorant/ uneducated black people. These shows perpetuated this stereotype by depicting individuals like Jim Crow, Zip Coon, and Mammy. Characters had exaggerated features and talked in a way that made them seem less aware and purely for entertainment value. Consequently, this attitude was string through society for a long time and honestly still is. For characters like Jim Crow, tattered clothes, way of walk, black makeup and speech demeaned them. “Inside the Minstrel Mask” states, “…offered a way to play with collective fears of a degraded and threatening—and male—Other, while al the same time maintaining some symbolic control over them”. Similarly when photography became more advanced so did the otherness of Native Americans. Instead of focusing on individuals and their lives, photographers zoomed in on what made them different from white people. This was another way to establish white supremacy and hierarchy in America. On page 217 of Print the Legend says, “The emergence of this expanded market for photographic views of Indian life made it far less likely that a photograph of a native American person would be made for the subject… more probable that the picture would be made as a n object of commerce, intended not as a private remembrance, but as a piece of a public story,” thus proving the previous point.

  8. Performance culture, in Antebellum America, was a pivotal force in the representation of ones identity in a time of great discrimination. Blackface minstrel shows were a dominant force in stereotyping African Americans as uneducated and inferior in a comedic way. These shows reassured its white male viewers of their dominance during this era. In these shows white men covered in black would murmur nonsense while acting dumb, which further perpetuated racism. African Americans were not the only group that was being stereotyped during this time period, but rather women and other minorities.

    The performances negative effects were the result of the depiction of the “inferior” races. Jones, a photographer during this era, had social prejudices that caused him to not depict Indians as part of American culture. He“…was scarcely willing to embrace the vision of a multiethnic, multiracial America. He pronounced Indians ‘miserable remnants,’ ‘swarthy savages,’ ‘loathsome creatures, the worst of slaves.’” (Print the Legend 73). Similarly in blackface shows, African Americans were not illustrated as a normal human. White males “… attacked Negroes who threatened white male superiority” (Inside the Minstrel 88). White males during this time tried to maintain their image as the superior being. The negative depiction of other races and sexes relieved their insecurities by attempting to reassure them that they were right.

  9. Minstrel shows in Antebellum America associated humor with unrealistic representations of black identity to create a false sense of freedom amongst marginalized people in public opinion. Such an effect caused a modern-day, boomerang phenomenon of oppression amongst people with no intention of feeding into mass manipulation. Barbara Lewis writes, “Dandy Blue Jim.. wore nothing but the best. The brim of his hat was neither too narrow nor too wide, his fashionable shoes gleamed, and the cloth of his coat was of obvious quality and superior cut… [he] emerged from the underclass and inserted himself into the milieu of wealth, aligning himself with the haves rather than the have nots like Jim Crow… [he] was a class outlaw; he affected an appearance that could never belong to him in an America based on his exclusion and subservience.” (265) This character, portrayed in contrast to Jim Crow, served two purposes. The first was to make Jim Crow’s depiction of poverty appear less realistic, inversely making it appear that high fashion was a realistic value amongst black Americans. The second would be to create a character that people of color could possibly aspire to in order to counter the depictions of Jim Crow.
    I could be way off, but the depiction of Dandy Blue Jim reminded me of Kanye West’s critical outlook on Black consumerism in his song “All Falls Down.” Kanye writes, “Man I promise, I’m so self conscious/ That’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches… Then I spent 400 bucks on this/ Just to be like nigga you ain’t up on this… It seems we living the American dream/ The people highest up got the lowest self esteem… We shine because they hate us, floss ’cause they degrade us/ We trying to buy back our 40 acres/ And for that paper, look how low we a’stoop/ Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coop.” The minstrel shows created an American culture of irony where an oppressed individual can either relate to a slave character (Jim Crow) or the other option, a free-man character (Dandy Blue Jim). The problem lies in that Dandy Blue Jim is just as faulty of a representation that if oppressed people strive to be like him, they instead “buy” into materialism, falling victim into a different manipulative force of oppressive power. it’s a lose-lose situation.

  10. Performance culture during the Antebellum time period was complicated for Blacks and Whites. While there would be sympathy for the black cause in some areas, this sympathy would be juxtaposed alongside blackface performance. Whites would profit off black culture through blackface and create difficult questions for blacks surrounding their culture. For example, W.E.B. DuBois included black face songs in his list to compel the argument that “black music was the ‘only real American music.'” In this instance, DuBois has to both acknowledge and accept the black face music while using it to defend his point to give blacks their dignity.

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