In 1848, blackface minstrel shows were a successful art form. Minstrel shows evolved into a mixture of dancing, variety acts, and musical performances by white people with black faces. Black actors also participated in minstrel shows. They had to watch as the white people with black faces portrayed them as lazy, happy-go-lucky buffoons who were less than human.
At the dawn of the 20th-century, minstrel shows turned into vaudeville acts. In 1920, Al Jolson was the most popular entertainer in show business thanks, in part, to his blackface routine. Jolson was an extrovert with a brass singing style. One of his claims to fame was his ability to copy African-American music and turn it into music white people would appreciate. Back in the 1920s, black singers were only popular in black communities. Crossover music wasn’t a thing until Nat King Cole came along in the 1950s.
Al Jolson started the blackface craze in America. Young white men in the 20th-century copied him and the practice spread throughout the Northeast. Putting on a Blackface was a way to express the hatred and disrespect white people had for black people. It was a sign of power and a message to African-Americans that the United States only recognized white people as America’s chosen people.
Former FBI Director James Comey mentioned some of those points in a Washington Post op-ed recently. Mr. Comey believes the blackface mentality shows through in Virginia, as well as in other Southern states, in the statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. Those monuments celebrate what blackface represents according to Mr. Comey. Comey thinks they represent the hidden message in the Blackface craze during the early 20th-century. Comey’s article recommends the removal of those statues, but that is easier said than done, according to the African-American groups who want to see that happen.
Blackface is more than latent racism. The meaning behind this ignorant practice still divides a nation that hasn’t healed from the reality that skin color is not a sign of mental or physical inferiority. It is a sign of the creative action of consciousness. The people who are born black face challenges white people don’t understand. And they meet those challenges in a way white people fail to recognize.
Blackface promotes the flaws in the white man’s perception. The country wants to heal, those perceptions but the healing process won’t start until white people accept their innate fear of African-American creativity.