Richards & Pringle's, Rusco & Holland's Big Minstrel Festival, circa 1898. Source: Library of Congress

Burnt Corks & Cakewalks

The Toxic Legacy of Blackface in American History

Ed, Nathan and Brian explore the history of blackface, from its heyday as the most popular form of entertainment in America to its afterlife in the controversial images that appear in college yearbooks. What explains the long life of blackface in American culture?

This episode and related resources are funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this show, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Burnt Corks and Cakewalks Lesson Set

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In early 2019, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was embroiled in a political scandal regarding his use of blackface in a 1984 yearbook photograph. The photograph, from his time at Eastern Virginia Medical School, showed a person wearing blackface standing next to another person wearing a Ku Klux Klan uniform. The ensuing fallout from this revelation brought blackface and its presence throughout US history back to the forefront of American discourse.

This lesson focuses on the enduring history of blackface in American culture. It emerged as a byproduct of minstrel shows following the American Civil War. Used as a form of mockery and vehicle for promoting racial stereotypes, minstrelsy was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the late 19th century.

This unfortunate legacy continued into the 20th century. Though there are countless examples of blackface used in various forms of entertainment, the Backstory episode highlights the legacy of blackface in the Mummers Parade. This Philadelphia New Year’s Day tradition is one of the oldest folk festivals in the United States. It also has a history of explicit racial overtones and blackface. This legacy was challenged during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, leading to a conflict between African American groups and event participants. Though blackface was officially outlawed from the event in 1964, examples of racism, sexism, and bigotry have endured. Though the history of the Mummers Parade has an undeniable connection to blackface and racial stereotypes, thousands of people look forward to watching and participating in this annual tradition. Many of these participants have no knowledge of the history of the event.

This lesson forces students to confront questions about the racist underpinnings of American culture. Can respected traditions of American culture be separated from their racist undertones? How does the legacy of blackface still permeate American society?