Blackface, by Ayanna Thompson

Roberta Mock explores a tradition of performance that still raises urgent political questions today

May 13, 2021
Human rights activists attend a rally against blackface characters during the Saint Nicholas parade in The Hague, Netherlands, 2019
Source: Getty

Anyone who engaged with social media in March 2021 would have encountered at least one, if not many, images of Oprah Winfrey from her television interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Winfrey is no stranger to “memeification”, and these screenshots and gifs present her reacting in a variety of ways to revelations of racism.

There she is, actively listening with hand under chin. And there, palms forward and framing her face, looking away, in shocked disapproval. And over there, pinching her fingers together to emphasise her question about whether Markle had been deliberately “silent” or “silenced” by royal machinery.

Stripped from their original context, these images of Winfrey’s body quickly came to jokingly (because hyperbolically) represent their posters’ emotional responses to everything from Zoom call and smoking-area etiquette to the plot of the movie Cats. Yet soon the Slow Factory Foundation, an organisation devoted to “building anti-racist community and growing climate-positive global movements”, issued a rejoinder on Instagram: white and non-black people should refrain from creating and sharing such material, a practice that constitutes “digital blackface”.

“While seemingly harmless,” they write, “it often reinforces negative stereotypes about Black folks such as they’re aggressive, loud, sassy, and simply here for your consumption and entertainment.”

Ayanna Thompson’s short, sharp book Blackface leads directly to this argument. Blackface is defined as the use of prosthetics (such as make-up, burnt cork, soot, wigs or masks) by white actors to perform as somebody of “another race”. Thompson does not distinguish between blackface and “brownface”, and describes the relatively rare use of racial prosthetics by non-white actors as “whiteface”. She draws a distinction between blackface and “blackface minstrelsy”, a comic performance genre established in the early 19th century to exploit stereotypes of black Americans, which “then swam across the oceans of the world like an invasive species”.

While the practice is generally frowned upon, actors in blackface may still be rewarded for their virtuosic or committed performances if they are deemed to be of acceptable intent (Thompson uses Robert Downey Jr’s performance in Ben Stiller’s 2008 action comedy, Tropic Thunder, as an example of this phenomenon). Blackface that is interpreted as a form of minstrelsy, on the other hand, is considered offensively beyond the pale. The boundaries between them, however, are porous, largely because they grow from, and extend, the same tradition.

As a scholar of Renaissance drama, Thompson centres her historiography on Shakespearean production, both in the early modern period and thereafter. Othello, for instance, was one of the most popular plays in late 18th-century America. This and other plays by Shakespeare appear as discursive touchstones and are cited as justifications for early 19th-century comic touring performers such as T. D. Rice. Often called the “father of American minstrelsy”, Rice performed characterisations of enslaved people (for instance, in his supposed version of the Jim Crow caricature) and those who had recently been freed (such as his black dandy, Gumbo Cuff).

These seemingly disparate examples establish and reinforce the performance of blackness on Anglo-American stages as “a white endeavour”, whereby black characters are expected to be performed by white actors in racial prosthetics. Regardless of genre, the rhetoric grounding this expectation has always been that blackface performance is either a faithfully imitative, quasi-ethnographic act or a celebratory one, or perhaps both. This is the logic that Laurence Olivier used to discuss his fetishistic portrayal of Othello in 1964 as a recent Caribbean immigrant of the Windrush generation, for which he garnered an Academy Award nomination even while some American critics were appalled at his “by-now outrageous impression of a theatrical Negro stereotype”.

The discourses of what Thompson calls “white innocence”, which include excusing blackface as either respectful cultural celebration or an act of verisimilitude, remain stubbornly alive. Within the past month, for instance, the producers of a televised Polish talent show, Your Face Sounds Familiar, expressed surprise at the backlash when a contestant “blacked up” to impersonate the singer Bill Withers, since their intention was “to recreate the original performance in the most precise manner, while honouring the original artist”.

It is also a logic that has been used to justify the continuation of blackface “folk” traditions – for example, by some Morris dancing troupes in the UK or the continued appearance of Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, at Belgian carnivals. Here it is not individual black people who are supposedly being celebrated through imitation, but the alleged authenticity of intangible cultural heritages, despite their symbolic associations with white supremacy and colonial violence (though this is often denied by recasting their “origin” stories as having nothing to do with race).

Thompson twice states in Blackface that she is not interested in whether individual acts or performances are, or are considered to be, racist or even anti-racist. But in its conclusion, written after the brutal killing of George Floyd by a white police officer on 25 May 2020, she asserts that there is “a filthy and vile thread – sometimes it’s tied into a noose” – connecting early modern blackface performance, blackface minstrelsy, contemporary performances of blackness and anti-black racism. This living lineage impacts on the ways in which black performance-makers are able to express themselves.

While white actors are applauded for their protean transformations and mimetic abilities, black actors have been historically locked into patterns of exhibition and exoticism. Thompson describes the way three 19th-century black Shakespeareans – Richard Crafus, James Hewlett and Ira Aldridge – were critiqued as “aping” white performance modes when acting parts that were traditionally characterised as either black or white. The result, she argues, is a legacy of “unequal horizons” for black performers that is manifested in three ways: the continued reliance on minstrelsy tropes (in particular, of black women and femmes, especially through cross-dressing); the valorisation of the embodiment of trauma narratives (for example, Lupita Nyong’o in Steve McQueen's 2013 film, 12 Years a Slave); and a great deal of anxiety about questions of black authenticity.

Back in 2005, Joseph Pugliese used the term “racial prosthetics” to describe the way “racialised body-bits” (such as kinky hair and flared nostrils) are grafted on to the corporeal diagrams used in forensic pathology. The “analogue” template body is always white, with racial difference culturally constructed and “added on” as extrinsic and supplementary. This is precisely how blackface operates in both its material and digital forms.

When, as white people, we use memes of Oprah Winfrey to express our feelings in an intensified or exaggerated way, we are supplementing our persona with a black one. Intentionally or not, the playacting of blackness, by inhabiting a black likeness as an extension of our virtual selves, reinforces dangerous stereotypes in political environments that already associate black people with excessive and extreme behaviour. As Lauren Michele Jackson wrote in her groundbreaking 2017 article on digital blackface for Teen Vogue, not only do images of black people “perform a huge amount of emotional labor online on behalf of nonblack users”, but they form “an uneasy reminder” of how the extra-visibility of blackness in everyday life also results in black people being “profiled, harassed, mocked, beaten, and killed”.

The limited, pocket-sized scale of Thompson’s Blackface means that she doesn’t have space to rehearse the implications of her argument in depth, or provide more nuanced historical detail. But in explicitly laying out the history and costs of blackface performance, she fully meets her stated aim of offering an accessible book that constitutes part of an ongoing “arc toward justice”.

Roberta Mock is professor of performance studies at the University of Plymouth and has written about blackface performance by 20th-century Jewish women. She is also chair of the Theatre and Performance Research Association.

By Ayanna Thompson
Bloomsbury Academic, 144pp, £9.99
ISBN 9781501374012
Published 6 May 2021

The author

Ayanna Thompson, Regents professor of English at Arizona State University, was “born in West Berlin to two American expats”, she says, but “moved to the States when I was a toddler and grew up in Maryland. I also had the good fortune to live in Japan for one of my teenage years.”

She went on to attend Columbia University “during the height of the culture wars”, she continues, and “focused on post-colonial theory and African-American literature. My education definitely helped me to hone, develop and appreciate what bell hooks calls ‘the oppositional gaze’. I had no qualms about approaching canonical texts such as Shakespeare’s through different theoretical lenses. This has held true for all of my career.”

Although much of her earlier writing has indeed focused on Shakespeare and early modern theatre, Thompson doesn’t see any great leap in switching her attention in Blackface to a much more recent and seemingly “popular” form of performance.

“Shakespeare was ‘popular’ culture,” she points out, “and his plays continue to be the most produced in the world. So I’ve never thought of his works, or performances of his plays, as being separate from contemporary issues. And the history of blackface performances is deeply entwined with the history of performing Shakespeare’s Othello.”

Asked about the links between the pernicious energies that went into blackface performance and today’s debates about race, Thompson responds that “there is a real connection between the dehumanisation of black lives and the assumption that performing blackness is a white property – both rest on white supremacist beliefs that must be interrogated, challenged and ultimately changed. I think people are surprised by the large number of blackface performances on 21st-century television, but they go hand in hand with the killing of unarmed black Americans by police officers. Blackface is part of the cultural dialogue about what reckoning entails.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Confronting blackface in a digital age

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