In the wake of a blackface incident involving Snapchat on campus, History Club at the University of Michigan hosted a dialogue Tuesday evening to examine the historical roots of the blackface caricature and its harmful modern-day implications.
The racist Snapchat was posted by LSA sophomore Lauren Fokken wearing a black face mask with the caption “#blacklivesmatter.”
Stephen Berrey, associate professor in the Department of American Culture, led Tuesday’s conversation, providing insight into how the blackface caricature has evolved from 19th-century minstrel shows to the ultimate “taboo” of blackface by 1980.
When Berrey introduced himself, he said cultural conversation on blackface, and its racist implications, is largely neglected.
“I would say that the majority of people in this country know that it is wrong or know that on some level it is offensive but not necessarily why or how it is this symbol that is connected to this much over history,” Berrey said.
The earliest historical evidence of blackface is linked to T.D. Rice, a white entertainer in the late 1820s who popularized an act imitating an African-American man he met on the street who he claimed was named “Jim Crow.” Over time, Rice began to burn cork and rub the black residue over his face.
“All of minstrelsy is about imagining, rather than the diversity and the humanity of a population, reducing it to a few stock caricatures representing millions of people,” Berrey said.
Despite the fact Rice began the blackface act in New Orleans, Berrey cited how blackface minstrel shows were most popular in the Midwest and Northeast. The rowdy audiences attending these shows were mostly white, working-class men from states such as Ohio, New York and Kentucky.
As blackface minstrel shows reached their peak popularity during the mid-19th century, hallmarks of the blackface caricature began to emerge including “minstrel black” makeup, white gloves and mocking dialect patterns.
By the early 20th century, blackface minstrel shows experienced a professional decline.Yet, blackface continued to be a welcome image of American culture well into the 20th century, evidenced by the traces of blackface imagery in cartoons, advertising and film characters.
Berrey engaged students in attendance by passing around blackface pamphlets from the 20th century including how-to guides, blackface makeup catalogs and blackface show scripts. Berrey has accumulated an archive of blackface artifacts through eBay to inform his research.
In attendance at the event was LSA senior Levi Teitel who said he learned new information about how widespread the popularity of blackface was at one point in American culture.
“What struck me is how much is really ingrained in American mass culture and that (blackface) was always a popular force within it and not a marginal prejudice,” Teitel said.
LSA junior Nikola Jaksic, vice president of History Club, emphasized how Berrey’s presentation filled gaps in his own knowledge concerning blackface.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t know how explicitly modern use of blackface is tied to these minstrel shows,” Berrey said. “It is unfortunate that we have to talk about these things specifically, but it is great that we have people like Professor Berrey who are knowledgeable and can facilitate a discussion about why these things are problematic, what we can do about them, and hopefully create a more informed student body.”