With Halloween approaching, we’ll soon see a rash of stories about young white college students who feel compelled to apologize for an unfortunate Instagram photo that depicts them in blackface at a campus party. The kind of real-life incidents that inspired the new film Dear White People.
Yet despite the ambivalence, awkwardness and, sometimes, revulsion that blackface continues to inspire in whites as well as blacks, there is very little public discussion of the historical contexts that led to the emergence of blackface minstrelsy as a most American form of popular culture.
A new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art offers a contemporary assessment of blackface performance in the discovery of an untitled silent film that starred the biggest star of blackface, Bert Williams.
The first major black crossover star of the 20th century was a light-skinned black man, born in the Bahamas, who donned shoe polish for the desired effect of being clearly identified as a so-called darky. His popularity spoke volumes about the state of American popular culture at the time and mocks the hyperbole of those who would claim that any number of contemporary black comedians or reality-TV stars are blackface “minstrels.”
Blackface minstrelsy was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the late 19th century—the reality TV of its era—which, until the emergence of Williams and his partner George Walker (who was darker-skinned and didn’t apply face paint), was dominated by white men pretending to be “darkies.” To make clear the distinction, Williams and Walker billed themselves as “Two Real Coons.”