Blackface History Prior to Minstrel Shows
Centuries before the first American minstrel put on the burnt cork mask, blackface was a familiar theatrical device in Europe. The most famous blackface performance in the legitimate theater is Shakespeare's Othello, first produced in 1604 and almost always performed by a White actor in blackface until nearly the end of the 20th Century. Verdi's operatic version will no doubt continue to be sung by blackfaced Whites until opera develops enough strong Black tenors to take over the role.
As theater historian Robert Hornback explains, Shakespeare did not invent theatrical blackface, but was consciously using a convention with a very long tradition and some very specific implications for his audience. From the folk rituals of pagan Europe through Medieval religious pageants to the theater of Shakespeare's day, a black face and black skin were used to denote both evil and folly.
The symbolism was basic: white/light/day equaled good, dark/black/night equaled evil. Europeans simply carried the symbolism over to “light” and “dark” skin. A blackened, sooty or begrimed face was the sign of the scapegoat in pagan rituals. From the early Middle Ages, blackface, black masks, black gloves and leggings, frizzy-haired wigs and other devices made up the costumes of Satan, his fallen angels and the souls of the damned. Dark skin was also associated with the biblical “mark of Cain” (an association of which American minstrel men were well aware).
Feast of Fools festivities were often led by blackfaced or black-masked figures, the Lords of Misrule. The evil trickster Harlequin was routinely played in a black mask in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Morris Dance in rural England was led by a blackmasked fool, known variously as King Coffee, Old Sooty-Face or Dirty Bet. As late as 2005, every winter in the fishing village of
Padstow, in Cornwall, England, townsfolk were still blackening their faces and parading through the streets in festivities clearly descended from the Feast of Fools. Unfortunately, they called the event “Darkie Day,” leading to charges of racism and attempts to outlaw the centuries-old practice.
The blackfaced Moor was a figure found in dozens of London plays from at least 20 years before Othello and for decades afterward. In court masques and other costume affairs of the period, blacking up as Moors was quite popular; Queen Anne and a dozen of her ladies in waiting blackened their faces and arms, and apparently wore frizzy-haired wigs, at a masque the year after Othello premiered, causing one noble gentleman in attendance to shudder and remark, “[Y]ou cannot imagine a more ugly Sight.”
So in his character of Othello, Shakespeare was both drawing on a rich tradition of symbols and allegory, and toying with his audience's expectations that a blackface figure would represent evil (which he assigns to the real villain of the play, the White
Iago), as well as folly and ritual scapegoating (both of which Othello plays to the hilt).
The English colonists brought all those blackface traditions with them to America. Blackface characters were appearing on the stages of America's earliest legitimate theaters well before the first blackface minstrel strutted his stuff. In fact, historian Dale Cockrell offers the astounding estimate that between 1751 and the appearance of the first full-fledged minstrel show troupes in 1843, some 20,000 blackface performances were given in American theaters. Topping his list is Othello itself, first performed in America in 1751 and by far the most popular “blackface” play in early America. Why? Cockrell believes that it played directly to one of the greatest fears of the White elite who founded the nation: race-mixing, which the Founding Fathers and city fathers were convinced would dilute the American stock. John Quincy Adams read Othello as a morality tale about the dangers of miscegenation, and saw in Desdemona's destruction a lesson to be learned by all White women who might be tempted to mate with Black men.
Blackface folk rituals also crossed the Atlantic with the settlers. When young men went wilding, which they did a lot, it could involve all sorts of outlandish costumes, disguises, cross-dressing and “ethnic drag.” Some festivities were seasonal, like the pre-Lent Carnival, which spread throughout the Americas. The most famous is Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which included Whites in blackface and Blacks in whiteface. Mumming plays, which went door to door demanding food and drink, survive today as Philadelphia's Mummers Parade, which allowed blackface among its outrageous costumes into the 1960s. Around New Year's, mobs of young men would often roam the streets in “callithumpian” bands, making a horrendous din banging on pots and pans and blatting horns. Their faces were often blackened with soot, and their costumes could be anything from women's clothing to their own clothes worn inside-out.
Mobs of disguised young males took to the streets at non-seasonal times to express social or political discontent. The “Indians” of the Boston Tea Party are only the most famous instance. In the practice of “charivari,” they'd descend in the middle of the night on the house of someone in the community whom they accused of some transgression--adultery, philandering, wife-beating, or, in Cajun country, when an older man married a much younger bride. Their raucous behavior was intended to shame the person in front of his/her neighbors.
Charivari could often boil over into mob violence. Tarring and feathering, making someone “ride the rail,” the lynch mob and even the costumed vigilantism of the Ku Klux Klan can all be seen as extreme versions of charivari. Even stranger are the race riots that periodically broke out in the tenements and slums of lower Manhattan, when mobs of poor and discontent White youths ran wild in the streets. Their faces often blackened, they not only ransacked establishments symbolic of upper-class Whites, like the Park Theatre, but also targeted the homes, businesses and persons of their Black neighbors, producing the bizarre image of blackface-on-Black violence. Some of T. D. Rice's audience at the Bowery in 1832 had undoubtedly blackened their own faces and participated in this kind of street violence.
There was a third and very important source for minstrelsy: the circus. While not the lavish affairs we think of today, some early, rougher form of traveling circuses were popular in America from Revolutionary times--George Washington was a fan. Blackface clowns were traveling with them from at least the 1810s and maybe before; certainly they were a staple by the 1820s. The wide red or white mouth painted on by today's clowns is a remnant of the blackface mask. Many of the first stars of the minstrel stage apparently toured as/with blackface circus clowns in their early years, doing brief song and dance routines between the other acts. In many respects minstrelsy was born when these performers moved their acts from the tent to the stage of American variety theaters.
But none of this—blackface in theaters, blackface on the streets, blackface clowning—would have come together as minstrelsy without the crucial elements of music and dance.