How blackface became a "thing"

Did you ever think that we would experience this sudden explosion of politicians exposed for once having appeared in blackface?

As my kids would say: What is up with this?

First, it was Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia. To quote the New Yorker: "Northam had featured, on his medical-school yearbook page, a photograph of a man in blackface and a man in a Ku Klux Klan hood. Northam immediately apologized for appearing in the photo, but he then changed his story and said that neither person in the photograph was him; he did, however, say that he had once put shoe polish on his face as part of a Michael Jackson costume."

Then, it was Florida State Rep. Anthony Sabatini. As a teen, he appeared with darkened skin while wearing sunglasses, a New York Yankees cap, a do-rag and gold chains.

Let us bracket, for a moment, the question of whether it is "fair" to hold adults responsible for the stupid things that they did as teenagers. (Judaism's answer? The age of thirteen is not only bar/bat mitzvah. It is the age when you should know the difference between right and wrong. And, when you should begin to understand the implications of your actions.)

Let us also bracket the question of whether chimney soot on the faces of the characters in the original "Mary Poppins" film constitutes blackface. (My answer? This seems off to me, though sensitivities are so raw that people see bigotry that doesn't necessarily exist.)

We need to ask, as a society: What was going on in the collective mind that prompted people to think that deliberate, willful appearing in blackface would have been acceptable -- at any moment in history, and at any stage of life?

Isn't this just another form of white supremacy.


But, then, there is a rather bizarre chapter in the history of American Jewry -- Jews performing in minstrel shows -- pretending to be black.

As Eric Goldstein of Emory University describes in The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity, the tradition of Jews appearing in minstrel shows goes at least as far back as 1898.

It happened in Atlanta, under the auspices of the Hebrew Association. Such "Jewish" minstrel shows occurred in the North as well, as early as 1902. Sometimes, the minstrel shows coincided with Purim.

Goldstein reproduces a photo from 1925. It is a group of Jews at a minstrel show, sponsored by the Atlanta chapter of Hadassah, and held at the Progressive Club, one of Atlanta Jewry’s elite gathering places. The Jews are in black face.

The question is: Why did minstrel shows become a (very minor) Jewish "thing"?

Eric Goldstein might have figured it out.

The caption under the Jews in black face picture says, in part: “They [the Jews] frequently embraced black culture as a temporary escape from the pressures of conformity in white America.”

Hmnn. That gets me thinking.

For decades, there was an interesting and often uneasy relationship between Jews and black culture. Today, we might want to call it cultural appropriation, but it was there.

  •  Al Jolson in black face in "The Jazz Singer." You know the story. Jakie Rabinowitz, the cantor's son, leaves his provincial Jewish world, and becomes Jack Robin. It is a double assimilation -- changing his name, and "changing" his race. As Goldstein writes: "While Jolson's blackface scenes employ the racist stereotypes of the day, they also suggest the powerful emotional identification of acculturating Jews with African Americans."
  •  George Gershwin, who used black musical modes and created an African American story in "Porgy and Bess." (Did Gershwin base "It Ain't Necessarily So" on the melody of the Torah blessing, which is a blues riff?)
  • The presence of Jews in blues music, as in the late Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, and others.

Apparently, for a time, Jews subtly understood that while the majority of them were "white," that was not how the gentile white majority viewed them.

Jews, along with southern and eastern Europeans, occupied a racial netherworld -- not quite white, and not quite black. Goldstein suggests that this realization might have been part of the minor Jewish interest in blackface.

For their part, blacks sometimes reciprocated the gesture -- not identifying urban Jews as "truly" white, which meant that they expected Jews to be more sympathetic to their plight. Which, as history records, they often were.
That being said, the sudden explosion of long-ago blackface appearances remind us that America's racial problems show no signs of abating. It is hard to imagine that white people appearing in blackface is anything other than racism.

I close with the following story.Judge Jerome Katz (1907-1998) served in West Virginia’s Mercer County Circuit Court for thirty years. He taught himself to play drums, and he formed a group called Katz and His Kittens.

One day, he got a call from the grand wizard of the local Ku Klux Klan. They had scheduled a parade, but the regular drummer was sick. Could Katz fill in?

Katz replied that everyone in town knew that he was Jewish.

“That’s OK," the grand wizard said. "No one will know who you are. You’ll have a sheet over your head.”

To which Judge Katz replied: “The answer is still 'no.' I don’t read sheet music.”

The sad, tragic, maddening truth is: There are still many people in American who are playing "sheet music."




  1. We need to ask, as a society: What was going on in the collective mind that prompted people to think that deliberate, willful appearing in blackface would have been acceptable — at any moment in history, and at any stage of life?

    Perhaps a better question to ask is: whoever thought blackface was funny or amusing? Certainly not black people, that’s for sure. When you’re the object of derision and/or caricature it’s almost never funny.

  2. Calling out Mary Poppins is ridiculous. The blackface was to imitate Van Dyke’s chimney sweep character.

  3. Googling will net you at least a dozen celebrities. Ted Danson, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Sarah Silverman and Fred Armison are the most prominent. For some it was pure blackface, for others it was to part of their makeup to imitate someone.

  4. Ted Danson and Sarah Silverman both caught hell for it.

    Jimmy Fallon and Fred Armisen were using blackface in the way you referenced but to play black celebrities. There was a lot fake complaining by racist conservatives for that. On par with how it was used in Mary Poppins.

    They are poor examples of the decried use of blackface (which is to parody and sterotype black people), a reference to racially repugnant “minstrel shows” which was done by Northam decades ago and defended by Megyn Kelly recently

  5. One way dominant classes stay dominant is by making others seem less — less human, less civilized, less dignified.

    Why did whites appear in blackface? The answer is simple: because they could. And, more to the point, because they wanted everyone to know they could.

  6. Wow – not only mind reading, but mind reading of ancient minds long dead.

  7. “That being said, the sudden explosion of long-ago blackface appearances remind us that America’s racial problems show no signs of abating.”

    The adjective “long-ago” would seem to support the conclusion that the problems belong to a long-ago era, but that the Kavanaugh hearings popped the cork on digging up the dead.

  8. And a lot of things people used to do without thinking, we now find offensive. Think of Blazing Saddles or All in the Family. Those types of shows/movies don’t get made now. One of my favorite racist-y scenes from an old movie is from Brian’s Song where the press asks Piccolo what it’s like to live with a black man. He says (totally deadpan) “it’s fine as long as he doesn’t use the bathroom.” Sayers just says “Pic…” unsaid is, “they may think you’re serious!” When Hollywood remade that movie years later, they cut that scene and suggested Sayers’ nickname of “Magic” was because of his moves and in no way hinted that it might be short for “Black Magic”. Needless to say, the remake was terrible.

    My point, if I have one, is that we absolutely should be sensitive to what people find offensive, even if we don’t understand why. However, I also think it’s important to be able to laugh at ourselves. I mean, if you can’t laugh at me, who can you laugh at?

    And yes, I do think it CAN be unfair to judge people by what was normal 30-50 years ago. The better question is, if someone did do something like put on blackface, can they own it (say, “yes, I did it, I was young and stupid and here’s the story of how I learned better”), apologize and explain how they want to make the world a less prejudiced place? It’s something called forgiveness.

  9. Up-vote (in case any PC-police are scowling over your comment).

  10. Religions and Societies are dependent upon the concept of Forgiveness–Forgive us our Trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. We as in religions and social systems believe that people can be educated, that they can grow up and mature, that they can change their ways that they can find redemption for past wrongs. IF Religions and Societies don’t have a way for people to change and improve themselves why would anyone ever do it. If you will be condemned for life for wrong doings in your youth why go to all the trouble to become a better person?

  11. There is a ton of shows out there built on the backs of Blazing Saddles and All in the Family. If anything modern shows take it one step further.

    We have two shows on streaming services about the horrors of living in a fascist and Christian Doninionist state.

    We have a superhero fantasy that directly calls upon BLM.

    We had a SF show which directly referenced 9/11 and made suicide bombers sympathetic figures.

    Interracial relations are more matter of fact on TV and films than they were a generation ago.

    What was daring in Archie Bunker’s day is normal now.

  12. Did you write your senators to that effect when the Kavanaugh hearings were going on?

    I seem to recall you tapdancing something a bit different then.

  13. “Seems the governor is more interested in blackface than protecting black babies’ (Borrowed from another news website)

  14. hey rock – let’s all go after the people, who as children, went dressed up as Indians – let’s really get those bigots!

  15. I make a distinction between the behavior of children and that of adults, as does any sensible person.

  16. Oh no!
    They may have insulted the Indians! What about Elizabeth Warren?

  17. I’m no defender of Elizabeth Warren. When public figures make foolish claims, they usually get what they deserve.

    That said, common sense recognizes the difference between claiming to belong to a certain group and making fun of a certain group.

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