Why we can't say we do not know about Black Face

This month another major clothing and handbag designer company experienced backlash from a controversial clothing item it released that closely resembled black face.  This is following multiple media reports of various government officials, teachers, high school students and other individuals also being confronted regarding their use of black face.

 Minstrelsy originated from poor and working class whites as a reflection of their experience of discrimination outside of the dominant white and upper class culture.  Minstrelsy began in the 1830’s with performances that depicted stereotypical caricatures of an idea of blackness by white individuals in black face.  The performances involved wearing worn out clothing and was supposed to replicate enslaved African people on southern slave plantations.  These performances portrayed blacks as being cowardly, lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual and thievery.  The practice of minstrelsy grew and expanded from stage performances to radio and television and eventually movies.1 

 Despite denial of an intent to offend or harm, the continued adaptation of minstrel acts (black face) is deplorable and extremely damaging to American society, especially to the history and heritage of Africans and black individuals.  To make light of or engage in outright ridicule of a practice evolving from slavery and the historical racism within this country is severely unfortunate.  The only way our country can begin to heal from centuries of racist rule is to acknowledge the mistakes of our past and present and to own up to inappropriate and insensitive actions. 

 As February and Black History Month comes to an end, let us be reminded of a quote by Martin Luther King Jr.   “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

 1Adapted from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.