Blackface minstrelsy—comedic performances about African American culture by white men in burnt cork makeup and exaggerated costumes—is the best known example of American blackface performance. It is usually said to have begun during the years from 1828 to 1831. But its performance progenitors long antedated the Jacksonian era.
Black characters on stage, played by white men and women costumed in blackface makeup, occurred as early as the fourteenth century in English Christmas pageants. The first notable British scenic designer, Inigo Jones (1573–1652), had the queen of Denmark blacken her face to participate in playwright Ben Jonson's Masque of Blackness (1605). Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (published as a novel in 1688 and later adapted after Behn's death as a play) and William Shakespeare's Othello (1604) both featured actors in blackface and centered their stories around South American and North African characters respectively.
In pre-Revolutionary America, the practice of theater was condemned by the Puritans. It is therefore not surprising that the first black character in an American drama did not appear until 1767. The play, The Disappointment, or, The Force of Credulity, featured the character Raccoon, played by a white actor in blackface. It is not clear which came first, the racial epithet "coon" or this character, but in any case, the die was cast. From then on, servant and slave characters in early American dramatic plays were sometimes black. Since the descriptions often did not specify the race of the character, theater scholars have identified black characters primarily through a unique and manufactured form of "black" stage diction based on mispronunciation, malapropism, and word misuse. The blackened white men who performed these roles played this diction (not a dialect) to the hilt to garner more laughs, and the playwrights would write more ridiculous examples of poor diction for the actors to recite, so that the language degenerated into the almost indecipherable. In this way, the "force of darkness" that the blackface performer had been in English drama became, in early American drama, a stock character of humor. In Demons of Disorder (1997), music historian Dale Cockrell documented the following stage productions as those featuring a blackface character that were most often performed on the American stage (date of first American production in parentheses): Othello (1751); Jonathan in England; or, John Bull at Home (1828); The Forest Rose; or, American Farmers (1825); The One Hundred-Pound Note (1827); Laugh When You Can (1799); and The Irishman in London (1793). All of these works are comedic with the exception of Othello, though parodies of Othello were a great favorite on the minstrel stage. The last work Cockrell lists, The Padlock (1769), is actually a comic opera with a servant character named Mungo. Mungo sings and dances to please his white owners. Cockrell makes the important point that blackness on the early American stage connected comedy with low culture, and that this connection could be illustrated through black servant characters or low-culture characters who were not marked as African or African American or Anglo African but who were performed in blackface.
Black makeup was used as a means and a sign of transgression, harkening back to the English use of blackface before the 1700s. The American spin on the English tradition is that both whites and blacks donned blackface to perform in the streets. The Mardi Gras Carnival of New Orleans is the most prominent and longest lasting of the traditions above.
The Code Noir (Black Code) of Louisiana, first enacted in 1724 and continually revised until the passage of the 1991 Mardi Gras Ordinance, required that the riders of the carnival floats be whites and the torchbearers (flambeaux) be Creole or African American. The floats themselves could and did serve as platforms for derogatory commentary through the use of blackface by the white participants. As a counternarrative, African Americans, Native Americans, and African Indians masked (using makeup or papier mâché) "Indian" on the fringes of the carnival route beginning in the 1790s. Playing upon white fear sparked by uprisings like those in Haiti at that time and later by the First Seminole War in Florida (1817–1818), those barred from free and open participation in carnival enacted what performance scholar Joseph Roach has called "scene[s] of defiant counterentitlement" ("Carnival and the Law," p. 59). There is evidence that these Mardi Gras Indians performed in blackface in order to heighten their dramatic intentions. The Mardi Gras Indians represented the most common use of blackface in the early American period: an interweaving of blackface, political commentary, and humor in performance, on or off the stage.
See alsoTheater and Drama .
Roach, Joseph. "Carnival and the Law." TDR (The Drama Review) 37, no. 3 (Fall 1993): 42–75.