Blackface — Then and Now

Understanding the origins of its use and historical context in which blackface emerged will help students to understand why photographs in old yearbooks and its use in Halloween costumes are offensive and part of centuries-old degradation of one race by another.
Additional Disciplines 

“The racism was present the moment he took the stage.

“Using something black to darken his face, Thomas Dartmouth Rice didn’t hold back in his singsong performances, which date to the 1830s. The white man danced like a buffoon and spoke with an exaggerated imitation of black slave vernacular to entertain his audiences.

“His fictional character also had a name: “Jim Crow.”


Began the Washington Post article “Northam’s ugly yearbook photo and the racist origins of blackface.” The news peg for this curriculum guide is the discovery of a photograph on the Virginia governor’s medical school personal yearbook page of a white man in blackface and another in a KKK robe. The 1830s and 2019 are of one thread. And even further back 400 years to Point Comfort, Virginia.


People in blackface can be seen in photographs of college campuses, fraternity parties and Halloween costumes. Found in yearbooks and newspapers, students are in variety shows, glee club productions, and at social events.


In a recent Pew Research survey, one out of three Americans find wearing blackface on Halloween is acceptable. The survey also asked if it was acceptable to wear “traditional dress from a country or culture other than their own as part of a Halloween costume.” According to Pew — 58 percent of Americans said that was always or sometimes acceptable; about a quarter said it’s rarely or never acceptable.


According to Teaching Tolerance educator material: “It’s time we confronted this issue more directly. In that way, perhaps we can help prevent further careless and insensitive incidents of blackface in our society.


Reprints of Post articles and commentary, suggested activities and resources in this guide are provided to help teachers and their students understand why blackface use is insensitive, demeaning and racist. The focus is on minstrel shows and Jim Crow. “The performances cannot be separated fully from the racial derision and stereotyping at its core,” as the Museum of African American History and Culture explains. “By distorting the features and culture of African Americans — including their looks, language, dance, deportment, and character — white Americans were able to codify whiteness across class and geopolitical lines as its antithesis.”


This is Blackface — Then and Now.



March 2019

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Who and What Are Jim Crow?
Government, Theatre Arts, U.S. History

In November 2012, one of the resource guides focused on “The Jim Crow South: Paving the Way for the Modern Civil Rights Movement.” Teachers will find this material helpful in presenting Jim Crow codes and laws. The text and suggested activities were written by Daniel J. Crooks, a Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project Fellow and law student at the time.

Before reading and discussing “Baseball, Apple Pie and Blackface,” teachers also may wish to cover the vocabulary found below in “In the Know.” Additional terms to cover include “blackface,” “blacking up,” “ Reconstruction,” “taboo” and “vestiges.”

Give students cultural historian Rhae Lynn Barnes’ Post OUTLOOK article “Baseball, Apple Pie and Blackface” to read and discuss. Discussion questions are provided to respond to while or after reading the article. 


Examine Minstrel Shows
Fine Arts, Music, Theatre Arts, U.S. History

Teachers Notes: Blackface, Minstrel Shows, Stereotypes gives links to resources and suggestions for teachers to review before teaching about the use of blackface by public officials and fellow students, cultural appropriation by designers, and forms of stereotypes.


Teachers may also find the February 2019, Post coverage of a school’s Black History Month activity that was deemed “unacceptable.” See “‘Slavery is not a game’: Virginia school apologizes over Black History Month exercise.”


The National Museum of African American History and Culture has an online exhibit of blackface advertising and art: “Blackface: The Birth of an American Stereotype.” These may be particularly helpful in introducing younger students to these images.


Teachers may wish to show older students an example of a blackface performance. Prepare students for what they will see. The stereotypes, use of vernacular and underlying white supremacy could be part of this discussion. Examples include:
Al Jolson and the E.P. Christy’s Ethiopian Seranaders sing “Camptown Races” in blackface
Blackface Montage from Spike Lee’s Bamboozled

Movies, TV and Stage
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What Caused the Current Attention to the Use of Blackface?
Character Education, Journalism, Media Arts, U.S. Government

On Friday, February 1, 2019, news sources reported that Ralph Northam’s page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook included a photograph of a person in blackface and one in a Ku Klux Klan robe. By Feb. 7, The Washington Post reported that Virginia’s Attorney General Mark R. Herring, also a Democrat, stated that he had dressed in blackface while in college. Other public figures in other states also indicate they had appeared in blackface.

Teachers should introduce students to the use of blackface in minstrel shows and the institution of Jim Crow practices. Read and discuss “Baseball, Apple Pie and Blackface.” If time allows, discussion questions are provided.

Reactions to the yearbook page, the use of blackface and the governor’s response were varied:

• Calls rang out for Gov. Northam’s resignation.

• Fellow medical students, such as retired neurologist Walter G. Broadnax Jr., recalled a quiet, amiable student: “The Ralph that I knew wouldn’t do something like that. He never showed any of those kinds of attitudes.” A Letter to the Editor from a EVMS classmate recalled: “The Ralph Northam I knew in medical school was gentle, honorable, honest, moral and ethical.”

• Others said he should be judged by his current actions. Northam has indicated what the next steps will be. Read “Va. Gov. Ralph Northam says he wants to focus rest of his term on racial equity” for the governor's response. The timeline in “Northam struggles to escape Va.’s troubled past — and his own” is another useful perspective on the "legacy" in Virginia.



When Appropriate to Appropriate Culture?
Art, Ethics, Fashion, Visual Arts

Blackface use extends beyond photographs, cultural expression and reenactments of minstrel shows. Read Robin Givhan’s article on cultural appropriation in fashion, “Blackface is white supremacy as fashion — and it’s always been in season.”


Teachers may wish to include The Atlantic article “The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation.” It includes photographs and video of cultural appropriation done right and wrong for enrichment or additional perspectives. Areas of discussion could include:

• Give examples of embracing and respecting another culture

(cuisine, attitudes towards the environment, respect for elders)

• What are the benefits of cultural appropriation?

(inspiring creativity, increased understanding of another way of doing things,

• Give examples of using from traditional cultures without respect or understanding of it.

(Wearing ceremonial Native American headdresses in runway shows or at Burning Man, wearing fake dreadlocks)

• What Halloween costumes may be considered culturally insensitive or insulting?

(dressing as an American Indian, wearing blackface or putting on a hijab)

• Since fashion and home décor are global business enterprises, how aware of cultural differences, negative stereotypes and derogatory imagery should designers and their companies be?


Select Films Carefully
Culture, English, U.S. History, Visual Arts

The presence of people of color in movies and on television — and what roles they get is an old topic and as new as the next releases and awards season. Media can open the door to discussion of film techniques, themes and character portrayal as well as application of film actions and concepts in real life. Teachers have several avenues of approach:

• Blackface in television variety and comedy shows.

• Racism and racial, pejorative stereotypes in movies. “The Birth of a Nation: The most racist movie ever made” includes examples of scenes from the 1915 film and references to later movies. Students could compare this early motion picture to contemporary movies they have seen. Spike Lee’s Bamboozled addresses these with many examples.

• Moving out of “comfortable” roles into understanding and friendship. Some movies that may be used include Driving Miss Daisy, Green Book, The Help, Hidden Figures and Grand Canyon.

• Teachers may wish to review the Teaching Tolerance podcast “Film and the History of Slavery.” SPLC provides suggestions for using film in the classroom to teach slavery. In particular, review "Episode 9: Ten More … Film and History of Slavery" offers background and strategies, from Ken Burns to Black Panther, to bring pop culture into lessons.

Virginia isn’t a one-off. Here’s a (growing) list of celebs and lawmakers who got in trouble over blackface.”



Blackface Appears in Other Countries
Art, Culture, Debate, Physical Education, World History, Visual Arts

In sports, entertainment, religious observance, and cultural activities blackface, brownface, yellowface and redface appear. What makes Zwarte Piet who accompany Sinkerklaas in Holland and Spain, the Golliwog dolls found in England and Europe, Negro Mama in Peru and the Little Black Sambo book by Scottish author Helen Bannerman different than Al Jolson and wearers of blackface? What happens when culture, values and respect for others clash across international borders? Should we expect others to change to our values?


Teachers could review the above links and ask students to read the following articles. Discuss and perhaps form debate groups to take a stand on the situation. For example, one group could represent Dutch who wear soot as Zwarte Piet and another group represents those who are against blackface use for Halloween or costume parties.

• “From America to China, blackface is a global problem”

• “Blackface has been shunned in the U.S. Brownface deserves the same scrutiny.” The mimicry of Yalitza Aparicio on Mexican television revealed an ugly, persistent form of racism in Latin America.

• “These examples of Blackface Around the World Prove We Have a Long Way to Go”

Read About Minstrel Shows, Jim Crow and Cultural Appropriation


Read About Race and America
A.P. Government, English, Humanities, U.S. History

When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam stated he would not resign, he promised to pursue racial equality in the remaining three years of his term and to learn to better fulfill that promise. In the PowerPost column, James Hohmann reached out to historians to advise the governor. Read and discuss “The Daily 202: Ralph Northam should read these books to better understand racism, historians say.”


Teachers may even use this list to form a unit of study with students selecting one or more of the works for presentation, symposium-style sharing or personal research and/or be an expert project.


Should it Be Regret, Redemption or Resignation?
Character Education, Debate, Ethics, U.S. Government

When public officials disappoint, demonstrate ethical misjudgements, or show disrespect for constituents, what should public reaction be? What if the action or statements took place years before? Such a situation took place in Virginia.


Read “Virginians try to find ‘lesser of three evils’ as state reckons with racist past.” Discuss the different responses and the reasons that Virginians give. Students might be asked to use this situation — Gov. Northam alone or all three officials — to debate the expectations and standards by which public officials should be viewed and/or judged.


Additional reading on the topic includes columns and guest commentary “Hate, not heritage” by James Comey, “What can redeem blackface?” by Donna Edwards and “Some blow smoke in apologies for racism” and “Can intention make blackface acceptable?” by Courtland Milloy. These perspectives inform students and are written by individuals who have served the public and observed society.


Consider Student Media Coverage
Ethics, Journalism, Media Arts, Photography, Visual Arts

Photographs in older college and medical school yearbooks brought more attention to blackface use — and the history of its beginnings in American minstrel shows. A number of college presidents issued statements of apology for what was published decades before. Read “Is the University of Virginia yearbook name, ‘Corks and Curls,’ about to become history as the school grapples with racist images.” by Susan Svrluga for examples. More insight is provided in "USA Today reporters scoured hundreds of yearbooks for racist photos. They found one published by their own editor."


Today’s media students make daily decisions about what they cover and how they cover it. “What To Do?” provides situations in which staffs must decide what they would or would not publish or air.


Write a Publication Policy
Ethics and Law, Journalism, Media Arts, Photography, Visual Arts

After completing the “What To Do?” activities, ask students to write a policy statement or statements that will cover situations. See question 11-15 in the activity. Students are asked to include a guideline for writing captions/cutlines. Captions should be informative: include correct names, context for the images seen, and clear and unbiased information.


Post NIE Guide Editor | Carol Lange
Post NIE Guide Art Editor | Carol Porter

Resource Graphic 
In The Know 

Cultural appropriation Adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture, includes its use for profit or exploitation; taking or using aspects or symbols from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing respect or understanding of the culture and item
 Disdain Feeling that someone or something is unworthy of one’s consideration or respect; contempt; scorn
Jim Crow The set of post-Reconstruction segregation laws, social codes, and customs that required separation of whites and Blacks in public accommodations throughout the South (and North); character in blackface in minstrel shows; by late 1830s a pejorative epithet for African Americans.  The National Park Service provides examples of Jim Crow laws online.
Minstrel Medieval musical entertainers; a U.S. type of performance troupe originating in the early 19th century, performed in blackface and conveying negative racial stereotypes
Minstrel show                       


Early 10th century entertainment consisting of variety acts, dancing, and music performances; in U.S., white performers often appeared in blackface depicting African Americans; there were a few African American performers or all-black minstrel groups. Although popular for years in varied iterations, it presented demeaning stereotypes of Blacks with such figures as Jim Crow, Zip Coon, Mammy and pickanninnies.



Excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance

Plessy v. Ferguson In 1890, Louisiana passed a statute called the Separate Car Act declaring that all rail companies carrying passengers in Louisiana must provide separate but equal accommodations for white and non-white passengers. The penalty for sitting in the wrong compartment was a fine of $25 or 20 days in jail. A group of black citizens joined forces with the East Louisiana Railroad Company to fight the Act. When the case was heard by the Supreme Court, the decision upheld the constitutionality of the separate but equal doctrine. 
 Racisim Belief that one group of people is superior to another by virtue of the color of their skin; prejudice, discrimination or antagonism against someone of a different race
 Trope Figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression 

ANSWERS. Riding With Jim Crow

1. a. Minstrel show blackface stock character, b. Name given to codes and laws instituted during Reconstruction that were based in white supremacy and incompetence of blacks, c. Name referring to the back car(s) of Massachusetts passenger trains that “separated the drunken, dirty, ragged and colored people from the others,” d. applied to politicians who gave up a “principle too easily or abandoned their party’s cause.”

2. a. This is earlier than many laws and practices instituted in the South, b. This clearly indicates that separation of the races and Jim Crow were not a Southern institution.

3. Matching. 1. c, 2. e, 3. b, 4. a, 5. d. 4. Responses will vary.

5. True or False? 1. False — Only three of eight lines held to the custom of separate cars,

2. False — The public who usually boarded at Lynn were angered by this disruption, 3. True, 4. True, 5. False — Just the opposite, it prohibited such access.

6. Many examples are given in the article. Responses will vary. If students give an example other than found in the article, be sure they include the source of the information.

7. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation, accepting the “separate but equal” doctrine. In 1892 Homer Plessy, an African-American (mixed race) train passenger (East Louisiana Railway, New Orleans to Covington), refused to sit in a car set aside for blacks. He was removed from the train and jailed. For more details read FindLaw’s Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), including opinion of the court and dissenting views.

8-9. Responses will vary. Although for religious, ethical or economic reasons, Northerners were anti-slavery. This view did not extend to respect for one another as equal human beings or in social exchanges. 10. Responses will vary. Be sure students provide example(s) to support their point of view.

District of Columbia Public Schools Academic Content Standards 

Vocal/Choral Music. Connect music to other art forms and subject areas through understanding the historical and cultural context of music. (Strand 5)


Theatre. Apply theatrical concepts to construct meaning and understanding in other subjects (Strand 4)

• Identify examples of how theatre, television, and film can influence or be influenced by society, politics and culture. (6.4.2)


Visual Arts. Investigate and understand historical and cultural dimensions of the visual arts and to construct meaning in the diverse ways in which human experience is expressed across time and place (Historical and Cultural Context, 3)

• Categorize and distinguish artistic styles of the late 19th, 20th and 21st centuries in terms of purpose, interpretive approach and historical context. (HAS.3.3)



The District of Columbia has adopted the Common Core State Standards in reading and mathematics. In addition, DCPS has adopted new learning standards in arts, health and physical education, science, social studies, technology and world languages.



Academic Content Standards may be found at

Maryland Academic Content Standards 

Fine Arts: Theatre

Relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding. (Anchor Standard 11)

• Apply researched information to develop and refine a self-devised theatrical work based on a provided artifact. (E:P-2:3)

• Apply innovative storytelling techniques to explore and expand cultural and historical themes in a theatrical work. (E:9-12:3)


Fine Arts: Visual Art

Use historical and contemporary references to determine if an image effectively influences or represents a culture, time, or audience (E:9-12:2)


The Maryland Voluntary State Curriculum Content Standards can be found online at

Virginia Academic Content Standards 

Fine Arts: Visual Arts. The student will interpret, reflect upon, and evaluate the characteristics, purposes, and merits of their work and the work of others. (6.15)


Fine Arts: Visual Arts. The student will describe how works of art are influenced by social, political, and economic factors. (8.12)


Fine Arts: Visual Arts. The student will explain how themes throughout the history of art have been influenced by traditions, norms, values, beliefs, and events. (Advanced Intermediate. Art History and Cultural Context, AIII.12)


Fine Arts: Visual Arts. The student will analyze the ways that form and function of historical and contemporary art and design have changed over time. (Advanced Intermediate. Art History and Cultural Context, AIII.14)


U.S. History. The United States since World War II. The student will apply social science skills to understand the key domestic and international issues during the second half of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries by

a) examining the impact of the Civil Rights Movement, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the changing role of women on all Americans;

b) describing the development of new technologies in communication, entertainment, and business and their impact on American life;

c) analyzing how representative citizens have influenced America scientifically, culturally, academically, and economically; ((USII.9)


Academic Content Standards may be found at

Common Core Standards 

Key Ideas and Details:

Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms. [CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11-12.2]


Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., quantitative data, video, multimedia) in order to address a question or solve a problem. [CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11-12.7]


Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources. [CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.9]



Common Core standards may be found at