Blackface and Passing as a Performances

Essay by raeray93College, UndergraduateA-, November 2014

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English 217

Comparative Paper

Blackface and Passing as Performances

In 19th century America, the segregation of blacks and whites in the south was in full swing, reaching unprecedented lengths. Two practices regarding race were increasingly popular at this time: blackface and passing. Blackface, as displayed in Amaud Johnson's Darktown Follies, was a type of performance using theatrical makeup to represent black people and their stereotypes; passing was a performance on the part of black people to "pass" as white people because their skin color was light enough, although other factors were involved as well. Charles Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars follows a pair of siblings, John and Rena Walden, over the color line-and, in Rena's case, back again. Both practices comment negatively on the status of society at this time with regards to racial segregation. In both stories, the main characters perform a racial and gendered identity not to better society, but to improve their own lives and consequently reinforce the stereotypes against the African American race.

As a type of performance, blackface minstrelsy negatively affected society as a whole, both whites and blacks. From the outside it appears that only blacks felt the consequences of it because of the stereotypes against them. However it was an established musical genre that pitted lower class whites against elite white males who ran the theaters. At the same time though, the blacks were usually the actors making fun and inflicting humiliation upon themselves. Through these actions they fail to uplift the dignity of their race and instead are promoting others to join them. Thus blackface minstrelsy reflected the contingent influence of both class and race.

In Amaud Johnson's Darktown Follies, two poems represent the deteriorating affects for performers of blackface minstrelsy. The first poem is "Fancywork", which describes the...