Tackling one of the most difficult conversations in America’s history of media and performance, Dr. Ayanna Thompson’s new book “Blackface” confronts the ugly tradition of whites using dark makeup to crudely imitate and mock the appearances of Black Americans. Thompson, a professor of English at Arizona State University and director of the Arizona Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies, hopes her “little book” will serve as a resource for ordinary Americans reckoning with our shared and often hidden history.
Thompson joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to explore the book’s themes and notable figures and emphasize all Americans’ duty to engage and learn.
She outlined a continuous thread of appearances of blackface, originating as far back as medieval religious theater. Trappings of costumes meant to evoke fallen angels and demons slowly evolved into racist portrayals of African, Asian and other non-white characters in Renaissance theater, including Shakespeare’s plays.
The practice continued to emerge in new contexts with the rise of blackface makeup and minstrelsy in early 19th and 20th century America, continuing today with countless examples of mainstream film and TV comedies allowing white actors to perform in blackface.
“Black characters have, from the start, been white property… and that means literally, from the first, Black characters ever created in English, they were to be performed by white actors in Black makeup. That legacy makes it difficult now for Black characters to even own a performance mode that is authentic to themselves and is a full and robust portrait of Black humanity,” said Thompson.
Beyond the historical, Thompson’s book also shares her personal experience grappling with white American’s ignorance on this subject. She recalls a presentation at her son’s school, where some white students asked to act in the roles of their heroes chose to use black makeup and present as Black historical figures. The experience, though shocking for Thompson, was a factor in her decision to write “Blackface.”
“I thought, wait a minute. This is our history, our shared American history. It shouldn’t be that I need to educate the principal of a private school about American history,” said Thompson. She continued, “But then I realized, right, this is a history that we’d like to pretend exists only in the past, that it’s over and done with and we don’t need to think about it anymore. But as I discovered, there were so many performances on American television in the 21st century that employed blackface… that I felt like I had to write a book that said, ‘it’s not just in the past, it’s happening now.’”
Thompson’s commentary sheds light on how the racist history of Black depictions damages and muddles the opportunities for, and expectations of, contemporary Black performers.
“For white actors… there is an assumption that Black characters in performance are something that they are entitled to inhabit. That just happens over and over and over again,” said Thompson. “For Black actors, I think the legacy is probably more harmful. Because they’re trapped in these performance modes where they’re either replicating blackface portrayals of Blackness… or they’re in these performance modes where they’re constantly worried about if it’s possible to perform Black identity authentically. I don’t think white actors worry about whether or not they’re performing whiteness authentically, but we see that over and over and over again in contemporary Black performances. That’s a weird, horrible legacy to be trapped in.”
“We need to understand the long arc of how this came to be, and we need to find a way for us to end it today, collectively,” said Thompson.
“Blackface” is available now as a part of the series “Object Lessons,” books about “the hidden lives of ordinary things,” curated and published by Bloomsbury Publishing and The Atlantic.