Davarian Baldwin on the Use of Blackface

Michel Martin sits down with Davarian Baldwin, author and professor of American studies at Trinity College in Connecticut, to discuss why racist practices from the past continue to haunt U.S. politics today.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: No group has been labeled or stereotyped more in the United States than African-Americans. And racist practices from the past continue to haunt us politics today. The most recent example being in Virginia where the governor, the attorney general, the Senate majority leader are all embroiled in scandals involving blackface. So, why does this painful legacy still exist? Davarian Baldwin is an author and professor of American Studies at Trinity College Connecticut. He’s written extensively on slavery and race relations and he sat down with I’m Michel Martin to explain the history of blackface and why it continues to rear its ugly head.

MICHEL MARTIN: Professor Davarian Baldwin, very thank you so much for talking to us.


MARTIN: So, who would have thought we’d be talking about blackface —

BALDWIN: Not me.

MARTIN: — in 2019.

BALDWIN: Not me.

MARTIN: So, how did blackface start?

BALDWIN: Iterations of blackface or blacking of the face goes back to 1600 in Europe. But then it does begin, in terms of our current understand the blackface, blackface minstrelsy, begins in the northeast and then travel south. It’s primarily most well-known in the 1830s and 1840s, particularly Thomas Rice and his piece, Jim Crow, which is where we get the name for policy, the separate but equal. And so, that’s where it takes on kind of an explosive significance in American life, both north and south. It was in a peculiar Southern institution. And I argue that blackface minstrelsy was the reality television of the 19th century, everybody was engaging it.

MARTIN: Really? OK. Well, then back up a little bit tell me more about Thomas Rice and how did this start. I mean, he was a Vaudeville entertainer —

BALDWIN: Yes, he was a Vaudeville entertainer. I guess (INAUDIBLE) for me is that this was the kind of primary mode of entertainment in that time period. So, from more kind of working class, kind of vaudevillian style of performance up to reenactments of Oselow and, obviously, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, all this kind of pattern or standard theatrical performances have blackface versions. And so, this is something that was pervasive throughout kind of American performance history in America, blackface minstrelsy.

MARTIN: For how long?

BALDWIN: Oh, up until 1960s.

MARTIN: To the 60s?



BALDWIN: It was on television.

MARTIN: OK. But into what end though? Because I think that some people, if they’re honest and if they have good memories, will remember that Judy Garland appeared in blackface, Jody Temple —


MARTIN: — appeared in blackface at one point. African-Americans, I think, I feel confident in saying, experience this as demeaning.


MARTIN: But was it intended to be demeaning to your knowledge.

BALDWIN: Yes, yes, very much so. So, if we define and understand blackface minstrelsy, it is this theatrical performance where primarily Non-Black actors put on dark make up, using the form of grease paint, burnt cork or a shoe polish in order to lampoon, make fun, caricature Black people. That was the intent, to represent Black people as being buffoonish, lazy, feeling, ignorant, afraid of their own shadows. And particularly, also, Black women as being manly, mammy like, unattractive and/or oversexed. And so, we found as historians and scholars that you had some key themes within blackface minstrelsy primarily in one period in the 40s and 50s, 1840s and 1850s, and then at the turn of the 20th century, this idea — at least two powerful strands, one was that Black people were happy — happier during slavery — you know, under slavery, be happy, the plantation darkie trope. And the other one is a strain that says that Black people were unfit for freedom. And so, particularly around the 19teens and 20s, you had a certain genre, the blackface minstrelsy, where you had a number of images of Black people being unprepared or unable to deal or adapt to modern life, particularly freedom. And so, for me and for scholars that have studied this, we found that blackface minstrelsy did a lot of work for White America. For White elite, it did the work of kind of, if you had to perform or present yourself in a very restrained or dignified way, in performing or in being entertained by blackface, you could engage in buffoonery, a bawdy behavior, drunkenness, kind of sexually explicit demeanor. If you’re a working-class White, performing or being entertained by blackface minstrelsy allows you to establish a bit of difference or distinction with African-Americans who might have had higher stature economically or who might be competing with you for job opportunities or for social standing. And so. blackface minstrelsy did a lot of work for various White social groups within America.

MARTIN: Part of the reason that we’re talking about this is that these racist yearbook photos emerged on the medical school yearbook page —


MARTIN: — of the Virginia governor, Ralph Northam. And then, (INAUDIBLE) who is a Democrat, who, I think, sees himself as a progressive.


MARTIN: And then, it emerged that the attorney general, who also sees itself as of progressive, also says that he appeared in blackface at least on one occasion in 1984.


MARTIN: How do you understand that?

BALDWIN: Well, I mean, if we take this one case, so the Virginia case, and you have the governor, the attorney general and the Senator majority leader who were all engaged in blackface minstrelsy or was editor and looked the other way —

MARTIN: Right. No. Just to clarify, the Senate majority leader edited a year book in which there —


MARTIN: — appear a number —

BALDWIN: Probably more.

MARTIN: — a large number of these photographs. But going back to the timeframe, 1984.

BALDWIN: Sure. I mean, for me personally, as just a person in America, I remember growing up in the 1980s in the Midwest and there were kind of a number of blackface slave auctions at White fraternities and sororities in Midwestern Big 10 Schools. That was pervasive. And —

MARTIN: And what was the purpose of these?

BALDWIN: Entertainment. That’s what it is. That’s what it is.

MARTIN: So, set the scene for me. So, you’re saying that White students would put on blackface —

BALDWIN: Blackface. And then —

MARTIN: — and then pretend to be so —

BALDWIN: — engage in the slave auction, pretend to be soldoff.


BALDWIN: Yes. And so, then, as I said before, you have these moments, continual moments, where there’s a high moment about blackface minstrelsy and then there’s a claim of racial innocence, “Oh, we didn’t know. We didn’t understand.” And then blackface performances change and offed themselves. And you have another high moment. And so, in the 80s it was the slave auctions. In the 90s, it was the pimps and hos parties. Even at my own institution at Trinity College, in 2006, there were pictures that were expose about that word based on a pimps and hos party, individuals wearing gold chains and wild animal print clothing and one gentleman was — had his whole body covered in dark make up and then had a plastic prosthetic over his private parts. So, that — if that doesn’t tell you what his intent was or what his anxiety is, I don’t know what does.

MARTIN: So, what happened to this? So, what you’re saying is, so then it was — first, it was the slave auctions then it was pimps and hos —

BALDWIN: And hos party.

MARTIN: — now it’s rappers.

BALDWIN: Now, it’s tribute, paying tribute to Black people.

MARTIN: Oh, I see.

BALDWIN: So, I love Kurtis Blow, this is one of the gentlemen in Virginia said. So, we were engaging at hip-hop. Mark Herring who —

MARTIN: Mark Herring —


MARTIN: — the attorney general.

BALDWIN: Right. We — it was tribute. And then Ralph Northam, the governor, said it was Michael Jackson. And so, it was tribute. So, again, at every turn, when it gets exposed, there’s a shift in the rationale from slave auctions, pimps and hos parties to tribute, attempting to kind of take away or strip away the racial meaning of it. But I said before, I grew up in the 80s, the same time period as these gentlemen, and in a very multi-racial community and we all love Michael Jackson, for example, talking about Ralph Northam.

MARTIN: Thriller came out the same year that this —


MARTIN: — year book was produced and it was —

BALDWIN: Right. So —

MARTIN: — you know, one of the biggest albums in the world.

BALDWIN: So, people of Latino background, African-American background, White background, we all love Michael Jackson. But in a multiracial space, no one felt the need to put on a dark make up to be Michael Jackson. You might have worn the glove or the hot water pants or the jacket, but the fact that individuals like Ralph Northam, who is White, stop him from actually reenacting the moonwalk at the press conference, the fact that they feel emboldened to engage in these activities says — it is shows that blackface is just a symptom of a larger sickness.

MARTIN: And what is that larger sickness?

BALDWIN: White supremacy.

MARTIN: White supremacy?


MARTIN: That’s your — tell me more about that. Why don’t you say that?

BALDWIN: So, I say that because these — a lot — so many of these performances are taking place within all White spaces, whether it be medical school or predominantly White space. A southern medical school tied to a military college or a predominately White fraternity or sorority. Just in 2015, Sigma Alpha Epsilon had this chant about never letting a Black person into their fraternity or sorority.




BALDWIN: Then a couple years later, Delta Delta Delta sorority, they got on the line on social media, it had blackfaces and said, “I’m a N word.” And then, the next day at the protests, a gentleman walked down in the middle to protest in blackface. So, my point is that these things are happening in predominantly White spaces and in some White space that are saying, “We have a history of not being exclusive on class grounds and racial grounds.” And so, these spaces that are cultivating young people in terms of who are they going to be in the future, these are going to the movers and shakers, the leaders of our future and the social and mentoring space of these organizations are producing a predominately White space.

MARTIN: OK. Well, unpack the White supremacy argument for me from in here.


MARTIN: For example, particularly as it relates to this idea that it’s paying tribute or it’s not a big deal.


MARTIN: You’ll recall that the former Fox News anchor, Megyn Kelly —


MARTIN: — who then went to NBC and had this highly publicized talk show, that became that sort of the pivot point for her —


MARTIN: — and ultimately, ended her career at NBC where she said she didn’t understand what the big deal was.



MEGYN KELLY, AMERICAN JOURNALIST: She dresses Diana Ross and she made her skin look darker than it really is and people said that that was racist. And I don’t know, I felt like who doesn’t love Diana Ross. She wants to look like Diana Ross for one day. I don’t know how like that got racist on Halloween.


MARTIN: What’s the big deal?

BALDWIN: Well, tell me — this is a rhetorical question, I guess, but tell me why the need to put on black makeup to pay tribute? As I said before, I engage in tribute to Michael Jackson. I didn’t lighten my skin. These activities are taking place in either all White or predominantly White spaces. The litmus test for me is that, OK, to do this in the Black space, if this is just tribute, if it’s innocent. You know, better than to engage a blackface in a multi-racial space. That says either consciously or subconsciously something is going on and you know that it’s wrong and you’re engaging it. I mean, if it was innocent and just or a just performance and tribute, why wouldn’t you do it in front of Black people? Why would it be in a semiprivate all White spaces?

MARTIN: Could it be about asserting that I can do whatever I want?


MARTIN: Could it be about that?

BALDWIN: Well, sure.

MARTIN: I could do whatever I want. You can’t tell me what I’m allowed to do.

BALDWIN: Right. But it’s not that neutral. It’s also saying that, “You, Black people, can’t tell me how to represent you.”

MARTIN: What about the people who say, “Well, I don’t mind if Black people put on a White face, like there was some Wayans brother’s movie where they

BALDWIN: Sure. “White Chicks.”

MARTIN: “White Chicks.”


MARTIN: — where they performed in very elaborate makeup as I recall.

BALDWIN: Prosthetics, facial prosthetics.



MARTIN: Why can’t I do the same? Why do you say to that?

BALDWIN: What I say to that is that if that’s your choice, if you want to make a decision about what offends or doesn’t offend you but that doesn’t give you the license to tell me what should or should not offend me. Especially, I call this a false equivalency, blackface and whiteface, because there is not a history of whiteface minstrelsy that had backed up a system in institutions to look at and to articulate and target white people as being inferior, that gave them an inferior education, inferior policing, inferior housing. There is no such system. So this is a false equivalence.

MARTIN: What do you say to people who say, “Well, I just didn’t know. I didn’t know that it bothered you. I didn’t know that it had this relationship to demeaning black folks, to portraying them in this basically subhuman light.” What do you say to people who says I just didn’t know?

BALDWIN: Well, see, the problem with that is that blackface stopped being on television to the same degree during the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement. So there was a shift in the conversation. We get to the 1980s, most of these gentlemen around my age, 40s or 50s, I just have a hard time believing that they didn’t know in that climate. I would really want to have a conversation with them about where — I mean this — going goes back to my point. If you are in these spaces that confirm that standpoint, that’s a problem, right. So for example, with Gucci, with the blackface Balaklava.

MARTIN: Let’s just back up and for people who are not aware of this.


MARTIN: What are we talking about here? Are we talking sweater that —

BALDWIN: So we’re talking about Balaclava sweater that goes up to right below the nose. It’s a black turtleneck that goes up there. Like a Balaclava like for skiing or winter.

MARTIN: With big white red big lips.

BALDWIN: But it has a mouth cut out with big red lips around it.

MARTIN: And they say they didn’t know.

BALDWIN: Right. And so my argument to this or my response to this, OK, if we take all sort of that you didn’t know, that means you have the wrong people around you. That means you need to diversify your leadership. That means you need to engage in more diverse spaces. You need to do more than just selling clothing to black people because we buy Gucci. You just start engaging —

MARTIN: But I don’t.

BALDWIN: Well, black people do.


BALDWIN: OK. By we, I mean black people, right. We are not averse to buying Gucci. They need to — these leaders, these — the fashion designers need to be immersed in the people who they’re selling to. That your leadership should be reflective of the world in which you’re living and engaging. If — I find it very difficult to see or to understand how they couldn’t see that that comes from this history.

MARTIN: This is my question to you then. What do you think should happen now? I’m told that colleges and universities particularly in the south, although — and from your reporting and research indicates that this perhaps should go more deep.

BALDWIN: National.

MARTIN: It should go nationally, are now looking through their yearbooks to see what else is in there. You can see the governor of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam deeply apologize. And he said that he’s now going to engage in a process of kind of listening and hoping to be an agent of healing. Others say he should just go. He needs to go away. What do you think should happen now?

BALDWIN: I’m not sincerely certainly there should be an across the board firing in these cases when this happens. But what I do think is that the search in the yearbooks, that’s not really addressing the issue. Because as a historian, there are all these issues. I know it’s there. Who’s that for? Finding these books is not for the people who are targets of black minstrelsy. It’s for the people who come from the community of those who are performing it. This kind of racial healing conversation, I think that should be part of it. I think also part of it should be that, OK, you need to change your cabinet. You need to enact policies that reflect or reconsider understanding of oppressed and minority groups in this country. As I said before, you know, the blackface minstrelsy component is one component. It’s a symptom of a larger issue, I say white supremacy. But we can’t get so caught up in the individual blackface performances and lose sight of the fact that there are people like Steve King in Iowa who are saying, “I don’t get this whole white supremacist, white nationalist problem.” And he’s able to hold his positions in Congress, leadership positions for 10 plus years.

MARTIN: I want to ask you more broadly though as an educator, do you think that this is an issue of education, of a lack of knowledge —


MARTIN: — about the deep. You don’t?


MARTIN: No? OK. Simple. No. OK. What is it?

BALDWIN: I think that, as I say to my students, you mention education, racism is not about ignorance. It’s about knowing things in a certain way. And so what I mean by that is that it’s not that you don’t know what’s going on, it’s that you want to understand these people in a particular way. And so when — in 2006, when they had this pins and holes party, it’s not that they don’t know who Snoop Dog is or who these rappers are, like the tributes. They have a fond affinity for these groups. [13:35:00] It’s that when they want to go out and they perform or be these people, they make certain choices. They pull from the American past to put on a private part prosthetic to cover their bodies in black, to hold a 40 ounce, to put on a gold chain. These are decisions that are being made about who they understand black people to be. It’s not about ignorance.

MARTIN: What would make this better. What would fix this?

BALDWIN: I mean for me it goes back to the question you asked about white supremacy in terms of these individuals and where it takes place. So most of these, not all of them, but most of these performances, exposures are happening in semi-private predominately white spaces, fraternity, sororities, social clubs, medical schools that are predominantly white. These are the spaces that are cultivating our next generation of leaders. And those — their perceptions of black people are going to impact how they write policy, how they engage in policing, how they think about housing, how they think about political decisions, policymaking. And so that’s where we need to go. What are your decision-making process? What’s your decision process? How does your performance of blackface or your understanding of black people going to shape how you distribute resources, power, advantages, benefits? That’s where it’s structural. That’s where I would argue that we need to go.

MARTIN: You’ve said that this isn’t about education. It’s about empathy.

BALDWIN: For sure.

MARTIN: What do you mean by that?

BALDWIN: So what I mean by that is, for example, if you see black people as human beings, you will know, you will — I think you will believe that this is the wrong thing to do. It’s wrong to lampoon, to caricature, to mock, to make fun of that community as a people, right. And so, for example, a perfect case study or example of this is, for example, with the opioid and the drug crisis. In the 1980s, when drug use and drug dealing was seen as predominantly black and poor phenomena, it was dealt with as a criminal issue. People were being — a whole generation of black and brown people were locked up. People of my family, people that we might — may know were locked up and that changed the dynamic of that community. As we move to the present and the drug crisis is happening in predominantly rural areas and predominantly white youth through opioids, the response and the approach to the drug issue has moved from criminalization to a health crisis. Now, police officers are carrying ad campaigns and they think about individuals. I say the reason why it’s shifted is because these officials, et cetera when they see these young people embroiled in the drug crisis, they see their children, they see their sisters, they see their brothers. And so, therefore, it requires a shift in approach. And so to bring it back to blackface minstrelsy, if, in the same way, we saw black people as humane as our brothers and our sisters, as our neighbors, as our coworkers in real robust ways, we would know that this is wrong to do. And so I think that that does matter, that empathy, that sense of that when I see you, I see myself. That’s critical.

MARTIN: Davarian Baldwin, thank you so much for talking to us.

BALDWIN: Thank you very much for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Paul Romer, winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economics, about sustainable economic growth; and author Irshad Manji about “honest diversity.” Michel Martin speaks with American Studies professor Davarian Baldwin about why racist practices from the past continue to haunt U.S. politics today.