Cover Image: Blackface

Blackface

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Member Reviews

I'm a firm believer that if you're really going to discuss a subject you need to know more than one or two things about it. (And personally as a classic movie fan this is a topic that does come up every so often.) This books gives more than everything you should know, from the then and now to everything in between, going as far back as it's historical origins.
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This book is perhaps shorter than I would like it to be. I understand the series Object Lessons is made to be short and in that regard it does its job very well.
There are interesting points being made in this book (particularly the question "why didn't the black kids thought about doing white face when dressing up as someone white?"). I was aware of the recent controversies regarding influencers and brands and had a basic knowledge of the history of black face. This book although short, was still able to show me historical events of relevance that I was not fully aware or didn't know in detail. The tone is not too academic and is pretty accessible. Overall it was an interesting quick read that would recommend as a starting point to people interested on the subject.
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<i>Blackface</i> is a short, academic, and very readable history of blackface, from its earliest origins to the present day. Ayanna Thompson carefully builds a picture of a practice which is not simply about a white person darkening their skin and wearing a wig, but which is an act that allows white people to 'perform' blackness, while not allowing black people to 'perform' either whiteness or blackness. 

Thompson makes it clear that she is not interested in labelling specific examples of blackface as racist or not racist. Instead, she focuses on centring blackface as part of popular culture, from Shakespeare, to minstrel shows, to black-and-white films, to SNL. In this way, she is able to show that it is a tradition that is continuing, and which is still affecting both black and white viewers and performers - albeit in noticeably different ways. 

Anyone already engaged in discussions around race, racism, society and culture is unlikely to be surprised by </i>Blackface</i>, but the examples Thompsons gives and stories she traces are undoubtedly both fascinating and sobering. If you're looking to learn more about the shared histories of theatre and racism, or simply to be able to better understand and articulate why blackface is not OK, this is the book for you. 

An ARC was generously provided by NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for my honest review.
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A timely, urgent, and succinct book that everyone interested in pop culture should read immediately. Thrilled to include Blackface in April’s “Hollywood Confidential” list of notable new titles about the people, culture, and business of moviemaking (pegged to the Academy Awards) for Zoomer magazine’s book section. (article at related link)
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This short non-fiction goes into the history of blackface and how it has been presented in different forms of entertainment since the 1600's.  It is framed by the author talking about an event at her kid's school of which they had to dress as historical figures.  Through this event at a predominately white private school, some of the students did blackface to be figures like MLK. The school's principal didn't understand the problem. 

The most interesting thing to me in the book was the long history of blackface. I mean it dates back to Shakespeare. I liked the discussion of white innocence when doing blackface as a reason to not be offended. She dives into this pretty deeply. 

I think that if you are interested in the topic, this is definitely worth your time reading. I learned a lot more about the history of blackface that I didn't know.
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Blackface by Ayanna Thompson is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in late March.

The what, the why, and the implications of blackface and (to a lesser extent) whiteface on the future of acting and racial empowerment - I personally experienced a whole lot of stomach-turning discomfort towards the contents of this book, so cheers completely to the author for researching so deeply into this topic and offering commentary and critique on specific situations.
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An important and timely book on the history and use of Blackface by a Shakespeare scholar and as part of the Object lessons series of short books about the hidden history of ordinary things. Ayanna Thompson was moved to write this book when several 8 year old children adopt Blackface in order to represent their heroes at her child's school and the school failure to recognise why this is problematic. She goes on to present a detailed and thoroughly researched history of Blackface in the UK and the US, before outlining all the reasons why it is problematic and the defence that many stars have used of 'white innocence' is unacceptable. She also finishes the book with how some Black male performers have also conducted their own version of Blackface by putting on fat suits and cross dressing to mock Black women. A short book but a far from easy read, it is an important addition to the books about representation particularly in the media and how it is important especially when it comes to race. 

With thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for an ARC in exchange for a review.
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This is an interesting idea for the Object Lessons series from Bloomsbury. Blackface seems like more of an idea or practice than an object, yet semantic quibbles aside, Ayanna Thompson presents a concise and compelling overview of the subject. Blackface discusses the history of the practice, and in particular, Thompson helps us understand how power imbalances between white and Black performers have contributed to the unequal dynamic in which white people often feel ok performing Blackface and “Blackness,” but Black people do not have the same privilege of whitening their faces and performing a kind of “whiteness” for entertainment. My thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for the e-ARC to review.

The book begins by framing the question based on a person experience of Thompson’s. Her daughter was in Grade 8 and participated in a day where students had to dress up as famous historical people they had researched. Some of the white children in the class had researched Black people (great) and decided to wear blackface as part of their costume (not great). Thompson brought this to the attention of the school administration. They were resistant to acknowledge this as a systemic problem or take any steps to prevent it from happening again. And so, Thompson starts us off on our journey. She wants us to understand that blackface isn’t merely “white people being racist” but that rather it has a very coherent history one can learn if one does the research (or, you know, reads this book based on Thompson’s research).

My positionality, by the way, is that I am a white woman in Canada. Prior to reading this book, I already knew blackface was bad, and I was very much aware of issues with politicians and celebrities like our very own prime minister. I had a simplistic understanding of blackface’s history as it relates to minstrel shows, Jim Crow caricatures, Al Jolson, etc. But if you have much the same understanding and think that means you don’t need to read this book, then you would be wrong.

Thompson takes us all the way back to Shakespearean England—yes, that is right, circa 1600. She examines how acting at that time was full of race- and genderbending, since actors were white men. Actors took pride in performing blackface to be more “authentic.” I also had no idea that Dartmoor Prison had such a thriving theatre company, so that was an interesting aside. Thompson traces the direct line of influence from Shakespearean England through to actors of the nineteenth century. Along the way, she points out how Black actors struggled to be taken seriously as thespian talents, whereas white actors donning blackface were usually lauded for their performance.

All of this information is crucial for us to understand the turning tide in the 20th century, how we got from the Jazz Singer to “hmm, that makes me uncomfortable” with Laurence Olivier’s Othello. See, Thompson’s crucial point here is that it’s not enough for white people to walk away knowing that blackface is bad because it’s racist. We need to understand how blackface perpetuates stereotypes about Black people, and how white people’s feeling of freedom to perform blackface is itself a privilege embedded within our white supremacist society.

At the end of the day, this is not about Grade 8 white kids dressing up in blackface. But it is about how a school administration, upon learning of this, shrugged it off as no big deal. It is about the incredible amount of advocacy Black people have to exhaust themselves doing merely to get an iota of respect white people receive by default. It is about challenging simplistic or incomplete understandings of our history—which is, again, not a failure on the parts of ourselves as individuals, but a failure of the systems in which we’ve been raised.

Blackface is an object lesson all right—an object lesson in the tangible, cultural costs of white supremacy and how it creates a gulf between peoples where none need exist.
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Another excellent addition to the Object Lessons series, this time about Blackface, its history, significance and cultural context  – something I’d paid little attention to before, thinking it was merely something to do with minstrelsy and now totally politically incorrect and outdated. But this book explains how it is still pervasive in an insidious way and has most definitely not disappeared from our contemporary world. Illuminating, entertaining and thought-provoking, the book raised my awareness of the subject significantly. I just wished the author hadn’t been quite so keen on scattering the text with exclamation marks…..
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"Part of what propels the use of blackface is white people’s belief in their white innocence. When defending, explaining, and even apologising for the employment of blackface, white people rely on the logic and rhetoric of their innocence. In fact, they frame blackface as either an act of celebration and love, or as an act of imitation and verisimilitude. Of course, this assumption rests on the white supremacist belief that white innocence trumps all, including a violently racist history". ⁠
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If you've been following me for a while, you probably know by now much I love the Bloomsbury Object Lessons series. This new release is an extraordinary addition. It examines the history of blackface and clearly explains why it's never acceptable. Author Ayanna Thompson highlights the 400-year-old performance history of blackface, showing us the legacy of white performance of blackness. ⁠
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She demonstrates that it was always a white endeavour, and that to be a black character onstage was to be performed by a white actor in racial prosthetics. Thompson takes us on a journey through the first performances of Blackness on English stages, the birth of blackface minstrelsy, contemporary performances of Blackness, and anti-Black racism. ⁠
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Prompted by an event at her son's private school where children were encouraged to inhabit a chosen character as part of a project, and witnessing (with horror) a few white children using blackface, Thompson embarks on discussing the matter with the school principal. Turns out he's not really aware of the legacy of blackface minstrelsy. What's the big deal? And so, she embarks on this project. ⁠
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Why are there so many examples of public figures, entertainers, and everyday people in blackface? And why aren't there as many examples of people of colour in whiteface? These are some of the questions that she investigates in more detail. ⁠
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I found the book totally compelling and highly informative, and I can only wish that more people get to read it. ⁠
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Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for my advanced digital copy. ⁠
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I found this interesting. I think the content was great and it is an important and uncomfortable read. The writing style could have been better However and I did not finish.
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A great little intro to Black minstrel shows and the racist history behind them, while it’s short and covers a wide variety of supporting arguments, reading much like a dissertation, it’s informative especially for those of us who need to consciously unlearn the things woven into society, the things we have the luxury of not thinking about... like kids in Blackface for a presentation on a fave historical figure.
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This book was fascinating. As a white woman the idea of 'blackface' is something I was familiar with due to the pinbages on the Rowntrees jars. Other than that I wasn't fully aware of the context of blackface. 
I was shocked to discover that white actors/presenters/comedians/influencers are STILL 'blacking-up' in 2020!! Whaaaat???!! I was reading this book shocked! Shocked that this was still happening, and shocked that I was completely unaware of it happening. 

I wish this book was longer and more in depth - but because of it being so short and concise it was very easy to read and understand.
The only reason I didn't give this book the full 5* was I found it a bit repetitive.
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Blackface from Ayanna Thompson is an important contribution to both the Object Lessons series and the (perpetually) ongoing discussion about disrespect, if not blatant racism, toward our fellow human beings.

Thompson offers an excellent historical account that avoids the common starting point, especially in the United States, of either pre-Civil War or Jim Crow era. This can help those who claim the Confederacy as their "heritage" to not feel they are being singled out. As evidenced by the list of relatively recent incidents (30 years or so) and the even more recent (largely failed) attempts at apology (past few years), those who believe(d) blackface was appropriate is not limited to those from the southern or rural US.

Ultimately, the hard part to understand is how someone can be okay with doing something that insults a group of people no matter the context. I am 62 and blackface is something I have never thought of as being okay, whether for a party or as part of a "tribute." So this is not about cancel culture or new sensitivities, this is about finally being called to account for racial insults and white (unwarranted) privilege.

Highly recommended for those genuinely curious about the rationale behind the offensiveness as well as those wanting informed explanations for when they are trying to help people understand.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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Blackface by Ayanna Thompson is a short book about - you guessed it - blackface. I am very thankful for getting to read this ARC. My country, the Netherlands, has its own blackface tradition in the shape of Zwarte Piet/Black Pete that is still very much present in the twenty-first century.

Thompson explains blackface's origin in old Shakespearean plays in England and how that evolved into minstrel shows. Then with older and more modern examples, she explains how Black bodies have been and are portrayed in movies and on television. She also explains how white innocence is used as an excuse when it turns out that celebrities and/or political figures have done blackface. "I did not know better." or "I did it because I love/feel inspired by him/her/them." etc. See this following quote:

"Up until this current moment, white people have believed that performing blackness was a white property that could -- if done with the proper intent -- demonstrate, physically, one's love of black identity and culture. Of course, this assumption rests on the white supremacist belief that white innocence trumps all, including a violently racist history."

Thompson was clear in her chapters and wrote in an easily understandable language. I would love for her work to be translated into Dutch so there will be more understanding about why our tradition of Black Pete has to stop. I truly recommend Blackface to my fellow Dutchies and others who are still ignorant about it.
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I didn’t need to read a book about why blackface is bad to know that it’s never okay. But I’m glad that I did. We still have so much to learn about race and the way that the media influences our perceptions.
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I'll leave aside whether "Blackface" is an object because this book is too important for that kind of nit-picking. Whether it fits in the Object Lesson series in general is kind of moot (not least because it is a very loose theme), and certain the lesson here is one to be taken. I know quite a bit about blackface minstrelsy from my film degree, but the ignorance on the subject matter became increasingly clear last year during the "purge of the blackface" after the George Floyd murder. Thompson wrote this while that was going on, there are some very powerful real-time musings near the end, but the start of the book cleverly not only removes some of the political charge to ask a couple of simple questions. Why, in her child's private school, during a project to honour heroes, was it not seen to be wrong fro a white child to black up when portraying Martin Luther King? And why didn't black children "white-up" when honouring a white hero? The second question in particular is one I hadn't thought much about  before and of course gives lie to some of the honouring and equivalence arguments that get thrown around. Why did people not realise it was bad, and why do they feel ignorance would be a sufficient response.

Thompson goes back much further than I expected in her adroit answer to these questions, with a significant part of her response eschewing pinning all of the "birth of blackface" on the racism from slavery era USA (that does get its lumps). But instead there is a concentration on blackface within performance from Shakespeare and his period to show how normalised it was as a mode of performance, whilst also considering that the exhibition of an "exotic" (black) body was pretty common Elizabethan entertainment. Its in that flipped question - why no whiteface - that this approach threw new things at me, not least black actors who did indeed occasionally use whiteface. In illustrating this she lays plain a power within the system and within performance which the only praise a black actor was going to get was back-handed and innate inferiority is assumed. This all sets the stage for blackface minstrelsy, and how no matter the intent the codification of race-crossing would always privilege the white actor (who can always use ignorance, and homage as ways to weasel out).

I think the book sets out its aim and succeeds at it perfectly. It answers its own central questions and does indeed provide a quickly read primer for people like the school principal in the introduction. The last section where some more complex angles of critical race theory get teased (not least modes of performance for black actors) can't help but slightly suffer in comparison - and its a little odd that there isn't a little more on black blackface minstrelsy as it would probably bolster some of the issues around black actors playing black stereotypes (not least the drag fatsuit Mammy stereotypes of Tyler Perry and Martin Lawrence). But space is short, and there are plenty of other places to discuss those issues, whilst perhaps having an absolute moratorium on actual blackface for whatever reason in the meantime. 

[Netgalley ARC]
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This was an important book and the author wrote about the subject with immense passion. It really takes you into the history of Blackface while incorporating modern instances that we all remember. Would like to get the hard copy.
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Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for this review copy of Blackface by Ayanna Thompson, another in the Object Lessons Series. I love Object Lessons, a series where the author deep dives in one topic, in a scholarly way while still being a bit personal. I requested this one because I know that blackface is wrong, but I didn't quite know why. I don't mean just dressing up a generic Black person, I mean darkening the skin to dress up as a specific person - possibly in respectful homage. And now I know. It's a well written, focussed book that somehow tackles this topic from a wider perspective than simply racism.Not that racism is ever simple, but there is more to it than that. This simple book enlarged my understanding of an interesting, if fraught, issue.
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Blackface
By Ayanna Thompson
Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.


In 150 pages Ayanna Thompson explores the history of the cruel stereotype that is Blackface. She frames the ugly past with the future of young children performing in black or brown face.  Using contemporary Performance and Race  Theory, the difficult, divisive history of racism and racial violence is explored.

“Blackface …is any performance in which white actors apply a racial prosthetic to perform as another race.” Actors, black and white, from Shakespeare to Tyler Perry’s Madea films are touched on, sometimes as exemplars and other times as examples.

Drama does not just happen on stage. It happens in real life , even to governors, prime ministers and news readers. History is threaded through the story of blackface minstrelsy. As a Shakespeare scholar,  Doctor Thompson touches on performance and performing.  OTHELLO is an illumination that demands amplification if only to express the time and place-the context. Is OTHELLO a play about race or is it a performance piece or is it a human tragedy? The play, of course, is the thing, but it needs actors. Adrian Lester was an exceptionally eloquent Othello. Lester went on to play the 19th century black American actor Ira Aldridge in RED VELVET. The  Meiningen Theater in Germany  praised Aldridge (1858):   ”his characterizations of Shakespeare’s heroes is unsurpassed, his mimicry unexcelled” 

Another American, Richard Crafus,  ended up in Dartmoor Prison in 1814.  There were seven buildings;“#4 was the black’s prison.”  The prisoners competed I each building to see who would draw the biggest crowd for performance. #4 did exceptionally well.

Th complications of acquisition and appropriation
operate at many levels at once. One hand echoing the “Je Suis Charlie” of 2015  to  “I Can’t Breathe” of 2020. Is race a communal experience too be witnessed or to be lived? And through whose eyes?

Steve McQueen, now Sir Stephen, is a  Black British film maker and as such a case in point. HIs first film, HUNGER is a devastatingly brutal depiction of Bobby Sands’ death. McQueen is not Irish, nor is he American. But 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a devastatingly brutal portrayal of 19th century slavery. I believe the play. The work is what is authentic. 

I have many page of notes on this very important book.  There are so many issues raised, thoughts explored,  roads down which to travel. I want to speak of them all. 



Note:
There are 188 books in the series, Object Lessons, from Bloomsbury.  Look at their book trailers on their webpage or read the list of titles  and try not to be fascinated.
“Object Lessons is a series of concise, collectable, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things. “
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