Cover Image: Blackface

Blackface

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Member Reviews

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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I have really enjoyed reading this short book about blackface, its origin, and its legacy. 

The premise is interesting and works very well as a thread connecting the ideas throughout the book: the author was shocked to see children with blackface makeup at her son’s school to represent people they admired (such as Martin Luther King Jr.).

The book provides enough recent examples of public figures appearing in blackface. Each of them is well explained, with a good correlation between them and the subsequent analysis of the public figures’ reactions. 

When it comes to the “performance of blackness” origins, the book mentions that it “dates back to at least the medieval period”. It is indeed a good contextualizing data, but I missed getting more clear information: Is the origin unknown? Is there any evidence of performance of blackness before that period? When addressing blackface’s history, I also felt it focuses on England and the, at the time, American colonies – while some sources also mention other relevant countries, such as Portugal. On the other hand, I found all the history about ‘blackface minstrelsy’ extremely interesting and informative.

The author, following the book’s premise, tries to find the ‘cultural prints’ to understand why children, like her son’s classmates, have normalized blackface. It is in this chapter, with all the previous ones to this point, that I felt it was too much Shakespeare related – about his plays, his times… many examples somehow related to him. I might understand the constant references to Shakespeare when explaining blackface’s history. However, when repeated mentions to Shakespeare appear even discussing more contemporary times, it made me feel the research was deep mainly on that specific matter. I believe there are more diverse examples to provide, which could have made the analysis of blackface’s legacies stronger.

Regarding the chapter about the legacy and impacts of blackface minstrelsy on black creators, I found it very educative and inspiring. It made me reconsider the way I understood/interpreted some films and audiovisual content, which I really appreciated.

As a summary, it is a book I would recommend to get an overview of blackface history and legacy, even though I would have loved more history and diverse examples in some parts of the book.
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A fantastic book! Everyone should read this whether you are a person or colour who wants to lear  more about the history of blackface or a white person (like myself) who wants to understand how to be better ally. I didnt need to know why blackface was wrong that I already knew but I wanted to learn about its impact on society as a whole throughout the years and this book has taught me a lot about representation of black people in media and how it should not be done!
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The genesis of Blackface was an event that occurred when the author attended an event  her child's tony private elementary school.  Assigned  oral presentations on famous Americans,  a white boy wore blackface to portray Dr. Martin Luther King. Neither the child, his parents nor school officials saw anything offensive in the wearing of blackface in that context. 
	This led Ayanna Thompson to explore the history of White depictions of African-Americans, from Nineteenth  Century minstrel shows to 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live. Usually,  these portrayals  were done for comic effect and almost always invoked negative racial stereotypes. 
	When criticized for donning blackface, today's perpetrators universally proclaim their innocence. They deny that their intentions were to offend despite the long, racist history of White entertainers who wore burned cork to mock African-Americans.
	Thompson concludes this brief book with a note of hope due to the widespread protests that broke out following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Perhaps the brutal death of Floyd will cause Whites to think twice before assuming that their privilege extends to darkening their skins to caricature those of another race. 
	Blackface is a brief but powerful read and would be a good choice for book clubs who want to go beyond their usual fare.
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A fascinating read that puts history and modern media in a new light. It was fast and challenging and it inspires hope. I recommend this text to all, especially those interested in theater, performance, or black representation.
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Right up front, I want to say that this is a short and incredibly informative read on the history of the subject, a guide that's supremely helpful if you wish to educate yourself about the origins, results, and where the future might take us, especially considering the BLM movement. 

As a white guy, I admit that I didn't become familiar with the blackface term until my mid-20s, as I never knew anyone who had done it, and had only seen a few movies with it in there. It wasn't until I had gotten out and lived a little, I guess you could say, until I was lightly educated on what it encompassed, and more greatly informed regarding how problematic it is. Thompson's work here is valuable in that it demands seeing things from her perspective, and, even if I agree with her or not on some minor details (the next two paragraphs), I certainly am just here to shut up and soak in the main points. 

Quickly familiarizing the reader with just how far back this phenomenon goes, it's an eye-opening trip through the past, especially when you come upon the section on Shakespeare. I was previously unaware of the instances of Othello that had been played by (prominent) white actors, and that is quite a thing to discover. 

I figured that Stiller's works Tropic Thunder and Zoolander would come up, and I was very curious to see how she integrated them into her discussion. I hadn't thought before on how Downey, Jr. was adorned with awards for his performance that set out to skewer the movie industry's romance with white actors feeling entitled to playing characters of different races, which was a brilliant point, but Stiller's satire takes sharp turns to suggest at numerous points in the film that Lazarus is not to be praised--he is a fool, and he's doing something that is objectively wrong. In the case of Zoolander, I think it's the titular character just being an idiot and taking it to eleven--the hiding and utilization of his makeup skills were the means to the end of scaring his dad and, again, being a fool. 

I admittedly got a little weary of the coming back to the indictment of the eight-year-old that was wearing blackface; while I think that the child was indeed failed by the adults around her, this book makes the case that ignorance does not equal innocence and, while certainly in many cases that is golden advice (it's a key takeaway I obtained, for sure), I think that this young child...well, she should be given a little slack. There's a lack of mercy in that oft-used example that threatens to dampen the education that Thompson's seeking to deliver. 

I came to this book to learn, to absorb, and to improve my awareness regarding blackface, not only for myself, but to help others if it ever came up. It's a relatively quick read, dense with historical facts, astutely written, and most definitely could serve as a resource to visit time and again. 

Many thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury Academic for the advance read.
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For anyone looking for a short and concise introduction to the history and complexity of race as it relates to blackface, begin here.  

It is a short read, but one that breaks down a very complex and unsettling topic.  It is far-reaching in scope, addressing both contemporary and historical questions.  It's a great place to begin research or to begin to think about the conversation of race, without getting too much into theory or the nuances of racial history.

Parts of this book are great for upper high school students or undergrads that I teach; with plenty of examples that bring the issue home.  I was concerned that the book would err on the side of too much theory but this is not the case.  

In an effort to not summarize the short book, I shall leave it at that.  Please read it if you want to be informed.
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Ever since the BLM protests in June I have been wanting to broaden the books I read so I can learn more about issues concerning the black community and racism in general. This was the perfect book to start on as it covered a topic that is has been in the news quite frequently which is: Blackface: Blackface is defined as the act of darkening one’s skin in order to imitate a person of colour. Thompson open the book with a personal experience of confronting blackface being done. This leads to on talking about celebrities from a wide a range of famous backgrounds who have done. This with the personal experience all have one thing in common: white innocence. When confronted about doing blackface many of these celebrities feigned ignorance and claimed to have a lack of knowledge on the matter and it doesn’t reflect their views now. Thomspon does an excellent job of explaining this. Another thing that I greatly enjoyed was learning about the history of blackface and as a result why ignorance and innocence are not a valid excuse. 
All in all this was a good read and has helped me want to learn more about the topic. 

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who likes learning about history and wants to broaden their knowledge on current societal issues.
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In this short primer on Blackface the author explores this history of the act, the reasoning behind it and the harmful effects that it has. Thompson starts by recounting seeing several children dressed in blackface at her child’s school to give presentations about their heroes and is horrified, while also wondering why none of the Black children adjusted their appearances to look more white. 

This works well as a springboard into the topic and Thompson’s argument that much stress is out on White innocence when blackface is performed, a luxury not afforded to Black people themselves. 

I found the volume educational and accessible and would recommend it to anyone looking for an approachable guide to the topic and to deepening their understanding of racism in the Western world. 

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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This book gives some history of how blackface has been used and perceived in media/tv/movies. The author write the book because of how a child at her son's school used blackface in their project of Martin Luther King. Personally, I don't think that child should have been the focus of questioning, but rather the parents of that child.  While the history and entertainment examples were insightful, the author kept going back to that project which I think was making a mountain out of a molehill. I am glad I read it, but I think the author should reevaluate where she puts her anger.
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Blackface is a thought-provoking short read about the history and cultural context of blackface, i.e. the use of make up and racial prostheses by (usually) white people to portray people of colour.

If you've ever wondered why people get so angry and upset when a celebrity is found to have worn blackface for a fancy dress party a decade ago, this book will explain why.  Recommended, especially for the white innocents amongst us.

Thanks to the author, publisher and NetGalley for providing a review copy in exchange for honest feedback.
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I think what I can say about this book is that it compelled me to like the author's knowledge, research and erudition, but not her expectations.  The way it is structured means we spin off from her horror at seeing an eight-year old at a decent school's presentation mimic (for purely academic and seemingly admirable reasons) someone of colour by using darkening make-up effects, into a perfectly readable history of black-face performance and the inherent racism behind minstrelsy and so on.  So we learn how for centuries white people have derided the black man through performance, or denigrated the black body by putting it on show as 'the other' – and we also see the counter to that, of hatred for the actor of colour presenting as a white character.  This all builds to a charge that could be levelled at copious politicians who might or might not have fallen on a sword they planted decades ago, the charge being that their past insensitivity in blacking up makes them unfit for office now.  It certainly builds to a charge that anyone blacking up for a TV skit should know better.  But I never felt the attitude that the girl was in the wrong, even when it's constantly pointed out how none of her coloured collaborators whited up, worked here.

It seems illiberal to suggest the girl was guilty of something akin to an offence – he said, full of white innocence (of course).  In a world where we're told children are never born racist but only told to be so later through the nurture they receive, I don't think any quality of school would have made somebody they'd had charge of for three years max realise it was a racialised issue.  Therefore the hanging all this round the neck of such a young person seemed a big flaw.  Still, from a small mistake a great virtue can be had, and this book – one I doubted would work in this series of studies of objects you'd scarcely imagine yourself reading about, but patently did – has many virtues.  I learnt more about performance history than I expected, and certainly a lot more about Dartmoor Prison.  But I still think the charge should be at society, parents or teachers – not eight year old girls.
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