W. Fitzhugh Brundage: Beyoncé, Bert Williams, and the History of Blackface in America

When we read about Beyoncé‘s recent photo shoot in blackface, we asked for some historical insight from W. Fitzhugh Brundage, editor of the forthcoming book Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930 (July 2011). The book includes essays from sixteen scholars who depict popular culture as a crucial arena in which African Americans struggled to secure a foothold as masters of their own representation and architects of the nation’s emerging consumer society. In this post, Brundage places Beyoncé’s blackface appearance in historical context.—ellen

Recently, Beyoncé Knowles has been in the news for appearing in blackface in photographs in the French fashion magazine L’Officiel Paris. Much of the commentary, and criticism, of Beyoncé has invoked the charged history of blackface and its associations with minstrelsy during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We don’t yet know exactly what Beyoncé and her handlers had in mind when she blackened her face. She claims she did so as an homage to the late Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. Regardless, we do know that there is nothing straightforward or simple about the history of blackface in the United States. And a century ago black artists, including the great vaudevillian and comedian Bert Williams, were also criticized for performing in blackface.

The origins of blackface may be traced to white working-class urban culture during the 1820s. Without question, many of the white performers who blacked their faces and mimicked African American dance and music trafficked in grotesque and dehumanizing racist stereotypes of enslaved and free blacks. But the tradition of minstrelsy that these working class troubadours created also betrayed a fascination with, and even envy of, African Americans. Most important, the tradition of minstrelsy and blackface was the fountainhead of American popular music for at least a century. Performers in subsequent generations who ignored the minstrel tradition, which included Stephen Foster, the greatest American popular composer of the nineteenth century, did so at their peril.

Blacks, or blacks as imagined by whites, may have been the subject of blackface but blacks themselves were absent from minstrelsy until after the Civil War. By then, when black artists began to gain a toehold as stage performers, minstrelsy was already deeply embedded in American popular culture. The conventions of minstrelsy were so foundational to popular culture that black performers had to adapt them. This simple reality convinced some black performers that blackface was a mask that they would have to wear. But when Bert Williams and other black performers blacked up they did not simply replicate the white conventions of minstrelsy. Instead, Williams humanized blackface by transforming his blackface characters into surrogates for anyone who was down on his luck, who never caught a break, or who shuffled from one mishap to the next. Indeed, that Williams performed in blackface and turned his character into a forlorn everyman that audiences, white and black, empathized with was a feat of remarkable and subversive artistry. Of course, Williams was not without his critics who complained that he didn’t cast off the blackface relic of minstrelsy. He could have, but if he had he almost certainly wouldn’t have been one of the most popular and best paid performers of early-twentieth-century American stage. Nor would he have likely reached a vast audience with his quietly subversive art.

So where does this leave embattled Beyoncé? I suggest that we lighten up on Beyoncé and instead ponder why French fashion magazines have recently shown an appetite for blackface photo shoots (including of white models in blackface) and why blackface performances by whites in Australia and elsewhere still elicit little controversy. Perhaps Beyoncé is aware of the complex history of blackface, which cannot be reduced simply or exclusively to raw white racist stereotypes. If she is unaware of this history, she could use the controversy that she has sparked as a pretext to learn more about it. If I was among Beyoncé’s handlers, I’d be much more worried about explaining her private New Year’s Eve performance for relatives of Libyan dictator Muammar Ghadafi in St. Barts than in her foray into the complex world of blackface.

W. Fitzhugh Brundage is William B. Umstead Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is editor of several books, including Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930 and Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory, and Southern Identity.