THE HISTORY OF BLACKFACE
Blackface minstrelsy originated in the United States in the 1820s and 1830s as a theatrical form in which white male actors put on burnt cork makeup to “darken” their faces in order to perform scenes that purported to “represent” Black men and women in the plantation South. The process of “darkening” involved combining burned, pulverized champagne corks and water, alternatively petroleum jelly was used. Although blackface entertainment was born in the American Midwest and South, the minstrel show was first performed in the cities of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. As economic and racial tensions reached their climax in the 1840s, it became important to maintain segregated boundaries between the two races, and the minstrel stage helped to do that. The “burnt cork mask,” as William Mahar asserts, functioned as a racial marker announcing that its wearers were offering selected aspects of (arguably) African American culture to audiences while also reinforcing the distinctions between Black and white people. American minstrel companies first came to Canada in the 1840s, but the peak years were between the 1860s and the 1910s. Under the guise of entertainment and wearing the burnt-cork mask, reproducing blackface repertoire freed white performers to say and do things that they would not otherwise say and do. Racial caricature made it almost impossible for black Canadians to belong to any community, let alone the nation.
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