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.