Blackface then and now

I didn’t like the feel of it. Or the smell. My Uncle Buck was smearing black makeup on my face in a tiny men’s room at Baltimore Boundary Methodist Church. He had recruited me to play a small part in a minstrel show. I was instructed to, on a certain cue, run onto the small stage in the church’s social hall, into my uncle’s arms, pretending to be crying.

“What’s the matter, boy? Why are you crying?” he asked me.

“Those boys won’t play with me, ’cause I’m black!” I replied, whereupon my uncle sang a song while I stood with him, trying to looking sad.

This was my introduction to blackface. It happened in the early 1940s, but I will never forget it. Nor will I forget the moment when, several years later, as a teenager I performed in a minstrel show at another church. I distinctly recall the lyrics in a song being sung by a woman in the cast. The song might have been about living the good life. At one point, she sang, “ . . . a baboon butler at the door, diamond carpet on the floor.” I remember feeling appalled. Still am.

Research tells us that these lyrics were written by Egbert (Bert) Austin Williams, a Bahamas native, considered a black man, who was born in 1875 and spent most of his life as an entertainer and song writer. When he was 18, he partnered with George W. Walker, and the two billed themselves as “Two Real Coons” and became one of the most successful Vaudeville comedy teams of their era.

Bert Williams was a tall, light skinned, dignified man, but on stage he became a shuffling, inept stereotype of an uneducated black man. The website Blackface describes his act this way: “On stage Williams became a shuffling, inept ‘nigger.’ He pulled a wig of kinky hair over his head, applied blackface make-up, and concealed his hands in gloves. Usually he wore a shabby suit and a pair of oversized, battered shoes.

“His voice was deep and low, with smooth Southern dialect and inflection born of long hours of practice and experiment. He delivered his lines very slowly and deliberately, as though from the recesses of some dimly private self-regard. When he sang it was with an inimitable syncopation — rhythmic slurs, pauses and off-beats that kept his songs freshly individual. He was able to express a human presence behind the blackface, even if his humor was usually confined to racial material.

“Through mime, Bert Williams displayed an emotional range that transcended the boisterous performance style of minstrels or the broad physical comedy of Vaudeville. Although the performance was comedic, beginning and ending in laughter, it was also dramatic, touching upon his emotional depth. Although Bert played the familiar Jim Crow character, his performance enabled him to step a bit out of the heavy shadow that the stereotype cast.”

Bert Williams wrote several songs, among them the one that included reference to a “baboon butler.” His best-known was the lament “Nobody”:

(When life seems full of clouds an’ rain

and I am filled with naught but pain,

who soothes my thumpin’ bumpin’ brain ?

Nobody.)

Bert Williams was enormously popular in his time. He eventually performed on Broadway and in films, and his songs were widely performed in minstrel shows.

White entertainers performed in blackface freely and to wide acceptance in Williams’ era of the late 19th and early 20th century and as late as the 1940s and ’50s in my childhood and youth. But eventually I grew up and with time gained a measure of wisdom. So, I hope, did most Americans.

But not all, unfortunately.

 

 

 

One thought on “Blackface then and now

  1. I think this applies to so much we’ve seen and heard lately…”when you know better, do better.” I’m distressed by the people who seem to double-down on bad behaviors when confronted instead of learning and “doing better.”

    Like

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