Dixie and Blackface

Copyright, Ryan Kelley

Copyright, Ryan Kelley

It has been a busy month. The lull in blog posts was caused by a number of projects presenting themselves all at once. Work is winding down on my documentary “Dixie,” but other work is taking its place. Some of this is of course, related to the film. The big project for the last month was a journal article I am writing about the life of Dan Emmett, the man who wrote the song “Dixie” and virtually invented the blackface minstrel troupe. If you are unfamiliar with blackface, well, that’s probably a good thing. Blackface was the act of white musicians burning cork and smearing the black residue over their faces to give the impression that they were African-American slaves. Bands of these performers, called “minstrel troupes,” sprang up all over the United States in the 1840’s and 50’s. Blackface became a persistent American entertainment. As recently as fifty years ago it was not uncommon to see local variety shows featuring blackface in communities throughout the U.S.

Some of America’s most beloved performers took their turn under the blackface. That’s beloved crooner Bing Crosby pictured above in an advertisement for the 1943 film “Dixie.” It is a glittery technicolor fantasy of Emmett’s life, but the film does get a few things right, like the blackface. Der Bingle dons the blackface mask on more than one occasion during the film. The truth of blackface is not so glittery at all, but it isn’t as simple as pure racism. There were many forces at work that led to whites taking on the mask of the African-American slave. The essay I’ve been working on tries to dig deeper and understand those forces through a comprehensive look at Emmett’s life.  Blackface is a subject that, in many ways, we still see the consequences of on a daily basis.  Blackface influenced almost every form of American entertainment that followed it–vaudeville, ragtime, jazz, early motion pictures, just to name a few.

What blackface meant to the performers, however, and to the preservation of African-American culture as culture as whole, however, is complex and woven tightly into the fabric of American history.  It is a tragic and fascinating story that I hope to explore further, even after the publication of the essay.  I know many of you who read this blog study music and racial history, or at least have a passing interest in it. I’ll keep you updated on where you can read the essay once it leaves the editor’s desk.