Zwarte Piet debate: A brief history of blackface

It’s the week of Halloween again and, evidently, it’s the season for people around the world to put on blackface. What is the story behind this costume? Highly relevant for those of us in the Netherlands; in the year we remember the 150 year anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Dutch colonies and in the days before the Sinterklaas festivities; the yearly blackface parade.


“Blackface first made the news this holiday season when a former Dancing with the Stars participant darkened her skin to “honor” her favorite actor from Orange is the New Black. News recently broke of a group of Italian fashion executives including designer Alessandro Dell’Acqua donning blackface, complete with jet-black skin, and distended whitened mouths and white gloves at a “Disco Africa” party.

And let’s not forget the Florida man who blackened up to portray a mortally wounded Trayvon Martin. Perhaps folks need a refresher course on why blackface is not a great idea for their next costume party.

Blackface minstrelsy first became nationally popular in the late 1820s when white male performers portrayed African-American characters using burnt cork to blacken their skin. Wearing tattered clothes, the performances mocked black behavior, playing racial stereotypes for laughs. Although Jim Crow was probably born in the folklore of the enslaved in the Georgia Sea Islands, one of the most famous minstrel performers, a white man named Thomas “Daddy” Rice brought the character to the stage for the first time. Rice said that on a trip through the South he met a runaway slave, who performed a signature song and dance called jump Jim Crow. Rice’s performances, with skin blackened and drawn on distended blood red lips surrounded by white paint, were said to be just Rice’s attempt to depict the realities of black life.

blackfacevJim Crow grew to be minstrelsy’s most famous character, in the hands of Rice and other performers Jim Crow was depicted as a runaway: “the wheeling stranger” and “traveling intruder.” The gag in Jim Crow performances was that Crow would show up and disturb white passengers in otherwise peaceful first class rail cars, hotels, restaurants, and steamships. Jim Crow performances served as an object lesson about the dangers of free black people, so much so that the segregated spaces first created in northern states in the 1850s were popularly called Jim Crow cars.  Jim Crow became synonymous with white desires to keep black people out of white, middle-class spaces.

Minstrel shows became hugely popular in the 1840s exposing white audiences in the North with their first exposure to any depiction of black life. They would often feature a broad cast of characters; from Zip Coon, the educated free black man who pronounced everything incorrectly, to Mammy, a fat, black faithful slave who was really just obviously played by a man in a dress. Black children were depicted as unkempt and ill raised pickaninnies. The running joke about pickaninnies was that they were disposable; they were easily killed because of their stupidity and the lack of parental supervision.

22blackfaceMinstrelsy desensitized Americans to horrors of chattel slavery. These performances were object lessons about the harmlessness of southern slavery. By encouraging audiences to laugh, they showed bondage as an appropriate answer for the lazy, ignorant slave. Why worry about the abolition of slavery when black life looked so fun, silly, and carefree? Even the violence of enslavement just became part of the joke.

These erroneous portrayals of black life were seen by thousands of Americans in the decades before the Civil War. Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln attended and enjoyed minstrel shows. President Lincoln had the Union band play Dixie at Lee’s surrender; the comic dialogues in Huckleberry Finn are reminiscent of minstrel performances.  Minstrelsy became America’s first national popular culture.

Minstrelsy lived on long after the Civil War, with African-American performers donning blackface to perform as minstrels on stage. In horrifying irony, white audiences would reject black performers not wearing blackface as not appearing to be black enough. The preeminent African-American vaudeville performer Bert Williams donned blackface for his stage performances.  Audiences refused to allow him to perform without blackening up.

Blackface was used to push products from cigarettes to pancakes while minstrel songs were turned into sheet music, sold and sung around the world. Classic American songs such as “Jimmy Crack Corn,” “Camptown Races” and “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah” all began as minstrel songs. Children’s rhymes and games also are drawn from our minstrel past. “Eeny Meeny, Miny, Moe,” initially commanded that the listener to “catch a ni**er by his toe.” “Do Your Ears Hang Low” was originally the 1829 song entitled “Zip Coon.” The story of the children’s book Ten Little Monkeys was first published as Ten Little Ni**er Boys where each boy was killed as the story progressed.

trayvon-costumeWhite teen wears blackface Trayvon Martin Halloween costume. His friend dressed up as George Zimmerman, the white man who was found not guilty of murder after fatally shooting 17-year-old black Trayvon Martin through the heart on February 26, 2012:

Blackface became a mainstay of stage and later film performance in the twentieth century. Most often blackface was used as a comic device that played on the stereotypes of black laziness, ignorance, or crass behavior for laughs. Sometimes blackface was used simply to portray black characters. The 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, the first feature film to be shown in the White House, used blackface to portray Reconstruction era black legislators as incompetent and to paint all black men as threatening to rape white women.  The first talking picture, 1927’s The Jazz Singer starred Al Jolson, one of the most famous American performers of his day, in blackface. Even America’s sweetheart, Shirley Temple, donned blackface in 1935 film The Littlest Rebel. While none of the black actors in The Littlest Rebel film wore blackface, they performed in a style first created on the minstrel stage one hundred years earlier.

The history of blackface minstrelsy isn’t talked about regularly today, but its cultural residue is all around us. Its painful to note that as one of the most unflinching portraits of American slavery hits the screens in 12 Years a Slave, people still continue to blacken up for laughs. Until we actively remember the ugliness of this history, people will continue to blacken their faces without recognizing the horror hidden beneath the paint.”

zpcostumeBron: Facebookpagina Zwarte Piet is racisme;

Blair L. M. Kelley is an associate professor at North Carolina State University. Follow her on Twitter at @ProfBLMKelley

Join our Basta! debate on the topic of Zwarte Piet & institutionalized racism in the Netherlands coming thursday, November 7! More info through the following link:

752 thoughts on “Zwarte Piet debate: A brief history of blackface

  1. sorry but this is completly irelivant to zwarte piet, black face is a usa item, Zwarte Piet is a dutch item, more akin to Ruprecht and Krampus.
    There also resemblances to Hāji Firuz from Iran.
    Yet somehow only Zwarte Piet get linked racism and all the others pose no problems even tho they are often black as wel.
    Aditionaly refering to Page as slave does injustice to the actual meaning of a Page, it is considered one of the most important jobs in a nobel household, in medievil times fullfilled by aristocratic children wanting to become a squire and eventualy a knight, and even untill the 20th century household pages was a sought after position for children of a humble background wishing to gain a better life.
    Even today the canadian and usa houses of commons congress and senate employ pages.

    • Your reply is also irrelevant, the point is that people find it offensive and it continues sterotyping people, just like sayign homo is apparently harmless but it does harm. Good educated people will understand inmediatly that Zwarte Piet it dubious in its outcome, it doesn´t matter that for many people is not meant to be racist, society is and this translates this way. Greetings

      • If feeling offended is the key then you should appoligize to me because your comment makes it feel that you sugest that I’m uneducated for disagreeing with your opinion, that is a highly offencive sugestion in a debate. In your own words it does not matter that you did not mean it that way, all that matters is how it makes me feel.

        • You’re defending yourself, not making a poing, we’re not in eight grade, you do understand that you need to erradicate all signs of racism or such stereotypes that have discrimination as consecuence(or you can also erradicate discrimination, such a job in the western world. hé?). Nobody is attacking Holland, understand that you could also be the object of discrimination, and I don’t think you’d like that, a bit a empathy here, please. Greetings

          • your assumptions are false on several accounts.
            1) I do face discrimination, not precieved discrimination but actual that is intended that way.
            2) I was making a point, namely that blackface is not relevant to the zwarte piet discusion because it is a local fenonamon to the usa.
            3) zwarte piet is already devoit of rasism, that is not just my opinion but that of 97% the dutch population and of the comision that adviced the major of amsterdam about the apeal for the licence of the sinterklaas parade.

            Why don’t you answer why Hajji Firuz is in the eunesco protected list eventhough he is a white person painted black, preforms for people and refers to someone as master in a song. Sounds a lot worse then a much loved assistant to a senile old man who would get lost without that help.

          • I hope you ever understand that some “images”, “stereotypes”, etc, damage the way we relate to eachother, those are sometimes so subtiel or imbedded in our traditions, jokes or language that changing or erradicating them would take a toll in our routines, in our way of life, but is really worth it. Think about that for an instance, about all the people who find it offensive and about all the people who’s attitude towards the coloured people matches with this image of the “funny entertaining jumping person” and for which the stereotype gets its support. About Hajji Firuz, I’d say that’s another discussion, the one cannot justify the other, even though you’re right but only taking in consideration that Zwarte Piet comes every year back.

  2. Pingback: Spreker op aankomend Basta! debat over Zwarte Piet bedreigd | Nieuws | Kritische Studenten Utrecht

  3. We should never have a debate about changes in society because of a few individua;s who are offended by a ceratin issue. I’m not denying their right to be offended, but we live in a society in which, unfortunately, there is always someone who is offended about something. In this case, only a few individuals claim to be offended. Even though some people, especially when appearing in the media, claim that ‘large parts of the population’ take issue with Zwarte Piet, this is never supported by any numbers. For instance, even though Amsterdam will make changes in this years’ Sinterklaasintocht, there were only 21 people (of a population of c. 800.000) who made a complaint. This is my personal view: I see that a few persons in this country have hijacked the Zwarte Piet issue to get attention for their agenda, which is about slavery and racism. Zwarte Piet however, is NOT about slavery or racism, but it gets dragged into these issues. Many of those who complain are foreigners, who confuse a children’s feast with issues in their own country, simply by association of details. I think this is a pure political discussion now, which does damage to a lot of children who cannot understand this at all, but some of whom become genuinely distressed by it. Suggestions like thos from the UN that we should drop the entirely Sinterklaasfeest (“because we already have a Santaclaus and you don’t need another Santaclaus”) are based on a total lack of understanding the background and a refusal to become aqainted with those details – and in that offensive to millions living in this country.

  4. Wat mij verbaasd is dat deze discussies op uw site voornamelijk in het Engels gevoerd worden terwijl het toch om een typisch Nederlands onderwerp gaat. De voertaal in het koninkrijk der Nederlander is naar mijn beste weten nog steeds Nederlands . U stelt door het gebruik van de Engelse taal een niet onbelangrijk deel van de bevolking achter bij zij , die wel in de gelegenheid gesteld zijn geweest om te studeren. Daarmee beperkt U door deze voorwaarde vooraf dan wel een open en brede discussie. Inderdaad valt het op dat bij de tegenstanders van zwarte piet steeds weer de zelfde gezichten in de media te zien zijn, zodat het idee makkelijk post vat, dat het hier handelt om een select gezelschap van ideologische scherpslijpers, die zonder gevoel voor humor en relativisme coûte a coûte hun mening en gelijk willen opleggen aan een overgrote meerderheid. Zij roepen met hun fanatisme en aanvallend gedrag dan ook agressie op, die niet direct verband hoeft houden met racisme. Er is ook veel te zeggen voor de gevolgtrekking, dat de reactie van het Nederlands volk net zo goed als aan hun kant vooral door uiterlijkheden wordt bepaalt. Maar niet het uiterlijk , maar de effecten van een als negatief ervaren behandeling bepaald of er sprake is van racisme. De bewijzen , die zij voor hun stelling poneren zijn veelal gevoelsmatig en flinterdun en voorgekauwd in de zin, dat het zo is, omdat zij vinden en vooral hard schreeuwen, dat het zo is. Als men zijn gelijk in Nederland bewijzen wil moet men dan ook met concrete bewijzen komen, die geldigheid bezitten voor de Nederlandse situatie en niet voor de zoveelste keer met dezelfde Amerikaanse plaatjes. Als men graag een debat wil over de vraag of er racisme voorkomt in Nederland en in welke mate en of de slavernij daarvan een exponent was of racisme in de huidige maatschappij daar een gevolg of uitvloeisel van is, kan de discussie alleen vruchtbaar zijn als ieder zijn eigen overtuiging ter discussie stelt .Anders wordt het hele debat nogal eenzijdig. Dat houdt dan ook de vraagstelling in of de overlevenden van de slavernij bijvoorbeeld geen collaboratie verweten kan worden om maar eens een zijstraat te noemen. Of hun overgevoeligheid niet mede te danken is aan een vorm van kampsyndroom? Zonder te willen psychologiseren zijn het dat soort vragen, die voor alle volledigheid gesteld moeten worden Naast een meer dan gedegen historisch onderzoek. Anders wordt het weer ;Jullie zijn schuldig en wij hebben alleen maar geleden,maar wie zijn wij en wie zijn zij !!! Zoals het zo mooi gezegd kan worden in het Nederlands: Eerst allen de hand in eigen boezem steken.

  5. De stelling dat iedereen recht heeft op zijn mening is vals. Dat is niet zo. Als het mijn mening is dat jij een vieze smerige kanker-jood/neger/kaaskop bent, dan mag ik dat denken, maar niet zeggen. Ook al is het mijn mening. Dat hebben we taboe gemaakt toen we besloten dat rascisme taboe is. Als rascisme taboe is, dan is die mening dus ook taboe. Waarom? Omdat het de ander kwetst met als uitwerking dat het de ander klein maakt. Of dat nou het doel was of niet. In andere woorden: niet degene die die mening uit kan bepalen of het rascistisch is of niet maar degene die ontvangt. Het feit dat veel witte nederlanders “kaaskop” niet als echt scheldwoord opvatten bewijst het. En diegene die dat wel doen,bewijst het ook. Het is een taboe, dus een cirkelredenering. Begrijp je? Als sommige nederlanders of zelfs sommige buitenlanders zwarte piet als rascisme zien, dan is het rascisme, waarom? Omdat ze er een raciaal stereotype in zien wat ze kwetsend overkomt. Dus is het rascisme, zo simpel is het. Het is namelijk niet rationeel, niet objectief, het is een cirkelredenering, het is kwetsend omdat het kwetsend is. Kortom, het is een taboe. En het is een taboe omdat we hebben ervaren wat er gebeurt als we dat taboe niet hebben. Tadaaa!
    Discussie klaar afgelopen en gesloten.

  6. Lieve mensen,

    Dat Zwarte Piet gevoelig ligt bij eeen minderheid van de Nederlandse popu latie is evident.

    Een minderheid, dit blijkt ook uit de historie, heeft niet per definitie onge lijk. Ik prefereer een compromis. Geen water naar de zee dragen, maar bij de wijn doen. Dan krijg je een heerlijke blend, een gezonde mix. Goede wijn moet je laten rijpen. Behoeft geen krans. Bewaar je tot het laatste …Smaakt ie naar meer …

    Probeer mensen, vogels van diverse pluimage, etnische afkomst, culturele voorkeur, religieuze overtuiging, etc. in hun waarde te laten, te respecteren, lief te hebben en met elkaar te verbin den. Zodat het vieren van het Sinter klaasfeest een feest voor iedereen, voor alle Nederlanders wordt …
    Dit is mijn grootste wens. Ook de jouwe, uwe?

    Mijn voorstel (nuances, een aan te pas sen versie …houd alle opties open)

  7. Vervolg:

    De regenboogpiet. De regenboog is het symbool van Gods Verbond met ons mensen. Inclusief denken. De re genboog verbindt dus God met men sen. En hiermee ook mensen met el kaar.

    Moge 2014 het jaar wotden dat alle Nederlanders het Sinterklaasfeest met licht en warmte in hun hart vieren.

    Vier de liefde, vier het leven. Check mijn column op: Scroll rechts naar beneden en klik op de icoon Column Archiefkabinet.

    Het leven is te kort voor scheve xuur pruimgexichten, kinnesinne. Geniet er van, met volle teugen. Schitter, strasl en vier het (Sinterklaas) feest dat leven heet!

    Jean-Paul Kruk

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