Blackface As a Prism For Seeing the World

George Luks's Queen Liliokalani cartoon from Verdict, January 16, 1899

Blackface, as we’ve touched on before in this blog, was a pervasive part of American popular culture in the late 19th and early 20th century. I’d go so far as to argue that blackface was the dominant aesthetic prism through which whites saw African Americans (as well as black Africans and other members of the African diaspora).

But blackface didn’t just effect perceptions of African-Americans and Africans. I’d argue that blackface also inflected perceptions of other non-white peoples.

Comics, a representational art which allows for mental free-associations, offer a rich record of how blackface imagery was deployed on a wide variety of ethnic groups. A few examples will illustrate what I mean.

Consider the  1899 George Luks drawing of Hawaii’s Queen Liliokalani, posted above. As Luks biographer Robert Gambone notes, “Although Hawaiian, the queen’s appearance conforms to well-rehearsed cartoon stereotypes of African-Americans.” I’d add that the specific image Luks was conjuring up was the Mammy stereotype. (The image is from Gambone’s book Life on the Press: The Popular Art and Illustration of George Benjamin Luks).


Bringing Up Father, June 02, 1914

Equally intriguing is this Bringing Up Father strip from June 2, 1914 . The strip features a Rajah, that is to say an aristocratic East Indian. But he’s drawn by cartoonist George McManus as a blackface caricature, complete with big lips and jet-black skin.

Winsor McCay's Yellow Peril

Finally, in an undated Winsor McCay cartoon (probably done circa 1906-1914), Winsor McCay shows a Japanese figure who is not quite a blackface stereotype but has markedly dark skin, pronounced lips, and a squashed nose. I don’t think it’s hard to deny that McCay wanted to make his menacing Japanese figure, portrayed as a global rival to America (Uncle Sam) as being akin to blacks.

What are we to make of all this? One obvious conclusion is that these artists (and the culture they grew out of) had a binary sense of race: either you were white or you were colored, so all dark-skinned people were seen as sharing facial features. Also, domestic racism wasn’t just a matter of home front prejudice; it also deeply informed how white Americans saw the whole world.

One thought on “Blackface As a Prism For Seeing the World

  1. Are you aware that the use of Black-Face is akin to the use of the “N” word? It is a much stronger statement than using the Confederate flag, and continues to create many hard feelings.

    Have you seen the film “Bamboozled” by Spike Lee. Its an eye-opener.

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