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).

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