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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Popeye the Crossdressing Man

Nisby the Newsboy, May 20 1906.

My earlier post on historical representations of gays in the comics garnered many interesting comments and responses. I wanted to take an opportunity to point out a few of them and also make some further notes on the topic.

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From Irish Simian to Homer Simpson

An Irish Simian, drawn by Fredrick Opper for Puck, February 15, 1882

Like radioactive material, an ethnic stereotype can possess a lengthy half-life, lingering on long after the period of its most deadly potency. We’ve already seen  how the minstrel/blackface image lives on in the guise of Mickey Mouse and other cartoon creations. Something similar has happened to the Victorian stereotype of the simian Irish, which now has mysteriously morphed into the relatively benign form of Homer Simpson, the All-American lovable loser.

My thoughts on this have been inspired by a reading of a new collection of George McManus’ classic comic strip Bringing Up Father, created in 1913. NBM has released a collection of the first two years of the McManus strip.

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