Article Thumbnail

The Complex Legacy of Black Comedians in Blackface

How African-American comics came to subvert and reclaim minstrelsy as their own — and ensure Black comedy could no longer be defined by white people

In 1943, a galaxy of Black stars — Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers — shared the bill in a smash hit all-Black Hollywood musical, Stormy Weather. The film told the story of its star, Robinson, and how far he’d come since 1918 when he first started working the stages of America. It was a celebration of Black entertainers and all they’d collectively overcome.

The thing was, at the exact same moment, one of the most beloved comedians in the country was a man who still performed in blackface. To make things even more tragic, that comic was a Black man. Pigmeat Markham continued to darken his face with burnt cork because, after a lifetime spent telling jokes in American theaters, he was convinced it was the only way he’d get paid to be funny.

A younger Black comic named Timmie Rogers, however, believed otherwise. Rogers was a new sort of Black entertainer — looking clean and dapper in a tuxedo and performing without a partner or dumb racist skits. He spoke directly to the audience and flat-out refused to ever use burnt cork to blacken his face. He also rejected using grease paint to give his natural face the shiny patina that made white audiences howl. Rogers wanted Markham to do the same. And so, one night at the Lincoln Theater in L.A., he and a few other Black performers confronted Markham.

“I says to Pigmeat, blackface shouldn’t be done today,” Rogers recalled in the 1993 HBO documentary Mo’ Funny: Black Comedy in America. “You don’t need blackface to do your act, man. That’s passé. He said, ‘Listen, what do you know about comedy? You just started your comedy act last year.’ I said, ‘I know one thing: You don’t need to be in blackface to get a laugh today.’”

Eventually, however, Markham agreed to try his act bare-faced — Black as the day he was born. “I gave in, but I warned [Rogers] it was sure to be a flop,” he recalled. “I was plenty nervous when I went out in front of that audience — and I discovered that the young folks were right. Those kids did more for my self-confidence than anybody. I was so happy, and so relieved, that I went back to the dressing room, threw the makeup in the wastebasket, and I’ve never gone onstage in blackface again.”

“You may wonder why a Negro had to do that [in the first place],” he continued. “All I can tell you is that’s the way it was. Just about every Negro entertainer in those days worked in burnt cork and lip makeup — even Bert Williams, who was the greatest of them all.”

From 1830 until the start of World War II, blackface minstrel shows were the single most popular form of mass entertainment in the U.S. They first came to prominence in the days of Andrew Jackson, a time when the country experienced an earlier MAGA-like desire to return to so-called simpler times (for the colonial planters). Two white performers in particular — George Washington Dixon and Thomas D. Rice — found fame satisfying the young nation’s sense of nostalgia for its past. They blackened their faces and performed song-and-dance routines as happy slaves, simple “darkies.” They told bawdy jokes, sang funny songs and danced jigs based on roughly drawn racist caricatures of enslaved Black people.

In March 1830, Dixon first performed the song he’d become famous for: “Zip Coon,” a musical re-phrasing of his character’s name, stretched out to match the notes of a song. You’d recognize it today as “Zip a dee doo dah, Zip a dee aye…” from Disney’s animated classic The Song of the South. The tune is sung by the happy, formerly enslaved character Uncle Remus. Dixon liked to claim that he was named George Washington Dixon because his father was close friends with the first president. Indeed, Dixon was born in Virginia in 1801, so it wasn’t impossible (and as symbolism, it certainly makes sense). But it’s mostly unlikely, since early show-folk like Dixon were known for their lies and exaggerations.

For his part, Thomas D. Rice, who is often called the “father of American minstrelsy,” was from Manhattan (it may be surprising to learn that blackface minstrel shows actually began in New York City as opposed to the Deep South), and his happy-dancing blackface dandy character grew so popular with audiences that its name became part of American history: Jim Crow.

Thirty-five years later — in 1865, the final year of the Civil War — a Black theater producer and showman named Charlie Hicks put on a blackface minstrel show. It was the reputed “first all-black revue” ever to grace a stage in the U.S. (That show, called Georgia Minstrels, has another claim to fame as well: It was the originator of the timeless riddle/set-up, “Why did the chicken cross the road?,” which means every time you hear a kid repeat that joke, it’s the sound of blackface alive and well in American humor.)

From then on, the only way for actual Black men — like Bert Williams and Pigmeat Markham — to get up on stage and get paid to do their acts was if they wore blackface. Otherwise, they weren’t allowed to perform in white-owned theaters, which was pretty much every theater in the country.

Pigmeat Markham, 1936

When Williams started out, in the 1890s, he chose to apply blackface so that white audiences couldn’t tell if it was a white man or a Black man underneath the blackface. “With the blackface, the way I understood it, you wasn’t white or Black,” Sonny Craver, a soul singer and former partner of Markham, once explained. “When a Black comedian wore blackface, he wasn’t a Black comedian any more! He was a comic.”

It was also a labor issue. To Williams, white entertainers used blackface to imitate Black people, which kept Black comedians like him off the stage. White people had stolen not only his act but his people’s act. So Williams flipped it around: He put on their blackface mask so that he could compete on an even playing field.

Just before he died in 1911, George Walker, Williams’ longtime comedy partner, wrote an editorial that explained his and presumably Williams’ thinking on the issue: “There were many more barriers in the way of the Black performer in those days. With the exception of the Negro minstrels, the Black entertainer was little known through the Northern and Western states. The opposition on account of racial and color prejudice and white comedians who ‘blackened up’ stood in the way of natural Black performers. How to get before the public and prove that ability we might possess was a hard problem for us to solve. We thought that as there seemed to be a great demand for blackface on stage, we would do all we could to get what we felt belonged to us by the laws of nature.”

Norma Miller, co-author or The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor, recalled that on top of how undeniably funny the duo of Williams and Walker was, they were also easy on the eyes. Yet this wasn’t enough, they still had to put on the blackface to have careers. “They used to be dressed-up, they used to be really good-looking, sharp men on the stage,” she wrote. “No blackface or anything. And they had a difficult time getting work. They billed themselves as ‘The Two Real Coons.’ Because everybody was in blackface, and they couldn’t get a job. Now, isn’t that irony?”

In his editorial, Walker argued that if “white men with black faces were billing themselves as ‘coons,’ Williams-and-Walker would do well to bill themselves as ‘The Two Real Coons,’ and so we did. Our bills attracted the attention of managers and gradually we made our way in.” (Not only did Williams and Walker “make their way in” as blackface comedians, they were huge successes, going on to perform at Buckingham Palace.)

It should also be pointed out that blackface wasn’t automatically offensive to Black people. In an essay from the book Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy From Slavery to Hip-Hop, authors Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen write, “Black crowds enjoyed early Black minstrel shows without shame; Black blackface vaudeville stars like Bert Williams were heralded as dignified geniuses; and Black performers like Mantan Moreland and the comedian-filmmaker Spencer Williams were able to lead dual performing lives, fulfilling cartoonish minstrel-inspired stereotypes for white Hollywood audiences that drew harsh criticism from the Black intelligentsia while presenting almost identical performances that felt unproblematic in productions for Black audiences. Critics often posit that these performers were forced to indulge in demeaning caricatures or wear blackface. But in fact, they knew exactly what they were doing: They often had alternatives, and had good reasons for choosing to draw from the minstrel tradition.”

Money was obviously the main “good reason.” Moreland earned an annual salary higher than the president. “They did well, and it was accepted,” famed comedian Dick Gregory told the Mo’ Funny filmmakers. “They was invited to the NAACP and given awards, because they was the heroes, they was top drawer. But you can’t take it out of context, and reach back now, and review them, because it was their backs we stepped on to get to where we are.”

The main difference for Black audiences, of course, was always the question of who was making the jokes. Comedy is about exaggeration; it’s about unseemly characters with bad habits and venal interests. Black people, as with everyone else, like to laugh at ourselves. So a Black clown isn’t offensive to Black people because the joke is self-deprecating. But when it’s a white man in blackface, it’s just pure deprecation — an insult instead of comedy.

“[Minstrel show humor] isn’t white-man’s comedy, it’s Negro-born and Negro-popular,” Markham once opined. “It’s not aimed at ridiculing anyone; the characters I’ve created are no more a slur on the Negro than Jackie Gleason’s hot-headed bus driver or Art Carney’s sewer cleaner or Dean Martin’s drunk or Red Skelton’s fool or Jack Benny’s stinginess are a slur on white men. I am an American Negro comedian, and I’m proud to be all three.”

The problem was, white audiences didn’t associate the jokes with clowns and characters; instead, they transferred the stereotypes from Black performers and white men in blackface to real Black people. Stereotypes like Zip Coon, a Black man trying to fit into white society and comically failing with his “big wuhds.” Or Jim Crow, a dumb, lazy, simpleton Southerner who said funny things and often spit out his own malapropisms. Or Uncle Tom, a broken-down old slave, and his comic partner, the sexless Aunt Jemima, or Mammy. Or Stagolee, the dangerous Black slave who would become a staple image of KKK recruitment.

None of this was really challenged until the end of World War II, and the Black GIs who returned home from defeating fascists came back prepared to hold America to its promise that “all men were indeed created equal.” Very quickly, then, blackface fell not just out of fashion but it became a visual ethnic slur, heralding a new era for Black comedy.

Most notably, Gregory, who arrived with the emergence of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, spoke directly to the times: “I’ve found that cold weather makes it very nice for race relations. Last month, when it was 15-below-zero in Chicago, I walked out of a nightclub, a drunk walked up to me and said, ‘Why don’t you get back to Africa where you belong — and take me with you?’” (Another great Gregory joke, which unfortunately still rings true today: “You really want to have some fun, make out you’re colored some day. I suggest you do it on a weekend. You do it during the week, you might get fired.”)

Bill Cosby soon followed, signaling an even greater change when he became the first Black man to have a starring role on a weekly primetime TV drama (I Spy) and not play a servant or a slave. (He played a spy.) Here was a man who viewed himself as an equal of white people, and he acted like it. His humor was universal; it didn’t require any racial perspective to be funny. In fact, Cosby was compared to Mark Twain for his insights into American life. He was a comedian, who was Black.

In an interesting twist, Cosby’s success created space for Flip Wilson to get a variety show in 1970, which signaled the return of what could be seen as minstrel humor. His comedy featured broad characters, ones based on Black caricatures and stereotypes; the difference was that it was intended for Black audiences, and white audiences were allowed to watch. It was a literal flip on the history of blackface and minstrelsy.

After Wilson came Redd Foxx, who set the mold for modern Black comedians with his raunchy comedy albums and foul-mouthed but honest nightclub appearances. He spoke to Black audiences, but he let hip white folks buy his records.

All of which made way for Richard Pryor, who was, as they say, the wildest dream of the ancestors. His comedy persona was Blackness created wholly by a Black person, one who spit punchlines with a moral clarity about America. He offered insights for everyone with laugh-out-loud exaggerations that made his humanity his comedy. Pryor pushed far past the “coon,” the “dandy,” the “Tom” or the “buck” — he became “the crazy nigger.” It was a point of pride. He taught Black people and white people to hear “nigger” differently. He made everyone think about Black people differently. Pryor broke the traditions of America wide open, and made sure Black comedy could no longer be defined by white people.

As such, nowadays, Black people get to laugh at ourselves, on our own terms, and everyone else can laugh with us. But not at us. Never again can they define what Blackness is and expect us to laugh. So while elements of something like Homey the Clown from In Living Color might harken back to Pigmeat Markham, the big difference was that in the early 1990s, Damon Wayans, who played Homey, was starring on a show created by his brother, Keenen Ivory Wayans, which Keenen addressed directly at the show’s height. “For years,” he said, “other people have portrayed Black people as they wished and never received any criticism, so here I am, a Black man, and I want to tell jokes about self, my culture, I want to share, and people criticize me and I scratch my head and I go, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t get this.’”

Leave it, though, to Spike Lee to best encapsulate the legacy, meaning and persistent danger of misinterpreted minstrelsy. In his 2000 film Bamboozled, a performer named Honeycutt tries out for a modern-day minstrel show, and grabs the producers’ attention when he sings his own original song, based on the line “Niggas is a beautiful thing.” (Interestingly, Lee had been among those who criticized the Wayans for In Living Color, but his Bamboozled also starred Damon. “I think there are a lot of TV shows that are minstrel shows,” he offered while promoting the film. “I think some forms — the genre of gangsta rap, if you look at the videos, I think they’re a modern form of minstrel shows. As I said before, in the 21st century you don’t have to blacken up for some of this to still be happening, in my opinion.”)

That five-word phrase — “Niggas is a beautiful thing” — is the whole essence of blackface, minstrel shows and comedic performances of Blackness. Because just like with the word nigger, it’s only good or funny when we say it. For us, a Black clown can be a point of pride, and just like the word nigger, a Black clown isn’t necessarily an insult. Minstrelsy and blackface can be embarrassing in mixed company, but it doesn’t insult us as long as we’re the ones defining and lampooning ourselves.

If anything, when we choose to do it, it just reminds the world: “Niggas is a beautiful thing.”