It's not just Virginia politicians.
Prominent people in the worlds of politics and entertainment have gotten into hot water for wearing blackface long before Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and state Attorney General Mark Herring recently admitted to it.
Blackface dates back nearly 200 years, when white performers started darkening their faces with polish and cork to mock enslaved Africans in minstrel shows. These displays depicted black people as lazy, ignorant, cowardly or hypersexual. It was racist and offensive then and still is today.
Here's a (growing) list of politicians and celebrities who've gotten in trouble over blackface. (Note: We're not including regular people -- and there have been plenty of those cases.)
- Louisiana House of Representatives candidate Robbie Gattie dressed like Tiger Woods for a church event
- South Carolina county council candidate Brant Tomlinson dressed like a Jamaican bobsledder for a Halloween party
- Former Florida Secretary of State Mike Ertel, as a Hurricane Katrina victim at a Halloween party
- Illinois state Senate candidate Hal Patton dressed up as a black football player
- Florida state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, who dressed up as his best friend
- New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who dressed like a "black basketball player" for a Jewish holiday
- Actor Ted Danson, while roasting then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg and repeatedly using the N-word
- Actor C. Thomas Howell, in the 1986 film "Soul Man"
- Actress and singer Julianne Hough dressed as the character Crazy Eyes from "Orange is the New Black"
- Actor Billy Crystal, as the late Sammy Davis Jr. on "Saturday Night Live" and at the 2012 Oscars
- Jimmy Kimmel, dressed as Karl Malone on "The Man Show"
- Jimmy Fallon, as Chris Rock on "Saturday Night Live"
- Paula Deen and her son, dressed as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo from "I Love Lucy"
- Robert Downey Jr., in the movie "Tropic Thunder"
- Talk show host Megyn Kelly, who asked on her show "what is racist" about blackface
The racist origins of blackface
Blackface isn’t just about painting one’s skin darker or putting on a costume. It invokes a racist and painful history.
The origins of blackface date back to the minstrel shows of mid-19th century. White performers darkened their skin with polish and cork, put on tattered clothing and exaggerated their features to look stereotypically “black.” The first minstrel shows mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations, depicting black people as lazy, ignorant, cowardly or hypersexual, according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
The performances were intended to be funny to white audiences. But to the black community, they were demeaning and hurtful.
One of the most popular blackface characters was “Jim Crow,” developed by performer and playwright Thomas Dartmouth Rice. As part of a traveling solo act, Rice wore a burnt-cork blackface mask and raggedy clothing, spoke in stereotypical black vernacular and performed a caricatured song and dance routine that he said he learned from a slave, according to the University of South Florida Library.
Though early minstrel shows started in New York, they quickly spread to audiences in both the North and South. By 1845, minstrel shows spawned their own industry, NMAAHC says.
Its influence extended into the 20th century. Al Jolson performed in blackface in “The Jazz Singer,” a hit film in 1927, and American actors like Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney put on blackface in movies too.
The characters were so pervasive that even some black performers put on blackface, historians say. It was the only way they could work — as white audiences weren’t interested in watching black actors do anything but act foolish on stage.
William Henry Lane, known as “Master Juba,” was one of the first black entertainers to perform in blackface. His shows were very popular and he’s even credited with inventing tap dance, according to John Hanners’ book “It Was Play or Starve: Acting in Nineteenth-century American Popular Theatre.”
Despite Lane’s relative success, he was limited to the minstrel circuit and for most of his life performed for supper. He eventually died “from something as simple and as pathetic as overwork,” Hanners wrote.
Ignorance is no excuse
In modern discussion over blackface, its racist history is often swept under the rug or shrouded in claims of ignorance.
In a 2018 segment on “Megyn Kelly Today” about political correctness and Halloween costumes, the former NBC host said that when she was growing up, it was seen as acceptable for a white person to dress as a black person.
“But what is racist?” Kelly asked. “Because you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface on Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid that was OK, as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character.”
Her comments sparked widespread anger. She apologized, but her show was ultimately canceled.
White celebrities, college students and even elected officials have made similar claims of ignorance over past and current controversies involving blackface.
But NMAAHC is clear on this: “Minstrelsy, comedic performances of ‘blackness’ by whites in exaggerated costumes and makeup, cannot be separated fully from the racial derision and stereotyping at its core.”