Putting on 'blackness' - The history of blackface explored

The use of blackface can be traced throughout history in literature, art, film, theatre, fashion and other mediums.

Blackface is when a non-black person puts on the appearance of being black by painting their skin, says historian and researcher Professor Hlonipha Mokoena.

Performing blackface is about caricature and exaggerated racial stereotypes, she explains.

While the practice is seen mostly as a display of racism and anti-blackness, Mokoena says there are also elements of white desire expressed through the cultural appropriation.

She explains that blackface exemplifies how the black body has been made for servitude and comic relief within white narratives.

The coon is one of the more well-known caricatures and represents all the exaggerated characteristics which white people are not.

The professor cites and critiques various examples of blackface from ancient religious groups, to Shakespeare's Othello, Mzansi's very own Leon Schuster and international brands such as Gucci.

Painting yourself black allows you to say things you wouldn't usually say, wear things you wouldn't and have mannersism that you wouldn't normally have.

Hlonipha Mokoena, Associate Professor - Wits Institute for Social and Economics Research

Blackface is any kind of theatrical performance, a piece of entertainment, in which a non-black performer performs as a black person normally painted with shoe polish, foundation or bronzer to look black.

Hlonipha Mokoena, Associate Professor - Wits Institute for Social and Economics Research

People have been mimicking black people since the world began.

Hlonipha Mokoena, Associate Professor - Wits Institute for Social and Economics Research

White people can act black, up to the point where it's costly.

Hlonipha Mokoena, Associate Professor - Wits Institute for Social and Economics Research

Listen to the discussion on The Eusebius McKaiser Show:


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