Review: Blackface by Ayanna Thompson

Some years ago, during a seminar at a Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) meeting in Atlanta, Ayanna Thompson proclaimed that Othello was “white property.” Commenting on the function of Othello’s Blackness in early modern culture as well as our own, Thompson signaled the importance of remembering that considerations of Othello and his racial identity must, of necessity, acknowledge the whiteness of his author and audience, and how that racial and cultural identity underpin Othello’s ontological and epistemological being as white property. In the latest entry of Bloomsbury’s “Object Lessons” series, Thompson more fully excavates this claim, that the performance of Blackness has traditionally been and continues to be white property, tying it not only to Shakespeare’s Othello, but to the theatrical and quotidian performances and instances of blackface within Anglo-American culture.

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Beginning the book with an anecdote about seeing a young girl at her son’s school don blackface in order to portray her hero, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thompson questions the white innocence that underwrites the uncritical and unaware application of blackface in the name of racial verisimilitude. She further investigates the cultural forces that normalize blackface and thereby render Black identity as fit for white manipulation and consumption: blackface and Blackness as white property. The young girl in blackface is a touchstone for Thompson, a kind of recurring motif that helps her trace contemporary blackface political scandals, the history of blackface theatrical performances from the early modern English stage to the blackface performances of T.D. Rice in the nineteenth century to television comics’ blackface skits to Black artists and filmmakers internalizing white modes of representing Blackness. The book ends with a powerful rumination on the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police office Derek Chauvin, and the racial reckoning that followed, which included artists and creators recognizing the problems with their prior blackface performances.

I’ve touched on two of the most consequential methods Thompson employs in her examination of the phenomenon blackface: white innocence and performance as white property. White innocence arises in several ways in the adoption of blackface and the ensuing critique and outrage, such as claims of good, benign, and complimentary intentions, as was the case for Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam’s “darkening” his face to dress up as Michael Jackson (13). White innocence also manifests in white claims that they “didn’t know any better,” like Justin Trudeau apologizing for his 2001 blackface incident, where he blackened his skin for an Arabian Nights themed costume (17). Finally, white innocence arises from plain ignorance. A deliberate and cultivated ignorance about US history and the history of blackface performances and the damaging stereotypes in which they peddle, which in Thompson’s narrative is exemplified by the principle at her son’s school, where she encountered the little girl in blackface (2). In this schema, white people are under no obligation to understand the racial politics that underpin how this nation operates, and because of this ignorance they must always be innocent. No complicity in structural racism here.

In the provocative penultimate chapter of the book, Thompson investigates the consequences of blackface on Black performers, exposing the insidious power of Blackness as white performance property. Thompson identifies three overarching traditions in which she locates the texts and performances she critiques: the legacy of minstrelsy, the exhibition of bodies and trauma, and the anxiety of authenticity. For the first two modes, Thompson uncovers how these films or TV shows can trace their performances of Black life, embodied by Black actors, and often written and directed by Black creatives to white modes and tropes. About the imitative model found in Tyler Perry’s Medea films, Thompson notes how they mobilize the damaging “mammy,” stereotype of controlling image and “borrow from white-created minstrel performance tropes” (82). For the exhibition / trauma mode, Thompson demonstrates both how it achieves critical acclaim through Hollywood awards and accolades and yet still manages to serve a white gaze through the passive positioning of the Black subject as object. Steeped in “African American literature, history, culture, and theory,” the creators of the final performance tradition “worry about how to produce an authentic performance of blackness” (88). Thompson indicates that such endeavors; however, are fraught because authenticity like race is a social construct, contingent, historically rooted, and ambivalent: “Black authenticity does not exist, just as white authenticity does not either” (94). Within the performances she critiques, Thompson finds that “they all leave one with the sense that performing blackness is still a white property that uneasily sits on black bodies” (94).

Blackface is required reading, especially in our current moment when we see powerful forces on the right seeking to white wash our history and appeal to a racially innocent past. As Thompson cogently signals, those are convenient fictions of which blackface minstrelsy is a horrid avatar.

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