Lesson Objective: Explore the racist history of blackface and connect it to the ways in which both blackface and modern-day cultural appropriation are racist.
Total Time: One 40-minute segment, one 75-minute segment, one 90-minute segment, and one 35-minute segment
Explain blackface has a racist history that continues to haunt America to this day. Tell students that they will first receive an overview of how and why blackface is racist and then explore the history of blackface. This will lead into a broader discussion about “cultural appropriation,” a term they may or may not be familiar with.
Play this short video about the racist roots of blackface: https://cnn.it/2UZJlNF
Invite students to make a list of three “take-aways” from the clip. Share the following three “take-aways” and then invite students to share their own:
● Historically, White people have used blackface to portray African Americans in demeaning ways.
● Today, blackface is considered socially unacceptable. However, some White people — including politicians, celebrities, and others in positions of power — still engage in the practice, treating it as a joke.
● The bottom line — it is never okay for White people to wear blackface or to pretend they are Black.
Distribute one of the following five articles to each member of the class. Instruct them to underline parts of their assigned article that catch their attention.
Learners summarize the content of their assigned article and share what stood out to them. After each article has been discussed, ask them to reflect on some of the common themes. The following questions can help prompt students to consider commonalities:
● In what contexts do White people often wear blackface?
● Why do you think there is so much confusion over the fact that blackface is a serious matter and not a joke?
● What are the typical consequences for a public figure caught wearing blackface?
Invite students to recall what they learned in the previous lesson and remind them of the overall objective. Then have them brainstorm images, words, and ideas that they associate with the term “Jim Crow,” completing the activity independently or with a partner.
They share what they’ve written with the class. As they share, project their collective responses. Arrive at the main idea that Jim Crow laws were enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to enforce racial segregation.
Project the image of “Jump Jim Crow” on the board.
Explain the following, ideally projecting this information alongside the image so students can both see and hear the facts:
● The first popularly known blackface character was “Jim Crow” in 1830.
● The notorious Jim Crow laws, which reinforced racial discrimination, are actually named after this character.
● The White actor who played “Jim Crow” was Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice.
● He grew up in New York, in an integrated neighborhood where he had the opportunity to observe African American speech, song, and dance.
● He performed caricatures of the Black people he grew up around, and his dance moves inspired a new genre called “minstrelsy.”
● Blackface was used in theater performances across the United States.
● Rice’s imitation of a Black man and his perpetuation of stereotypes about African American people was very popular with White people both in the North and South. As a result, he became rich.
Ask students if they have any questions or comments that they want to share before the lesson moves forward. Explain that their focus today will be on investigating the history of blackface.
Divide the class into six groups and distribute the appropriate two-sided handout to each person in each group so that everyone has their own paper.
Each of the six handouts has an image on the front and a short set of notes on the back. Each group has seven minutes to study the image, read the information on the back, and prepare a short summary of the most important information.
Each group studies their assigned image and facts, preparing their presentation.
● Handout One: Blackface & The Abolitionist Movement
● Handout Two: Famous Characters in the Blackface Tradition
● Handout Three: Plantation Nostalgia
● Handout Four: African American Blackface Performers
● Handout Five: Famous Blackface Performer Bert Williams
● Handout Six: Famous Blackface Performer Al Jolson
Project a note-taking template on the board and have students copy it onto a piece of paper. It can list Group One, several bullet points, Group Two, several bullet points, and so on continuing through Group Six. Tell students that you will collect their notes for points (or however you want to hold them accountable for paying attention to the group presentations). They are responsible for notes on all six groups, including the group that they were in.
Randomly call a spokesperson from each group to give a 3-5-minute presentation of their findings as the rest of the class listens and takes notes.
Give students a more vivid picture of some of the two most unique and successful blackface performers, Bert Williams, a Black man known as a vaudeville and comedic celebrity, and Al Jolson, a Lithuanian Jewish man.
Note: Ideally, you would obtain a copy of Broadway: The American Musical, DVD One, which contains Episode One (1893-1927) and Episode Two (1919-1933). The DVD is part of a set of three but is sometimes sold individually. Check your local library or for used copies online. YouTube also has some short excerpts.
Start with Williams. Before showing the video clip, pose the following discussion question for students to ponder as they watch. It’s a good idea to project the question on the board in writing so students can process it visually and aurally:
● Williams is known for his ability to perform without demeaning Black people and for dismantling racial barriers. Have you ever found a way to push back against something you disagreed with while still meeting the expectations of people in power like Williams did?
Scene 4, “Bert Williams,” PBS Broadway The American Musical: Episode One (1893-1927)
Bert Williams’ Famous Poker Routine: http://bit.ly/2vF1Ix3
Students share their perceptions of the footage and respond to the discussion question. Provide these examples if students are stuck on the question:
● Being required to comply with a dress code, but still finding ways to express your personal style
● Thai chef who has to cook for Americans tastes but still manages to include authentic flavors
● Teacher could brainstorm an example from their own life
Before showing the clip of Jolson, pose the following discussion question for students to ponder as they watch. It’s a good idea to project the question on the board in writing so students can process it visually and aurally:
● Blackface has very clear racist origins. Today, it is highly inappropriate to wear blackface. Some argued that Jolson was a better, less racist performer than other Whites.
● As a Lithuanian Jewish man who identified with African Americans, he used blackface as a mask behind which he shared the pain and suffering and vulnerability of his experience, a mask behind which he could voice things that he wasn’t able to share without the mask. What do you make of this argument?
Scene 5, “Al Jolson,” PBS Broadway The American Musical: Episode Two (1919-1933)
Mammy — Al Jolson (Jazz Singer Performance)
Students share their perceptions of the footage and respond to the discussion question.
To wrap up, ask students to independently write down:
● Three takeaways they want to remember about the history of blackface.
● Three questions they still have about blackface, or its history.
Collect their written responses and invite students to share out any last comments or questions about blackface.
Then ask for a show of hands of who has heard the term “cultural appropriation.” Invite students whose hands are raised to share their thoughts. As they share, display their responses on the board. Then, project the following definition:
Cultural appropriation: The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.
Read & Reflect
Students will read the Allure article, “Kim Kardashian Slammed for Calling Cornrows ‘Bo Derek Braids’” to explore a contemporary example of cultural appropriation: http://bit.ly/2DSQc5P
Instruct them to highlight parts of the text that answer the following three questions:
● What about the “Bo Derek Braids” situation IS cultural appropriation?
● What about the “Bo Derek Braids” situation is NOT cultural appropriation?
● What are the problems with cultural appropriation?
As a class, students share what they highlighted and discuss their responses to the three questions.
Read & Reflect
Then they read the article, The Reality of Cultural Appropriation in a Very White America: http://bit.ly/2VV7ppz
Instruct them to highlight parts of the text that:
● Give examples of cultural appropriation
● State why cultural appropriation is a problem
As a class, students review what they highlighted and discuss examples of cultural appropriation and why cultural appropriation is a problem.
End the discussion by pointing out that cultural appropriation takes many forms, affecting much more than women’s beauty standards. Cultural appropriation occurs in music, art, dance, and more.
Compare & Contrast
Now that they’ve explored the history of blackface and discussed examples of cultural appropriation, students will create a Venn Diagram where they analyze the similarities and differences between the two phenomena.
For the teacher’s reference:
Unique to blackface:
● It is always clear when someone is wearing blackface.
● Blackface was accepted in the early 20th century but is considered racist today.
● Blackface is associated with early theater traditions in the U.S.
Unique to cultural appropriation:
● There is sometimes confusion about whether something is cultural appropriation or not.
● Cultural appropriation still occurs today and is not always called out for being racially offensive.
● Cultural appropriation is associated with not only theater, but music, art, fashion, and more.
● Both are offensive to underrepresented groups.
● Both have deep historical roots in the U.S.
● Both continue to this day.
End with a discussion of students’ Venn Diagrams.
Ginger O’Donnell is a senior staff writer for DiversityIS. This article ran in the fall 2019 issue.