The History Behind Racist Halloween Costumes

a historical dancing Jim Crow cartoon

by Zoe Beyer, Student Assistant

a historical dancing Jim Crow cartoon
This image was the cover of an edition of “Jump Jim Crow” sheet music in 1832.

Halloween is coming up, and there are no shortage of creative costume ideas to pull from. There are classic scary options, like vampires, or more fun options like personified puns (Freudian slip, anyone?). However, seemingly every year there comes a dreaded story of white people dressing up as black people, dark foundation included.
Take, for example, the students at St. Mark’s College in Adelaide, Australia, who dressed up in blackface for various parties throughout this year. Some students chose to imitate famous black athletes like Michael Jordan at the school’s annual Garden Party. Another photo taken in 2016 depicts a student dressed up as an “African” and referencing the AIDS crisis occurring there with a sign saying “Race: African; Blood type: AIDS positive.”
Or consider students at the University of Mississipi attending an Alpha Tau Omega Halloween party. Two white men dressed in a group costume: one is in blackface, picking cotton. The other? A police officer, holding a gun to his partner’s head. The brothers of a fraternity at California Polytechnic State University dressed up as gang members during the weekend of the school’s multicultural celebration. One of the brothers in the picture dressed in blackface.
These examples are not just evidence of individual racism; rather, they come from a long history of white people dressing up in blackface. This type of performance is called minstrelsy. In these acts, white performers dressed up as negative caricatures of black people. Actors would rub burnt cork on their faces and exaggerate the wideness of their nose and thickness of their lips.
Minstrelsy too was not a subculture; rather, it was prevalent throughout America and became the first uniquely American popular culture.

This art form was invented in part to reinforce white superiority in America and continue the oppression of black people. In these shows, blackness was inherently represented as lowly, including a grossly exaggerated southern accent full of mispronunciations and a sub-human appearance consisting of extremely exaggerated features.
The Southern caricature of this time is the Jim Crow figure, representing black people in the south. These figures were childlike; they craved immediate satisfaction and could not resist singing, dancing or food. This was meant to contradict “white American” values like self-control. This is partially responsible for the creation of stereotypes like loving watermelon and fried chicken as well as the belief that black people are lazy. These characters were also shown to be primitive through belief in animal fables.
However, black people were also warned against pursuing whiteness. Northern black figures in these shows were portrayed as foolish for believing they could become white. These dandies were shown to still be incapable of refinery and prone to dancing and singing just like their Southern counterparts.
Even though minstrelsy itself is not present in this same form, elements of it persist. Children’s cartoons especially continued to propagate racist imagery of black people decades into the 20th century. An even more recent example is the portrayal of Serena Williams in a cartoon run by the Herald Sun last month: in it, Serena is angrily stomping on her racket and has thrown a pacifier out of her mouth. The cartoon also depicts Williams with exaggerated features reminiscent of a minstrel character.
So when choosing a Halloween costume this year, avoid falling into the centuries-old tradition of cultural appropriation and racism.
For more information on minstrelsy and its history, check out these books in the Stone Center Library:

  • Friedman, Ryan Jay. Hollywood’s African American Films: the Transition to Sound, Rutgers University press, 2011.
  • Lhamon, W. (2003). Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture, Harvard University Press, 2003.
  • Chude-Sokei, Louis Onuorah. The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora, Duke University Press, 2006.
  • Johnson, Stephen. Burnt Cork: Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy, University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.
  • Taylor, Yuval & Austen, Jake. Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop, Norton, 2012.

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