Of Race and the Meaning of Progress

In the blackface minstrel shows that dominated the theaters of NewYork, Boston, and other industrializing cities of antebellum North, white actors impersonated plantation slaves by wearing black face paint and imitating "real" plantation dances and songs. Here the white working class audience indulged their desire and animosity toward the African American "other": a sympathetic but hapless slave whose pre-industrial traditions were longed for by the newly industrial wage worker; and a bestial rival whose potential freedom would challenge white male privilege in the workplace and in the home. The blackface mask capitalized on longings for "authentic" African American culture while satisfying feelings of white supremacy—all toward the profit of the white performers.

After the Civil War, industrial entrepreneurs appropriated this dynamic as a formula for their own commercial success. While alleviating the anxieties of the new industrial age, manufacturers used the meanings contained in the blackface image to advertise their novel mass-produced goods. Blackface became a brand, a ubiquitous presence in the visual environment of an emerging consumer society.