Bert Williams and George Walker
Public domain/Wikipedia

With Halloween approaching, we’ll soon see a rash of stories about young white college students who feel compelled to apologize for an unfortunate Instagram photo that depicts them in blackface at a campus party. The kind of real-life incidents that inspired the new film Dear White People.

Yet despite the ambivalence, awkwardness and, sometimes, revulsion that blackface continues to inspire in whites as well as blacks, there is very little public discussion of the historical contexts that led to the emergence of blackface minstrelsy as a most American form of popular culture.

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A new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art offers a contemporary assessment of blackface performance in the discovery of an untitled silent film that starred the biggest star of blackface, Bert Williams.

The first major black crossover star of the 20th century was a light-skinned black man, born in the Bahamas, who donned shoe polish for the desired effect of being clearly identified as a so-called darky. His popularity spoke volumes about the state of American popular culture at the time and mocks the hyperbole of those who would claim that any number of contemporary black comedians or reality-TV stars are blackface “minstrels.”

Blackface minstrelsy was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the late 19th century—the reality TV of its era—which, until the emergence of Williams and his partner George Walker (who was darker-skinned and didn’t apply face paint), was dominated by white men pretending to be “darkies.” To make clear the distinction, Williams and Walker billed themselves as “Two Real Coons.”

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Onstage and on-screen, Williams’ humanity might have been limited to the mask he wore—Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” is a reminder that the mask was, in fact, the public face of blackness—but no such limits were placed on his talents. Finding his success before the emergence of “talkies”—motion pictures with sound—and at the nascent moment of sound recordings, Williams’ genius was in his movement, in the facial and physical gestures that approximated what his audiences perceived as authentically Negro.

Such genius is evident in Natural Born Gambler, a silent movie featuring Williams that has circulated on YouTube, and the just-discovered silent film featured in the MoMA exhibit.

The mask was a means for Williams and many black blackface performers to push back and reclaim the “darky” on their own terms—which they did in such a way that by the time Al Jolson starred in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, the first full-length talkie, his blackface performance was nothing but caricature.

The depictions slowly faded in popular culture—though they still made appearances in any number of cartoons well into the 20th century, and perhaps forced black performers like Lincoln “Stepin Fetchit” Perry and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson to overemphasize the physicality and sounds of blackness to make up for the absence of blackface. By the time of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s, Williams became largely forgotten or even actively ignored, as a reminder of the times when black performers didn’t have the freedom of expression that they had in later years. As Camille Forbes notes, “The artistry of his work—and the manner in which he had taken a stereotype and transformed it—took a backseat to the means in which he was compelled to present it.”

To be sure, there is ample reason now to indict those young white students who put on blackface to dress as Bey and Jay for Halloween, on the basis of their own ignorance. But that same ignorance is at work among those of us who dismiss the history of black blackface performers without fully understanding and appreciating the genius of performers like Bert Williams.

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter