I-Team 8

What does blackface actually mean?

(WISH Photo from video)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — One Indianapolis member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is using her own family history to educate others on blackface.

Jodi Perras, the Indy NAACP communications chair, says the moment she found out her grandfather was a white performer who participated in blackface minstrel shows is when she took it upon herself to do more research and educate others.

“I was researching him (and) I found out that he performed in a blackface show — in blackface in Muncie as a boy in the 1920s along with his dad, and I was horrified to see this,” said Perras.

Perras says she never met her grandfather, but her findings gave her a new motivation do a deeper dive into the significance and impact of blackface, something entrenched in Indiana history.

“Hundreds of organizations in Indiana and around the country — we’re raising money, white people, by putting on blackface and getting up on stage and ridiculing an entire race of people,” she said. 

Perras says the shows, which started in the 1830s and became popular in the 1920s, would often have a white MC who served as an interlocutor.

“(The interlocutor would always be) very dignified and serious and blackface performers would be dressed like clowns,” explains Perras. “The whole point was to make the blackface performers look stupid and ignorant.”

She says that for decades there were minstrel shows all over Indiana in places like Terre Haute, Muncie, Allen County and Syracuse. By the 1960s, the shows began to die down after a local NAACP began to put up a fight against the racism.

After a Center Grove football player was seen in blackface earlier this week, Perras says she hopes parents have more conversations about racism with their kids.

“The NAACP and other people are saying we need to make sure that all of our history is is taught, even the stuff that makes us uncomfortable,” said Perras. “Don’t expect people that you meet or your Black friends to teach you — that’s too much of a burden on them.”

You can read more about the history of blackface here.

The Indy NAACP chapter encourages more people to take time to educate themselves on Black history. The organization held their annual Freedom Fund event which touched on some of the blackface history. You can watch the event in full here.