Toy Blackface Dancing Man
Antique toy blackface wooden dancing figure, c. 1920s. This toy brought me to write an article on racist objects. I encourage you to read it here.
About 12 inches tall tall, the handmade folk art figure represents a white performer in blackface. Its limbs are jointed and a wire with a handle is stuck through its back.
The toy embodies a derogatory view of African Americans that was acceptable in mainstream culture a century ago and lingers still today. Innocent as the toy may seem, it also has the ability to do harm. Not only do its cartoon features and exaggerated movements demean blacks, but its design invites whites, intentionally or not, to play minstrel show, debasing black culture and treating the black body as an object.
Unlike other such toys, however, this one is handmade folk art, and its abstract features give it a complex character when compared to the cookie-cutter racism of the more common mass-produced examples. But the most provocative and sinister element of the toy is shared with others of its kind: the wire skewer in the black body’s back, which when lifted sends the loosely pinned limbs of the man flying in a crazed, idiotic dance.
Blackface minstrel shows established the African American’s role in white society as “entertainer-fool,” providing a harmless and productive definition of black identity while ensuring that the black body remained held as an object of ridicule. Literally given life by a white hand, the piece here dances those appropriated steps, but it also somehow takes on a life of its own. I swear that watching people playing with the thing you’d mistake the sometimes lifelike—and I’ll say it, exuberant and hilarious—motions of the figure as propelling the hand, not the other way around. Whites have appropriated black artistic culture for centuries. Could one say that this racist wooden toy, made at the time of the Harlem Renaissance, unintentionally embodies the creative and moral agency of blacks in American culture? He might seem like an inanimate puppet, but maybe it’s the white hand on the wire that moves to his wooden steps rather than the other way round. So I guess for me the question is, who holds the wire and in whose back is the wire fixed?
Although at first glance the puppet is only a simple, primitive toy, as both a metaphor and historical object the blackface dancing man can teach us much about race, power, and culture in America.
Good antique condition, with some scratches and wear.
10 inches long
2.25 inches wide
2.5 inches deep
Wire 14.5 inches long
Free in the continental United States. If an international buyer, please contact me for a shipping estimate by clicking here.