Everyone is a little bit shook up with all the rumors and reports of clowns attacking innocent people. There’s a long history of people being afraid of clowns, but even longer than that is the racist history of clowns and the circus. Now, let’s get one thing straight: the act of clowning long predates minstrel shows and blackface. Clowns and their performances weren’t always racist, but eventually the mockery of Black people became integral to the profession.
In America, Lewis Hallam Jr – a white man, is a pioneer of blackface clowns. According to Nick Tosche’s book, Where Dead Voices Gather, Hallam portrayed the role of “Mungo”, a drunk Black male character, in a play called The Padlock in 1769. He was dressed in attire similar to what we now associate with clowns, and his role led to the 1800s popularity of blackface. George Nichols was the first person to combine clowning with a “Negro song” according to Stuart Thayer’s American Circus Anthology. By 1831 circuses started incorporating minstrel scenes, which used outright blackface.
The American circuses eventually phased out minstrel shows and blackface, but that posed a threat to their profits. Taking cues from the Irish origins of western clowning, they adopted the white makeup that we know today. Still, a large part of what made minstrel shows popular was how they rationalized racism and mocked Black men. Thus, overdrawn lips, big noses, and afros were incorporated into this “new” form of clowning. It’s easy to deny this connection, if you simply think about the origins and inception of clowning, but once you actually look into the American history of clowns and minstrel shows, it’s blatant.
Harmless as it may seem, the behavior, demeanor, and appearances of clowns may still be influencing anti-Black racism today. It might be furthering the stigma against natural Afro hair, and how it’s seen as unprofessional. If clowns are wearing afro-wigs to be funny, then there’s no way that isn’t a reflection of American culture and society. The overdrawn lips, the big round noses, big feet, acting silly; there are so many connections to the stereotypes and stigmas surrounding Black people today. These clowns sightings might actually be doing some good, as people are starting to make the connection to racist caricatures.
As with most cultural things regarding racism there’s no definite answer or explanation as to how this affects society. It’s easy for some to dismiss the concept altogether, while it’s even easier for others to recognize the racism immediately. Many people don’t even like clowns, so it wouldn’t even be that bad of a idea to stop having them perform. Even then, someone will get mad about this, saying something about how PC culture is ruining the circus. But, if circuses are ending the use of elephants in their performances it wouldn’t be too much of a reach to end the use of an act steeped in racism.