The fifth episode of the second season of Underground, “Whiteface” opens on a startling note. A room full of affluent white people have come to see a minstrel show, but instead, something else is amiss. Rather than being painted in blackface, the performers are covered in whiteface. They begin making fun of white people much to the horror of the audience. As the crowd rushes out, we soon realize that Cato or C. Powell as he’s calling himself these days is responsible for it all.
Though many of us might have been shocked at the site of whiteface, Underground’s writers and creators did not pull that out of thin air. Whiteface became fairly popular during the 19th century. Initially, it was one of the many ways the Irish were mocked, and moving forward it was seen in the 20th century when actor Canada Lee, an incredibly talented performer in the 1940’s donned whiteface for his role in the Duchess of Malfi. He used whiteface because his role was originally slated for a white actor. Needless to say, critics were none-to-pleased. More recently, whiteface has been seen in films like The Wayans’ Brothers White Chicks, Chappelle’s Show, and even in rapper Chamillionaire’s music video, “Hip Hop Police.”
Now a member of the Black elite in Philadelphia, Cato has used his money to assert his influence. Typically during the 19th century in Philadelphia, members of the Black elite were native Philadelphians, West-Indians, or fair complexion, freeborn Southerners. Much of the wealth in the Black community during the time period stemmed from caterers. For example, entrepreneur Robert Bogle was the first of many African-American caterers who served nineteenth-century Philadelphia’s white elite, and he became extremely wealthy as a result.
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