African Americans and Halloween

African Americans—The history of African Americans and Halloween mirrors the history of American racism. In his 1904 poem “Hallowe’en,” black poet Charles Frederick White implies that African American children of the time participated in the same Halloween activities that their Caucasian counterparts did; however, Halloween party booklets and playlets from the 1920s and ’30s paint a different picture, suggesting that stereotypes of African Americans developed and perpetuated in 19th century minstrel shows— mainly that blacks were superstitious and buffoonish — hadn’t changed in decades. Here, for example, is a poem entitled “Superstitions” (which literally references the classic “mammy” stereotype), from a 1937 book for children:

The old colored mammy who lives down the road Says, “Don’ you walk unner dat ladder! Go home if you sees a black cat cross yer paff And, chile, watch out for yer shadder.” She says, “No luck ever come ter a house Where a dog he bay at the moon.” She knows the meaning of spilling salt Or dropping a fork or spoon. She’s superstitious—I know she is! But Hallowe’en—I remember them all— And believe them, too—don’t you?

The Giant Hallowe’en Book from 1934 includes a playlet that uses a derogatory term as an eponymous character—“Rastus Goes Walking” (intended to be performed by white actors in blackface)— and the same book includes the suggested party theme “Hallowe’en in Harlem,” in which the decorations are principally dolls made up as “darkies” with “black faces and big red mouths.”

Visual depictions of African Americans at Halloween from this same period are similarly stereotyped, typically depicting young black children with exaggerated expressions fleeing in terror from various apparitions.

Halloween racism was hardly limited to offensive plays, POSTCARDS, and poems, however, as Halloween also became a special time for perpetrating racially-motivated acts of violence. The Ku Klux Klan, the notorious racist group, provided guidelines to members that included the suggestion that “harassing should always have a humorous twist and be in the nature of Halloween pranks to obscure the deadly seriousness behind the work”; summoned to appear before Congress in 1921, members of the Klan asked why their cowls should be questioned when Halloween celebrants routinely wore MASKS. In 1931, 7- year-old Truman Capote set off a scandal in Monroeville when he invited black children to his Halloween party; Klansmen appeared in full regalia, but were successfully rebuffed by the father of Capote’s neighbor and friend, Harper Lee (future author of To Kill a Mockingbird). In 1959, eight white youths in the town of Corinth, Mississippi, killed a young African American on Halloween night, and set off months of interracial violence and tensions.

Racial stereotypes continue to appear at contemporary Halloween celebrations: In 2001, 185 students from Auburn University were suspended after they posted photos on the internet showing a Halloween party in which white students in Ku Klux Klan costumes acted out the lynching of other white students in blackface. In 2007, the Sigma Chi fraternity at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore held a “Halloween in the Hood” party, and requested that those attending wear “ghetto” clothing, including “hoochie,” “mack,” and “hustla” costumes.

Occasionally Halloween worked in favor of African Americans: Famed singer Ethel Waters was persuaded to try her first attempt at a professional performance on Halloween, since she could attend the local nightclub safely protected by a mask. In a 1971 article, comic Dick Gregory commented on his childhood poverty and noted that Halloween was the only holiday he really enjoyed: “Halloween was the one day we could wear our regular clothes and people thought we were dressed for the occasion.”

In the 1990s, one high school in Detroit, Michigan, attempted to combat racism on Halloween by renaming the day “Heritage Day,” and suggesting that students dress as famous African American historical figures.

African Americans are not the only group to experience acts of Halloween prejudice: In Milford, Connecticut, for example, headstones in a Jewish cemetery were defaced on Halloween in 1999; and a 1989 incident in which a homeless man was beaten to death by a masked gang on Halloween in New York led other homeless to call the crime an example of “growing bigotry” towards the homeless.


The Halloween Encyclopedia Second Edition written by Lisa Morton © 2011 Lisa Morton. All rights reserved