Blackface Minstrelsy

Blackface minstrelsy arose during this period. Read this essay to understand what it entailed and why it became so popular.

Blackface minstrelsy was one of the most controversial, yet distinctly American elements of U.S. culture to emerge during the antebellum period. From the first full-fledged minstrel shows in the 1840s through its prevalence in films, professional shows, and amateur shows well into the twentieth century, minstrelsy was arguably the most popular and influential entertainment form in the United States. Current reactions to the minstrel show largely echo Frederick Douglass's early denunciation that the blackface performers were "the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens". Yet recent scholarship has highlighted the ambivalence at the heart of blackface performance, an ambivalence Douglass at times acknowledged. Where blackface minstrelsy is best known for its demeaning caricatures of African Americans and black folkways, it frequently displayed more complex images of blackness, epitomized a genuine interest and investment in black culture by white Americans, and at times became a powerful foundation for anti-slavery and anti-racist arguments.

White actors had performed in blackface on the American and English stages for years before the minstrel show emerged in full form. Most cultural historians link the minstrel show's development to Thomas "Daddy" Rice's performances of "Jump Jim Crow", beginning in the late 1820s. Claiming to have borrowed the song and dance routine from a black street performer somewhere in the Ohio River valley (sometimes it was Pittsburgh, other times either Louisville or Cincinnati), Rice became a national sensation as he travelled the country performing in blackface with thick dialect and grotesque dance moves. Over the course of the 1830s, more and more white performers followed in Rice's footsteps (sometimes literally), creating stereotyped figures of black behavior, ignorance, and song. In 1843, the first minstrel show was born when Daniel Emmett and three others joined together to perform as the Virginia Minstrels. Over the next decade and a half, the minstrel show began to take on a standard form, combining speeches and skits with songs and banter among the troupe of performers. The songs and repartee often reflected either life on the plantation, on images of black urban dandies in the north, or on parodies of elite white culture. Songs often violated mid-century notions of propriety, indulging in sexually suggestive wordplay and imagery and sometimes featuring sexually aggressive women. As minstrel shows became common fare in theaters and other entertainment venues, Edward Christy most fully exploited the form's potential as a free-standing amusement. With his Christy's Original Band of Virginia Minstrels, Christy, with the help of song-writers such as Stephen Foster, raised the minstrel show in terms of respectability and popularity, excising some of the racier elements of the show and focusing on more sentimental fare, such as Foster's "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River"). These songs often featured former slaves longing to return back home to the good life on the old plantation, representations that echoed defenses of slavery even as they humanized blacks by emphasizing their sorrows.

Blackface minstrelsy remained incredibly popular in the North after the Civil War, with established troupes in urban centers and famous travelling groups bringing their performances throughout the rest of the nation. The second half of the nineteenth century also saw the beginning of the large-scale involvement by black performances. While there were some African-American minstrel groups before the Civil War and some African-American performers – actors as well as dancers and musicians – appeared in blackface before 1865, the postbellum period saw more and more black performers gaining access to the entertainment industry by donning blackface and participating in minstrel shows or minstrel-inspired acts.

From the beginning, cultural critics worried over the true authenticity of these performances, often questioning the narratives of transmission – stories of white performers coming across black singers either on the streets of a northern city or on a plantation during a southern sojourn – that seemed to appear with a formulaic regularity. At the same time, a number of writers, including prominent figures such as Margaret Fuller and Walt Whitman, saw the first development of a truly American popular culture in the minstrel show. Doing so, they attempted to ground a distinctly American culture in folk culture, a folk culture seen as uniting disparate elements – from Africa, from European traditions, from American developments. While such commentators often indulged in racist characterization of African Americans as innately more musical or sentimental and they disparaged some minstrel shows for their inauthenticity or their commercial nature, they also seemed to value what they saw as African American culture for its unique contribution to American culture.

This view of blackface minstrelsy – as revealing a truly American form of culture in debased, commodified form – reiterates the ambivalence many Americans, including many African Americans, felt about the entertainment form. Douglass, for example, reported on going to see a minstrel troupe composed of African Americans in blackface, concluding that something is "gained, when the colored man in any form can appear before a white audience; and we think that even this company, with industry, application, and a proper cultivation of their taste, may yet be instrumental in removing the prejudice against our race". While Douglass emphasized that black performers must resist indulging the stereotypes put forth by blackface minstrelsy, he still envisaged the form as providing a platform for a corrective vision of black humanity and black culture.

Caricatures and stereotypes of black life and black character taken directly from the minstrel show can be found throughout American literature. But more interesting, perhaps, are the uses that authors working along the lines of Douglass made of minstrelsy. Mark Twain, for example, was an enthusiastic supporter of what he saw as the authentic minstrel show, and while that support may speak to the limits of his anti-racial commitments, it also informs his powerful attacks on American racism in works such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the antebellum period, a number of anti-slavery works, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and William Wells Brown's Clotel (usually considered the first African-American novel), invoked minstrel show imagery, both to critique its racist objectification of blacks and to build on its interest in black culture and character. This ambivalent heritage continued in the twentieth century, with classic African-American works such as Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man returning the form of minstrelsy and its embodiment of black performance in the face of racism and the inability of whites to see beyond stereotypes.

Suggested Further Reading

Bean, Annemarie, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara, eds. Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy. Hanover: Wesleyan UP/ UP of New England. 1996.

Cockrell, Dale. Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Dennison, Sam. Scandalize My Name: Black Imagery in American Popular Music. New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1982.

Ellison, Ralph. "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke". 1958. Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1964. 45-59

Lhamon, W. T., Jr. Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1998.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

Mahar, William J. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1999.

Toll, Robert. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford UP, 1974.


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