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Minstrelsy / Minstrel Show / Black Face

Please note that the while this topic is sensitive, and the performance of blackface is unthinkable today, it is being presented in this blog as an educational effort, not promotion of or support for the continuance of the theatrical form of blackface itself.

While it is very easy to dismiss and discredit minstrelsy (minstrel shows) during the American pre-Civil Rights era, these shows are significantly linked to popular entertainment history.

1922 Orange Volunteer Fire Department Performance.

1. Minstrelsy is considered by most historians to be the first distinctly American theatrical form.

2. The "Great Emancipator," President Abraham Lincoln, held blackface performances inside the White House.

3. Through a distorted lens, minstrelsy brought forward aspects of black culture and issues to the forefront.

4. While minstrelsy has a history of misuse and abuse, it lead to a wide-spread appreciation of Black Americans’ contributions to arts and expression.

5. Minstrel shows lead directly to the development of old time radio situation comedies such as "Amos N Andy"; variety shows like "The Jack Benny Show", and duo-acts like Laurel and Hardy and from there, stand-up comedy.

6. Minstrelsy also links strongly to American Vaudeville, which was different from its original French counterpart. Vaudeville in America incorporated minstrelsy, the circus, skits, and other traveling amusements and brought them to the growing middle classes of the more populated urban areas of the country.

Two programs from an amature show in 1956 and 1960.

Following the War of 1812, Americans were intentionally and determinedly separating from their European identities and creating an American culture. Minstrelsy, though traceable to the late 1700s, began to spread in popularity, hitting its boom in antebellum America. White actors wore a black face mix to represent enslaved and freed black people. It wasn’t until 1843, however, that the theatrical form hit the big-time opening at the Bowery Amphitheatre in New York City. Throughout antebellum America, these shows became extravaganzas with skits, songs, dance numbers and an early version of stand-up comedy. They also became garish and stereotypical caricatures of enslaved and freed Black Americans with exaggerated features, movement, dialogue and songs.

New York City was arguably one of the most fertile ground for minstrelsy as it was a densely populated area with a growing middle class and a large male immigrant population. Seeking to escape their own worries and perhaps bolster their sense of self-worth, the caricatures of blacks portrayed as clownish, lazy and/or happy to be “taken care of,” filled a need to feel better off or superior to others simply because they were white.

In the United States, antebellum minstrel shows “counteracted abolitionists by arguing in favor of slavery’s supposed nurturing attributes, making slavery appear benevolent to the working-class men who flooded the Bowery district in New York City and who had little or no protection from the abuse and usurpations of factory labor.”[1]

Following the American Civil War and through Reconstruction, white actors joined the movement into Vaudeville and black actors began to perform in the minstrel show roles. Like their white counterparts before them, black actors “blackened up,” sang, danced, and discussed provocative issues like sex in their shows. The structure of their performances and their removal of 19th century Victorian conventions was typical for all minstrel shows at the time. However, black minstrel performers felt the added responsibility to counter the stereotypes of black identity as laughable, primitive and overly sensual, leading them to develop a self-presentation on stage that balanced racist stereotypes and political commentary." [2]

American minstrelsy began its decline in the early 20th Century, with the last shows ending during the 1960s. American amateur shows, however, continued well beyond the 1960s. In London, there was a reprisal with the PBS “The Black and White Minstrel Show” that aired from 1958 to 1978.

[1] Barnes, Rhae Lynn. "The Birth of Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of Stephen Foster." US History Scene. 11 Apr. 2015. Web. 10 Aug. 2018.

[2] University of South Florida Library. "History of Minstrelsy, From 'Jump Jim Crow' to the 'Jazz Singer'"

[1] Barnes, Rhae Lynn. "The Birth of Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of Stephen Foster." US History Scene. 11 Apr. 2015. Web. 10 Aug. 2018.

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