The minstrel show was the first uniquely American form of stage entertainment. Begun by white performers using black makeup and dialect to portray African Americans, the minstrel show was a popular sensation in the 1840s. It dominated American show business until the 1890s, and had profound and enduring impacts on show business, racial stereotypes, and African Americans in the performing arts.
White men in blackface had portrayed black people almost since the first contact of the races. But in the 1820s—when American show business was in its infancy, and audiences demanded stage shows about American, not European, characters and themes—some white performers began to specialize in blackfaced acts they called "Ethiopian Delineation." In 1828 in Louisville, Kentucky, one of these "Delineators," Thomas D. Rice, saw a crippled African-American stablehand named Jim Crow doing an unusual song and dance. Rice bought the man's clothes, learned the routine, and became a stage star with his "Jump Jim Crow" act. After that, blackfaced whites became more and more popular on America's stages.
In 1843 in New York City, four of these blackfaced entertainers, calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels, staged the first full evening of what they billed as "the oddities, peculiarities, eccentricities, and comicalities of that Sable Genus of Humanity." The Virginia Minstrels were a great hit. Within a year, the minstrel show became a separate entertainment form that audiences loved. Although it was centered in the big cities of the North, it was performed almost everywhere, from frontier camps to the White House. In fact, when Commodore Perry's fleet entered Japan in 1853-1854, the sailors put on a blackfaced minstrel show for the Japanese. Minstrel shows had three distinct parts. The first opened with a rousing group song and dance. Then the minstrels sat in a semicircle facing the audience. The dignified man in the middle, the interlocutor, used a commanding voice and precise, pompous language as the master of ceremonies. Flanking him, holding instruments such as banjos and fiddles, were entertainers who performed the musical numbers, most notably the songs of Stephen Foster. In his string of minstrel hits, including "Old Folks at Home," "Oh Susanna," "My Old Kentucky Home," and "Old Black Joe," Foster was a pioneer of a new eclectic American popular music, blending European parlor music he heard at home, frontier music he heard in Cincinnati theaters, and African-American music he heard in a servant's church. On the ends of the semicircle sat the most popular minstrels, the comedians, "Mr. Tambo" and "Mr. Bones," who were named after their instruments, the tambourine and the rhythm clacker bones (various performers assumed these two roles). Wearing flashy clothes and exaggerated black makeup, and speaking in heavy dialects laden with humorous malapropisms, the endmen traded puns, riddles, and jokes with the interlocutor (sitting between them). This new fastpaced verbal humor later matured in vaudeville and radio. The first part ended with an upbeat song and dance.
The second part, the olio, was essentially a variety show with performers coming on stage one at a time to do their specialties, everything from acrobatics to animal acts. Again, this was a forerunner of vaudeville—and of radio and television variety shows.
The third part, a one-act production with costumes, props, and a set, was at times a parody of a popular play or a current event. But in the early years, it was usually a happy plantation scene with dances, banjo playing, sentimentalism, slapstick, and songs such as "Dixie," a minstrel hit first introduced in New York City. These productions, mixing music, comedy, and dance, provided the seeds for the later development of the musical comedy.
Minstrelsy was not just precedent-setting entertainment. It was entertainment in blackface. It was about race and slavery, and it was born when those issues threatened to plunge America into civil war. During that period of rising tensions, northern whites, with little knowledge of African Americans, packed into theaters to watch white men in blackface act out images of slavery and black people that the white public wanted to see. From its inception, in every part of the show, minstrelsy used makeup, props, gestures, and descriptions to create grotesque physical caricatures of African Americans—including big mouths and lips, pop eyes, huge feet, woolly hair, and literally black skin. Minstrels also evolved sharp contrasts between African Americans in the North and in the South. In the show's first part, some of the olio, and the nonplantation farces, northern minstrel blacks were either lazy, ignorant good-for-nothings or flashy, preening dandies. Southern minstrel blacks, in first-part songs and plantation finales,
were happy, frolicking "darkies" or nostalgic "old uncles" and loving "mammies" devoted to their kind, doting masters and mistresses. In the 1850s, as political conflicts grew, minstrelsy often portrayed unhappy plantation runaways who longed to be back in the land of cotton. It even converted the powerful antislavery messages of Uncle Tom's Cabin into closing plantation farces of "Happy Uncle Tom."
Minstrelsy never pretended to be anything but escapist entertainment, but its racial caricatures and stereotypes allowed its huge northern white audiences to believe that African Americans were inferior people who did not belong in the North and were happy and secure only on southern plantations. So there was no need for a civil war over slavery or for acceptance of African Americans as equals. Even after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, minstrelsy continued these stereotypes, as if to support the racial caste system that replaced slavery and kept African Americans "in their place" in the South.
After the Civil War, for the first time, a large number of African Americans themselves became minstrels. Realizing that the popularity of blackfaced whites gave them a unique wedge into show business, early African-American minstrels emphasized their race. They billed themselves as "genuine," "bona fide" "colored" people who were untrained ex-slaves recreating their lives on the plantation. Except for the endmen, they rarely wore blackface. Northern white audiences were astonished by the variety of African Americans' skin colors and delighted by their shows. Although African-American minstrels did modify and diversify their material in subtle ways, the bulk of their shows reproduced and, in effect, added credibility to ingrained minstrel stereotypes. African-American minstrel troupes were so popular that they performed all over the United States, in Europe, and in the South Pacific, and they forced white minstrels to cut back their plantation material to avoid the new competition. One "Minstrel Wanted" ad in 1883 even warned, "Non-colored performers need not apply."
By the 1880s, as a result of minstrelsy, African Americans were established in all phases of show business as performers, composers, managers, and owners, though the most successful troupes were owned by whites. But the successes of African-American minstrels came at great expense. Personally, they faced discrimination daily. Professionally, they did not get the credit they deserved as performing artists because of their image as untrained, natural entertainers. Creatively, they had to stay within restrictive roles. Racially, they appeared to confirm negative stereotypes of African Americans. But, for decades, there were no other real choices for blacks in show business. For instance, Sam Lucas, a top minstrel composer and star by 1873, repeatedly tried to break free of minstrelsy. In 1875 he costarred in Out of Bondage, a serious musical drama about blacks' progress from slavery to the "attainment of education and refinement," and in 1878, he was the first of his race to star in a serious production of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a role long considered too difficult for an African American. But each time, he had to return to minstrelsy to make a living. Still, he and the other pioneers laid the foundation for future generations.
Although minstrelsy as an entertainment institution was originally created and shaped by white performers playing to white audiences, African-American culture was part of its appeal from the beginning. Some blackfaced stars, like Thomas D. Rice, admitted copying their acts directly from individual African Americans. More often, touring white minstrels bragged in general of learning new material and performance styles from black people, and there is considerable evidence in early minstrelsy that they did. Commentator Hans Nathan has identified Africanderived syncopated rhythms in early banjo tunes that were the forerunners of ragtime and jazz. Robert C. Toll has
found characteristically African-American folklore and humor in the early shows. But minstrelsy's biggest debts to African-American culture were in dance. In fact, the only African-American star in early minstrelsy was the dancer William Henry "Juba" Lane. Before emigrating to England in 1848, he repeatedly outdanced whites with "the manner in which he beats time with his feet." Virtually the father of American tap dance, Lane was, according to dance historian Marian Hannah Winter, the "most influential single performer of nineteenth century American dance." Most African-American influence on minstrel dance was less direct but no less real, as Marshall Stearns and Jean Stearns have demonstrated, with everything from the "buck and wing" to the "soft shoe."
When a number of black people became minstrels, they brought a new infusion of African-American culture. For the first time, spirituals were part of minstrelsy. Black composers drew on traditional culture, as black dancers did with African-American steps and styles. Comedians, such as Billy Kersands, used the double-edged wit and guile of black folk to get the African Americans seated in segregated sections to laugh with them at the same time that whites laughed at them.
Since these examples have to be gleaned from the few studies of sparse nineteenth-century sources, they are probably the tip of the iceberg. Still, they do indicate that minstrelsy was the first example of the enormous influence that African-American culture would have on the performing arts in America. It was also the first example of white Americans exploiting and profiting from the creativity of African Americans.
By the 1890s, as public interest shifted from plantations and ex-slaves to big cities and new European immigrants, minstrelsy's national popularity faded, though it survived in some areas for a long time. For white minstrels, the blackface that was once such an asset became a handicap, limiting their ability to compete with vaudeville — which could make race just one part of its shows — and with nonracial musicals. Ultimately, the blackfaced dialect act moved into vaudeville, musicals, movies, and radio. For African Americans, though minstrelsy remained a limited possibility, more promising opportunities opened up in musicals, popular music, and vaudeville. But the struggles against bias, restrictions, and discrimination had only begun. Long after minstrelsy was gone, its negative stereotypes and caricatures of African Americans remained deeply embedded in American show business and popular culture.
Bean, Annemarie, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara, eds. Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1996.
Cockrell, Dale. Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Fletcher, Tom. One Hundred Years of the Negro in Show Business. New York, 1954. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1984.
Lhamon, W. T., Jr. Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.
Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Nathan, Hans. Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.
Simond, Ike. Old Slack's Reminiscences and Pocket History of the Colored Profession from 1865 to 1891. Edited by Robert C. Toll and Francis Lee Utley. 1891. Reprint, Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, 1974.
Stearns, Marshall, and Jean Stearns. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York: Macmillan, 1968. Updated edition, New York: Da Capo Press, 1994.
Toll, Robert C. "From Folktype to Stereotype: Images of Slaves in Antebellum Minstrelsy." Journal of the Folklore Institute 8 (June 1971): 38–47.
Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Toll, Robert C. "Showbiz in Blackface: The Evolution of the Minstrel Show as a Theatrical Form." In American Popular Entertainment: Papers and Proceedings of the Conference on the History of American Popular Entertainment, edited by Myron Matlaw. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979.
Winter, Marian Hannah. "Juba and American Minstrelsy." Dance Index 6 (February 1947): 2847.
Wittke, Carl. Tambo and Bones: A History of the American Minstrel Stage. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1930. Reprint, New York, Greenwood Press, 1968.
robert c. toll (1996)