The twelfth-century term minstrelsy designated a form of local entertainment originally performed by professionals paid by European lords. Later, these professionals became traveling entertainers, and the male roving minstrel connoted either a local or an itinerant performer. Minstrels often were hounded by church officials and town authorities during minstrelsy’s heyday in Europe during the eleventh to fifteenth centuries. Walking from town to town with a harp or viol on their backs, the minstrels’ brightly colored clothes, dance slippers, nonbearded faces, and close-shorn hair are said to be vestiges of the Teutonic bard and the mime of the Roman theater. An integral part of many gatherings, including those occurring in noblemen’s halls, marketplaces, and along pilgrim pathways, minstrels sang stories about the Christian saints, the scriptures, and heroes. They accompanied themselves instrumentally and also danced and performed acrobatic stunts to further the entertainment value.
Some scholars believe medieval minstrels transmuted Roman theatrical practice into liturgical drama. This transfer of form and aesthetic occurred primarily in France. High-born minstrels (trouvères and troubadours ) were said to practice a “gay science,” and their poetry was considered the product of nobility. With this heightened social status, minstrels in Paris incorporated themselves, building their own church and hospital. However, as soon as the minstrels were economically successful and accepted by society, they came to be imitated by a lower class of performers. The low-culture minstrels in the medieval period imitated the high-culture minstrels through exaggeration. In the lower-culture version of European minstrelsy, the traditional bright costumes became garish, clever lyrics became bawdy, and the music was less lyrical.
Minstrelsy experienced a renaissance in the United States when, in a northern city around 1828, the white actor Thomas Dartmouth Rice (1808–1860) imitated an African American slave whom he had seen dancing to a song known as “Jumpin’ Jim Crow.” Rice either bought or stole the black man’s clothes. He performed the song and dance as an entr’acte, and legend has it that Rice became an overnight sensation. Rice performed the Jim Crow character for the rest of his career. His costume—a tattered coat and too-short pants, oversized shoes, and a felt hat, along with blackface makeup—became the look of the early American minstrel until 1840. At that time, the Virginia Minstrels formed in New York City. Made up of Dan Emmett, Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower, the Virginia Minstrels’ costumes and songs, accompanied by fiddle, tambourine, bones, and banjo, were more refined than those of Rice. The Virginia Minstrels began composing songs still familiar to this day, including “Old Dan Tucker” and “Jimmy Crack Corn.” Blackface minstrelsy was extremely popular in the Bowery and the Five Points districts of New York City, particularly among young, recently urbanized men, and minstrel troupes began performing primarily in northern cities, eventually traveling to the West to mining camps and then into Australia and New Zealand. American blackface minstrels also traveled east to England, Scotland, Ireland, and even to parts of Africa.
Blackface minstrelsy in America became embroiled in local and national politics during the 1850s after performers found fault with the women’s suffrage and antislavery movements. It was at this time that the well-known stereotypes of African Americans were cultivated and refined: the loud-mouthed plantation mammy, the overdressed male dandy, the sexually promiscuous light-skinned woman, and the compliant Uncle Tom. In the years after the Civil War (1861–1865), African Americans flooded the minstrel stage, creating a rivalry between white men who claimed authenticity as minstrel performers and black men who stated they were the more “legitimately” black and therefore better performers than the imitative blacks. Women, both black and white, also began performing in the 1870s, and they too had rivals from the ranks of female impersonators who had performed as part of the minstrel shows since the 1840s. By 1890 American minstrelsy became a primarily amateur activity on the popular stage, though vestiges of minstrelsy can be easily identified in vaudeville, musical revues, and American musical theater.
Minstrelsy did continue professionally in the United States on radio and in early television. The radio show Amos ’n’ Andy, performed by two white men, Freeman Gosden (1899–1982) and Charles Correll (1890–1972), premiered in 1928. Gosden and Correll created two African American characters that based much of their situational humor on sketches born in the minstrel shows. In 1951 CBS introduced a television version of Amos ’n’ Andy featuring African American actors—the first of its kind on American television. Though popular with white and black audiences, Amos ’n’ Andy’ s dependency on minstrelsy stereotypes and the NAACP’s campaign against their perpetuation on television led to the canceling of the show in 1953, though it ran in reruns until 1966.
SEE ALSO Blackface; Entertainment Industry; Jim Crow; Race; Racism
Bates, Alfred, ed. 1906. The Drama: Its History, Literature, and Influence on Civilization. Vol. 7. London: Historical Publishing Company.
Bean, Annemarie, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara, eds. 1996. Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press and University Press of New England.
Originating around 1830 and peaking in popularity twenty years later, the minstrel show offered blackface comedy for the common man. The minstrel show, prominent primarily in Northeastern urban centers, had a profound impact on nineteenth-century Americans, including Mark Twain who remarked in his Autobiography that "if I could have the nigger show back again … I should have but little further use for opera." Although it declined by 1900, the minstrel show continued to shape American popular entertainment and remained a topic of intense historical and political debate. It is both reviled for its racism, including its exploitation of black culture, and celebrated as the "people's culture" and the first indigenous form of American popular culture.
Thomas D. Rice, an itinerant blackface performer, is responsible for one of the founding moments in the history of the minstrel show. In approximately 1830 Rice saw an elderly black man performing a strange dance while singing "Weel about and turn around and do jus so;/Ebery time I weel about, I jump Jim Crow." He copied the dance, borrowed the man's clothes, blacked up and soon launched a successful tour in New York City with an act that included his new "Jim Crow" dance. Over the next decade ensembles, rather than solo performers, began to dominate this industry. In 1843 one of the first minstrel show troupes, the Virginia Minstrels (which included Dan Emmett), formed in New York City, the birthplace and then hub of the minstrel show productions.
The blackface minstrel stands alongside the Yankee (indepen-dent, patriotic, and honest) and the backwoodsman (such as the uneducated and robust Davy Crockett) as early expressions of American identity, in defiance of European aristocracy. In literature or on stage, these stock characters undermined pretentious and immoral elites with their comedy. Significantly, the minstrel show was the first form of American commercial entertainment to draw on black culture, although scholars admit that it is difficult to sort out this complex history of racial exchange.
White male performers put on blackface to offer comic commentary on a variety of topics (including women's rights and slavery); undermine many experts and authority figures; and make fun of immigrants, Indians, and African Americans. The burlesque of Shake-speare's major plays—with exuberant physical comedy and transvestite heroines—was a regular feature of minstrelsy. Although the minstrel show underwent many transformations in the nineteenth century, the basic structure included three distinct parts. In the first section of the show a pompous interlocutor was situated in the center of a semi-circle of performers made-up in blackface (burnt cork or greasepaint), with two unruly endmen, named Brudder Tambo and Brudder Bones (their names referred to the instruments they played). These comedians were usually the stars of the show. Dressed in grotesque costumes and gesturing wildly on stage, they exchanged malapropisms, riddles, and one-liners, often deflating the interlocutor with their comic barbs. The second part of the show featured variety acts, while the final segment was a one-act skit, often depicting plantation life.
The representation of African Americans, one part of this diverse entertainment form, became popular when political tensions surrounding slavery were rising. The minstrel show emerged approximately at the time of the first publication of William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator (1831), and Nat Turner's slave rebellion (1831). Songs and dialogues in the minstrel show sometimes featured grotesque portrayals of the Northern black dandy (Zip Coon) and the happy, errant slave (Jim Crow). In addition, Stephen Foster, who sold many of his songs to the minstrel show performer E. P. Christy, created images of peaceful Southern plantation life, with emotional and sympathetic slaves, in tunes like "Old Folks at Home." Through sentimental images of contented slaves in the South and rebellious, incompetent free blacks, the minstrel denigrated blacks but its depiction of slavery was often ambivalent, particularly prior to 1850. The minstrel show included black tricksters who outwitted masters and at times criticized the cruelty of slavery, particularly the break-up of slave families. One of the minstrel show's "plantation melodies" even supported abolition:
Some massas love dar darkies well,
And gib em what dey want,
Except it is dar freedom
And dat I know dey won't.
The minstrel show's approach to race relations was thus contradictory. Although it tended to support the Union cause during the Civil War, it envisioned no place for free blacks in the North.
The blackface mask of the minstrel show was also a medium of misogyny. Overwhelmingly male-dominated, particularly in the antebellum period, the minstrel show made independent women the butt of jokes and also attacked women's supposed moral superiority. The minstrel show, for example, often included songs that ridiculed women's rights:
When woman's rights is stirred a bit
De first reform she bitches on
Is how she can wid least delay
Just draw a pair ob britches on.
The minstrel show featured a stock low comedy character, the grotesque black woman or the "funny ole gal." In contrast to male performers' creation of the "plantation yellow girl" (an attractive, well-dressed mulatto), female impersonators made the "funny ole gal" decidedly unattractive with mismatched clothes and a shrill voice.
The minstrel show underwent substantial changes after the Civil War. The troupes became much larger, the productions became plush and more elaborate, and the topics shifted away from race. J. H. Haverly, an experienced manager, increased his profits dramatically when he enlarged his minstrel show companies and advertised their glamour. M. B. Leavitt offered an all-female cast for his minstrel show in 1870; these novel female minstrels flirted with the audience and showed off their bodies in skimpy costumes. Although minstrel show performers usually remained in blackface, players offered caricatures of immigrants, including Chinese newcomers, and also attacked business elites in America. These white minstrels turned away from racial discussions in part because of competition from black performers who, beginning in the 1860s, became increasingly successful as professional minstrels by advertising their authentic portrayals of black life. Black performers like Bessie Smith and Ida Cox got some of their early show business training in the minstrel show.
Why was the minstrel show so popular among working-class Northern men (the primary audience for this entertainment in the antebellum period)? Some historians have argued that the minstrel show was a key to the formation of white working class identity: it helped these workers unite together as whites above blacks, gave them tools to challenge their subordinate status, and also offered some routes of escape through fantasy. Through the image of the libidinous, carefree black, the minstrel show provided an outlet for spectators' longings for a preindustrial, rural past—a way to counter the discipline and dislocation of urban, industrial life. In his influential study of the antebellum minstrel show, Love and Theft, Eric Lott argues that the working-class fan of the minstrel show enjoyed the denigration of African Americans, identified with them as a subjugated class, and was attracted to the childish fun they represented on stage. In these ways, the minstrel show, according to Lott, represented an ambivalent mixture of contempt and desire for African Americans. W. T. Lhamon, in contrast, argues that the minstrel show was, even more specifically, a working-class youth revolt in which young men rejected the bourgeois expectations of thrift and responsibility for adults. Considerable debate remains, however, about the extent to which the racist forms of minstrelsy served any politically progressive goals of the working class in America.
The racial borrowings and masks of the minstrel show lived on in American culture long after the professional minstrel show declined around 1900. Vaudeville and musical comedies became the primary sites of blackface entertainment, while the minstrel show also shaped the development of radio and Hollywood films. Two white men, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, established a successful radio show, Amos 'n' Andy, in which they created African American characters using racial dialect. Michael Rogin has demonstrated the salience of blackface masks to twentieth century Hollywood movies, particularly the importance of blackface to the Americanization of immigrants. Jewish films stars in blackface, such as Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927), literally displaced African Americans on stage and screen and constructed new American identities. Similar to the minstrel show's nascent nationalism, the blackface of Hollywood movies helped construct an American "melting pot" for white immigrants. The minstrel show, a beguiling mixture of populism and racism, established the racial mixture and discrimination of blackface as enduring aspects of twentieth century American culture.
—M. Alison Kibler
Gubar, Susan. Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
Lhamon, W. T. Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1998.
Mahar, William. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1998.
Roediger, David. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London, Verso, 1991.
Toll, Robert. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. New York, Oxford University Press, 1974.
Twain, Mark. The Autobiography of Mark Twain . Ed. Charles Neider. New York, Harper and Row, 1959.
Performances. Minstrel shows, performed by white actors in blackface, were a uniquely American form of entertainment that drew on adaptations and parodies of European American and African American culture displayed through caricatures of Northern and Southern black men. The first recorded example of a white performer borrowing black material dates to 1822, when the Englishman Charles Mathews visited the United States to study African American dialect. Mathews claimed to have seen an audience demand that a black actor, portraying Hamlet, stop in the middle of a soliloquy to sing “Possum up a Gum Tree.” Mathews used the incident in
his blackface act. Similarly, in 1828 Thomas D. Rice, who would become one of the nation’s premier blackface actors, happened to hear an old man singing to himself and dancing awkwardly. The song Rice heard, “Jump Jim Crow,” became a popular standard of minstrelsy and was incorporated into countless minstrel acts in a variety of formats, even working its way into Hamlet’s famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s minstrel acts performed in theaters across the country, usually as part of an evening’s theater program. Mathews, Rice, and other performers, including George Washington Dixon, J. W. Sweeney, George Nichols, and Bob Farrell, made names for themselves as individual acts during these decades.
Troupes. In 1843 a group of white men in blackface calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels performed a complete show (rather than appearing as an introductory act) in New York City. Minstrel groups were soon featured in major New York theaters such as the Chatham, the Bowery, and the Park as well as in P. T. Barnum’s Museum, converted churches and synagogues, touring showboats, and their own theaters, known as Ethiopian Opera Houses. In 1846 E. P. Christy and his Christy Minstrels opened in New York, where they became one of the best-known minstrel troupes in the country. By the 1850s ten major minstrel houses thrived in New York, and three famous troupes played in the same block on Broadway.
Issue of Slavery. Minstrelsy was a way for audiences to work out their feelings about the increasingly sensitive and volatile issues of race and slavery. Blackface sketches and songs portrayed a variety of stereotypical African American characters: trickster slaves cheating their white masters; conceited free Northern blacks; slaves weeping for dead masters; dead slaves mourned by masters; childlike slaves; defiant or abused slaves; and enslaved families destroyed by sale. Significantly, as slavery became a more divisive political issue in the late 1840s and 1850s, minstrel shows ceased to portray any negative aspects of slavery. They focused instead on images of contented slaves and ridiculous freedmen, suggesting that white Northern audiences were more comfortable with racial imagery that played down the evils of slavery.
African American Culture. Although many minstrel performers claimed to have done research in the South for their acts, it is not clear to what extent, if any, their acts represented authentic African American cultures. The line between what these actors assimilated and what they invented remains difficult for historians to draw. In any case the central irony of the minstrel show as the first uniquely American cultural product was that its depiction of the African American man was done in a way that limited or erased his presence. When white actors portrayed black characters, the act of blacking their faces also subtly asserted their whiteness. White actors noted that they often had to prove to their audiences that they were, indeed, white; the rare African American minstrel performers were sometimes criticized for not being black enough (and would occasionally black their faces as well). Christy’s troupe was praised for its authenticity, but in the context of the performance the minstrel’s “authentic” blackness was always meant to be temporary.
Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993);
Robert Toll, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974).
Minstrel shows were an extremely popular form of entertainment in which white performers wearing blackface makeup impersonated African Americans. The shows originated in the nineteenth century as professional stage productions. In the first half of the twentieth century professional productions disappeared, but putting on a minstrel show became a popular activity for amateur groups.
Impersonations of African Americans became popular in the northern United States around 1830. Thomas D. Rice (c. 1808–1860) performed songs and dances as the plantation slave Jim Crow. George Washington Dixon (c. 1801–1861) gained fame by pretending to be a northern black man named Zip Coon.
Out of these individual acts came the full-fledged minstrel show, with the first one generally said to be the performance by Dan Emmett (1815–1904) and his Virginia Minstrels on February 6, 1843, in New York City. (Emmett gained greater fame years later, when he wrote the popular Southern anthem "Dixie.")
The Virginia Minstrels were a great success. Soon there were dozens of minstrel troupes, including the Christy Minstrels, led by E. P. Christy (1815–1862). The Christy Minstrels established the standard pattern for the minstrel show: four or more performers in a semi-circle on stage, with a banjo player and a fiddler in the middle and two "endmen," one playing the tambourine and one the bone castanets. The endmen, called Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones, wore outlandish clothes and makeup and made jokes at the expense of the somewhat pompous master of ceremonies, or Interlocutor, seated in the middle.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the minstrel show was the most popular form of entertainment in America. After 1900, the professional version of it disappeared, losing out in competition with vaudeville (see entry under 1900s—Film and Theater in volume 1), radio (see entry under 1920s—TV and Radio in volume 2), and the movies. But blackface performers continued to appear in vaudeville shows, in movies like The Jazz Singer (1927; see entry under 1920s—Film and Theater in volume 2), and in the popular radio show Amos 'n' Andy (1928–55; see entry under 1930s—TV and Radio in volume 2). There continued to be a craze for amateur minstrel shows until, after the civil rights movement (see entry under 1960s—The Way We Lived in volume 4) of the 1960s, they came to be regarded as racist.
Some commentators have defended the minstrel shows, saying that they expressed not just racist derision but also admiration and sympathy for African Americans. Some say the performances were less about race than about the liberating effect of putting on a mask. The general view by the end of the twentieth century, however, was that the minstrel shows were a shameful part of American history.
For More Information
Comer, Jim. Every Time I Turn Around: Rite, Reversal, and the End of Blackface Minstrelsy.http://www.angelfire.com/oh/hydriotaphia/crow.html (accessed January 3, 2002).
"Minstrel Shows: 'That Shuff-a-lin' Throng.'" Musicals101.com.http://www.musicals101.com/minstrel.htm (accessed January 3, 2002).
Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Wittke, Carl. Tambo and Bones: A History of the American Minstrel Stage. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1930.
MINSTREL SHOWS evolved from early nineteenth century theatrical performances of Negro "delineators," most famously Thomas D. Rice, the original "Jim Crow." Rice was not the first white actor to appear on stage in blackface, but his imitation of African American song, dance, and dialect introduced a style of entertainment that broadly influenced American popular culture. Unlike
Rice's song and dance acts, the minstrel show offered full evenings of blackface entertainment and became known for its standard characters from the opening scene. The interlocutor appeared in blackface but did not speak in dialect. He directed the row of seated musicians and elicited jokes in dialect from the two end men, Mr. Tambo, who played the tambourine, and Mr. Bones, who played the bone castanets. Among the most popular minstrel troupes by the mid-nineteenth century were Daniel Emmett's traveling Virginia Minstrels and the Christy Minstrels of New York City, who introduced the works of Stephen Foster. The widely performed stage production of Uncle Tom's Cabin also incorporated elements of the minstrel show, albeit with a greater air of solemnity.
In the late nineteenth century minstrel shows declined in popularity in cities, and theatrical companies, including African American groups, took their shows on the road to rural areas. By the 1930s, as minstrel shows faded from view, the minstrel banjo style had become a central element in the new "country" music disseminated to audiences by radio broadcasts.
Although much of the genre of minstrelsy was highly sentimental and sympathetic toward the plight of slaves, minstrel shows also sustained nostalgia for the Old South among northern white audiences and presented to them grotesque stereotypes of African American culture. However, the theatricality of racial doubling served no single purpose. As part of a complex tradition of masquerade, minstrelsy shaped popular culture across the American barrier of race.
Hans, Nathan. Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.
Rehin, George. "Harlequin Jim Crow." Journal of Popular Culture 9 (Winter 1975): 682–701.
See alsoMusic: Country and Western ; Theater .
body of minstrels, collectively, 1350; of musicians; musical instruments collectively, a body or collection of minstrel poetry.
Examples: minstrelsy of heaven (angels), 1667; of the Scottish Border, 1802.