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Blackface Minstrelsy

Blackface Minstrelsy

Taboo since the early 1950s, blackface minstrelsy developed in the late 1820s just as the young United States was attempting to assert a national identity distinct from Britain's. Many scholars have identi-fied it as the first uniquely American form of popular entertainment. Blackface minstrelsy was a performance style that usually consisted of several white male performers parodying the songs, dances, and speech patterns of Southern blacks. Performers blackened their faces with burnt cork and dressed in rags as they played the banjo, the bone castanets, the fiddle, and the tambourine. They sang, danced, told malapropistic jokes, cross-dressed for "wench" routines, and gave comical stump speeches. From the late 1820s on, blackface minstrelsy dominated American popular entertainment. Americans saw it on the stages of theaters and circuses, read about it in the popular novels of the nineteenth century, heard it over the radio, and viewed it on film and television. Blackface minstrelsy can certainly be viewed as the commodification of racist stereotypes, but it can also be seen as the white fascination with and appropriation of African American cultural traditions that culminated in the popularization of jazz, the blues, rock 'n' roll, and rap music.

While there are accounts of blackface minstrel performances before the American Revolution, the performance style gained widespread appeal in the 1820s with the "Jump Jim Crow" routine of Thomas Dartmouth Rice. Rice is frequently referred to as "the father of blackface minstrelsy." In 1828 Rice, a white man, watched a black Louisville man with a deformed right shoulder and an arthritic left knee as he performed a song and dance called "Jump Jim Crow." Rice taught himself the foot-dragging dance steps, mimicked the disfigurement of the old man, copied his motley dress, and trained himself to imitate his diction. When Rice first performed "Jump Jim Crow" in blackface during an 1828 performance of The Rifle in Louisville, Kentucky, the audience roared with delight. White audience members stopped the performance and demanded that Rice repeat the routine over 20 times. It is impossible to overstate the sensational popularity which Rice's routine enjoyed throughout the 1830s and 1840s. Gary D. Engle has aptly described Rice as "America's first entertainment superstar." When Rice brought his routine to New York City's Bowery Theater in 1832, the audience again stopped the show and called him back on stage to repeat the routine multiple times. He took his routine to England in 1836 where it was enthusiastically received, and he spawned a bevy of imitators who styled themselves "Ethiopian Delineators."

In 1843 four of these "Ethiopian Delineators" decided to create a blackface minstrel troupe. They were the first group to call themselves "Minstrels" instead of "Delineators," and their group The Virginia Minstrels made entertainment history when it served as the main attraction for an evening's performance. Previous blackface shows had been performed in circuses or between the acts of plays. The troupe advertised its Boston debut as a "Negro Concert" in which it would exhibit the "Oddities, peculiarities, eccentricities, and comicalities of that Sable Genus of Humanity." Dan Emmett played the violin, Frank Brower clacked the "bones" (a percussion instrument similar to castanets), Billy Whitlock strummed the banjo, and Dick Pelham beat the tambourine. Their show consisted of comedy skits and musical numbers, and it enjoyed a six week run in Boston before traveling to England. Dozens of imitators attempted to trade on its success. One of the most famous was Christy's Minstrels, which opened in New York City in 1846 and enjoyed an unprecedented seven year run. During the 1840s blackface minstrelsy became the most popular form of entertainment in the nation. Americans who saw performances were captivated by them. "Everywhere it played," writes Robert Toll, "minstrelsy seemed to have a magnetic, almost hypnotic impact on its audiences."

Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, published serially between 1851 and 1852, sold over 300,000 copies in its first year in part because it traded on the popularity of blackface minstrelsy. The book opens with a "Jump Jim Crow" routine, incorporates blackface malapropistic humor, gives its readers a blackface minstrel dancer in Topsy, and its hero Uncle Tom sings doleful hymns drawn from the blackface minstrel tradition. Indeed, Stowe's entire novel can be read as a blackface minstrel performance in which a white New England woman "blacks up" to impersonate Southern slaves.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was immediately adapted for the stage. It not only became the greatest dramatic success in the history of American theater, but it also quickly became what Harry Birdoff called "The World's Greatest Hit." "Tom shows" were traveling musical revues of Uncle Tom's Cabin that continued the traditions of blackface minstrelsy. One historian has described them as "part circus and part minstrel show." They featured bloodhounds chasing Eliza across the ice (a stage addition not present in Stowe's novel), trick alligators, performing donkeys, and even live snakes. One 1880 performance included 50 actors, 12 dogs, a mule, and an elephant. The "Tom shows" competed directly with the traveling circuses of Barnum and Bailey.

After Thomas Edison's invention of moving picture technology in 1889, film versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin with whites in blackface were some of the very first films ever made. In 1903 Sigmund Lubin produced a film version of the play, and on July 30 of that same year Edison himself released a 1-reel version directed by Edwin S. Porter. Edison's film included 14 scenes and a closing tableaux with Abraham Lincoln promising to free the slaves. In 1914 Sam Lucas was the first black man to play Uncle Tom on screen.

Blackface minstrelsy remained on the leading edge of film technology with the advent of "talkies." The first "talkie" ever made was The Jazz Singer in 1927, starring Al Jolson as a blackface "Mammy" singer. The movie's debut marked the beginning of Jolson's successful film career. A list of other film stars of the 1930s and 1940s who sang and danced in blackface is a Who's Who of the period. Fred Astaire played a blackface minstrel man in RKO's movie Swing Time (1936). Martha Raye put on blackface for Paramount Pictures' Artists and Models (1937). Metro Goldwyn Mayer's 1939 movie Babes in Arms closed with a minstrel jubilee in which Mickey Rooney blacked up to sing "My Daddy was a Minstrel Man," and Judy Garland of Wizard of Oz fame blacked up with Rooney in the 1941 sequel Babes on Broadway. Bing Crosby blacked up to play Uncle Tom in Irving Berlin's film Holiday Inn (1942), and Betty Grable, June Haver Leonard, and George M. Cohan were just a few of the other distinguished actors of the period who sang and danced in blackface.

The most successful blackface minstrel show of the twentieth century was not on the silver screen but over the radio waves. The Amos 'n Andy Show began as a vaudeville blackface act called Sam 'n Henry, performed by Freeman Fisher Gosden and Charles James Correll. In 1925 the Sam 'n Henry radio show was first broadcast over Chicago radio. In 1928 the duo signed with Chicago radio station WMAQ and in March of that year they introduced the characters Amos and Andy. The show quickly became the most popular radio show in the country. In 1930 Gosden and Correll made the film Check and Double Check, in which they appeared in blackface, and in 1936 they returned to the silver screen for an encore.

The 15 minute version of The Amos 'n' Andy Show ran from 1928 until 1943, and it was by far the most listened to show during the Great Depression. Historian William Leonard writes that "America came virtually to a standstill six nights a week (reduced to five nights weekly in 1931) at 7:00 pm as fans listened to the 15-minute broadcast." In 1943 the radio show became a 30 minute program, and in 1948 Gosden and Correll received $2.5 million to take the show from NBC to CBS. In the late 1940s popular opinion began to shift against blackface performances, and Gosden and Correll bristled under criticism that they were propagating negative stereotypes of African Americans.

In 1951 The Amos and Andy Show first appeared on television, but with an all-black cast—it made television history as the first drama to have an all-black cast. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) opposed the show, however, claiming that it demeaned blacks and hindered the Civil Rights Movement. It was canceled on June 11, 1953, but it remained in syndication until 1966.

African Americans have long objected to the stereotypes of the "plantation darky" presented in blackface minstrel routines. Frederick Douglass expressed African American frustration with the phenomenon as early as 1848 when he wrote in the North Star that whites who put on blackface to perform in minstrel shows 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." Douglass was incensed that whites enslaved blacks in the South, discriminated against them in the North, and then had the temerity to pirate African American culture for commercial purposes. While blackface minstrelsy has long been condemned as racist, it is historically significant as an early example of the ways in which whites appropriated and manipulated black cultural traditions.

—Adam Max Cohen

Further Reading:

Engle, Gary D. This Grotesque Essence: Plays from the American Minstrel Stage. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

Leonard, William Torbert. Masquerade in Black. Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1986.

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

Nathan, Hans. Dan Emmet and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.

Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. London, Oxford University Press, 1974.

Wittke, Carl. Tambo and Bones: A History of the American Minstrel Stage. Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 1930.

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