The Minstrel Show

The Minstrel Show presents us with a strange, fascinating and awful phenomenon. Minstrel shows emerged from preindustrial European traditions of masking and carnival. But in the US they began in the 1830s, with working class white men dressing up as plantation slaves. These men imitated black musical and dance forms, combining savage parody of black Americans with genuine fondness for African American cultural forms. By the Civil War the minstrel show had become world famous and respectable. Late in his life Mark Twain fondly remembered the "old time nigger show" with its colorful comic darkies and its rousing songs and dances. By the 1840s, the minstrel show had become one of the central events in the culture of the Democratic party.

White performers would blacken their faces with burnt cork or greasepaint, dress in outlandish costumes, and then perform songs and skits that mocked African Americans. Some of the most famous songs in American history--Dixie, Camptown Races, Oh Sussanah, My Old Kentucky Home--began as minstrel songs.

Dan Emmet, who claimed to have originated the form.

These three stock characters were among several that reappeared in minstrel shows throughout the nineteenth century. "Jim Crow" was the stereotypical carefree slave, "Mr. Tambo" a joyous musician, and "Zip Coon" a free black attempting to "put on airs" or rise above his station. The parody in minstrel shows was often savage.

Before the Civil War, black men could not appear in minstrel shows--custom prohibited it. But there are several instances of black men putting on minstrel makeup and appearing as white men imitating black men. Later, in the twentieth century, sveral of the most famous minstrels were actually balck me who wore makeup--the most famous being Bert Williamss, who performed in blackface into the 1920s. The first talkng picture, "The JazzSinger," (1927) was a blackface film. Both Judy Garland and Bing Crosby did movies with blackface sequences.

The final image comes from minstrel show poster from the 1850s. Mr. Bones (who plays two "bones" clicked together) and Mr. Tambo are on far right and left.

Minstrel shows continued to be popular well into the 1950s, and highschools, fraternities and local theater groups would often perform minstrel shows in blackface. It became unpopular as African Americans asserted more politcal power in the 1950s.

But did it ever really go away? The bizarre minstrel show might be easier to understand in modern terms. Think of white rappers, or white rock musicians who play blues-derived music. There are many white people who love African American music but don't particularly like black people themselves. When they imitate black musicians, are they expressing admiration, or are they just stealing? Are they sincerely trying to come to some understanding of cultural difference, or are they just engaging in minstrel parody without the make up? Similarly, are black musicians who play to a predominantly white audience, particularly those produced by Sean "Puffy" Combs, doing something similar to what Bert Williams did?