The Minstrel Show


The adult (probably the white man Thatcher) is putting artifacts of the old South and slavery--banjos, chickens, watermelons, ragged clothes--into a cotton gin, which is producing the children


What sort of cultural "work" did these images do? Clearly, they served to dehumanize black people. But scholars also argue that the minstrel show allowed whites to explore fantasies--of laziness, of sexual desire, of unstructured time--that middle class culture denied them. Michael Rogin argues that the minstrel show allowed immigrants to become "white." By "blacking up" immigrants in the minstrel show demonstrated that actually they were "not black," which in this society means "white." Rogin argues that first the Irish and later the Jews assimilated in part through this sort of minstrelsey. He points to Al Jolson's 1929 film The Jazz Singer as an example.

In this film Jolson plays the son of strict Jewish immigrants. Hi Father wants him to be a cantor, but Jolson wants to sing "jazz," which he sees as, oddly, blackface minstrelsy. By singing this "jazz" in blackface, Jolson demonstrates that he's white, not Jewish, and American.

See Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise and Eric Lott, Love and Theft