The Minstrel Show

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These posters come from 19th century America's most popular form of entertainment, the minstrel show. Any newspaper or popular periodical would have been full of ads for minstrel shows like these. Minstrel shows 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. The image above comes from 1895; the two on the left from 1899. As these posters suggest, the minstrel show usually made black Americans into grotesques.

But it's also clear that white Americans, then as now, were strongly drawn towards the creativity and vibrance of black culture. The minstrel show allowed them to play out fantasies that ordinary life forbid, but it also created a vast audience for African American culture. There were black minstrel performers--most notably song and dance man Bert Williams, who had to "black up" in order to go on stage. And W. E. B. DuBois listed Stephen Foster's minstrel songs among America's greatest contributions to world music, derived from and inspired by black Americans.

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?

For examples of the minstrel show--song sheets, lyrics, and illustrations see the African American Sheet Music collection at the Library of Congress.