It provides the history of minstrel shows, the ubiquitous nineteenth-century pop culture phenomenon which combined song, dance, and comic sketches based on racist stereotypes.
This history of minstrelsy in 19th-century America, written by the son of a well-known black-face performer, is lavishly illustrated with images of playbills, cartoons and minstrelsy troupes, along with portraits and biographies of white performers who went on stage in black-face as musicians, pantomimists, “musical mokes,” female impersonators, banjo players, “wench dancers” and comedians, with particular focus on leading acts and figures such as John Diamond, Christy’s Minstrels, Joel Walker Sweeney, the Buckley Serenaders and Thomas Dartmouth Rice—the original “Jim Crow.”
This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it. It is important to recognize the early literature of minstrelsy and the manner in which it treated the subject. During the early-twentieth century there were few substantial critical texts on blackface minstrelsy. According to Charles Hamm (April 21, 1925 – October 16, 2011), an American musicologist credited with being the first music historian to seriously study and write about American popular music, this book acknowledges “without making too much of the fact, that demeaning images of blacks are found in blackface minstrelsy” and provides an insight into a dying tradition.
Minstrelsy in the United States, for all of its frivolous humor and popularity, was an exploitative form of musical theater that exaggerated real-life black circumstances and reinforced dangerous stereotypes during the 19th and 20th centuries. The fact that blackface minstrelsy began in the antebellum period and endured throughout Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Great Migration, with performers collecting and adding cultural aspects from each era to their performances, hints at the impact, popularity, and complexity of the minstrel show.
While some today assume that minstrelsy’s blackface has roots in the American South, it was initially performed by white European descendants in the Northern States of America.
Minstrelsy is mostly remembered for its portrayal of African American life and culture through masquerade.
Performers wore blackface make-up and costumes to depict a wide range of characters, scenarios, and performances that echoed their audience’s social, political, and cultural desires and expectations. Its formation in the early 1800’s represents the first formal public acknowledgement by whites of black culture. Nevertheless, the minstrel show primarily relied upon black degradation and slavery.
White supremacy and the belief in black inferiority remained at minstrelsy’s base even though the structure of the performances and subjects discussed in the music varied over time. The genre shaped the nation’s views on race for over a century and reinforced white superiority well after the abolition of slavery.
For the majority of whites living in the pre-Civil War North, slavery and black people were a distant reality, one that evoked mixed emotions. If slavery was the commodification of black labor, minstrelsy, with its focus on presenting authentically black songs and dances, was the commodification of black culture. However, the depictions of blacks in minstrel performances were exaggerated, dehumanizing and inaccurate. Instead of representing black culture on stage, blackface minstrel performers reflected and reinforced white supremacy.
The minstrel show is now widely regarded as a force of racist domination in a society built on slave labor. Despite its role in shaping the culture industries of America and developing an enormous amount of works and performance practices with lasting impact and influence, it is primarily seen in popular consciousness as one of America’s most reviled traditions. The minstrel show is no longer a going concern in American culture having waned in popularity during the late 1800’s.