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Originating around 1830 and maintaining popularity for decades, the minstrel show used blackface comedy to entertain white Americans. Minstrel shows were enormously popular, particularly among Americans in northeastern urban areas. Mark Twain wrote in his Autobiography, “If I could have the nigger show back again… I should have but little further use for opera.” Today, the topic of minstrel shows and blackface performers invite intense debate about expressions of racism, exploitation of black culture, and the introduction of indigenous American popular culture.
Somewhere around 1830, Thomas D. Rice saw an elderly black man performing a dance and singing and helped create the minstrel show by ‘borrowing’ the man’s clothes and dance. Rice, a white man, also darkened his face for his performances and launched a successful tour of New York City for the next decade. Minstrel shows grew to become ensemble performances and the shows used comedy to poke fun at the pretentious and often immoral elites. White male performers used burnt cork or greasepaint to darken their faces and the shows offered commentary on a variety of the political leaders and issues of the day, including women’s rights, slavery, immigrants, Native Americans, and African Americans. Significantly, white male performers also portrayed white and African American women in exaggerated and grotesque ways to satirize women who advocated for more rights. The basic structure of the shows typically followed three parts. In the first section a “pompous interlocutor” stood in the midst of blackface performers. Unruly ‘Brudder Tambo’ and ‘Brudder Bones’ (references to the instruments they played) dressed in wild costumes and exchanged malapropisms, riddles, and one-liners to taunt the interlocutor. The second section typically featured variety acts, often including dancing or musical numbers, and the third section highlighted a one-act skit, often depicting plantation life.
After the Civil War, minstrel shows changed and became more elaborate and extravagant. While the white performers maintained their blackface characters, they increasingly parodied immigrants including the Chinese, and white American business elites. Interestingly, by the early 1860s, some African American minstrel shows became successful by emphasizing their authentic portrayals of black life, showcasing original blues and jazz music. While the minstrel shows declined around 1900, the racial tropes and use of blackface lives on in American culture. One could argue that the minstrel show is one of America’s first forms of mass entertainment and that it influenced more current forms of entertainment as hip hop, rap, stand-up comedy, and satirical sketch comedy. The minstrel show certainly influenced 20th century Hollywood films and Americanization of immigrants, as evidenced by Jewish film star Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer displaced African Americans on stage and on-screen.
There is a great deal about minstrel shows that fascinates me, but one aspect I have never understood is the willful ignorance of many Americans about the history of blackface. Every Halloween, some ‘celebrity’ darkens their face for the sake of a costume or character and then acts bewildered at the response. On the one hand, I do not expect everyone to know everything. Period. I’m a life-long learner and the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know about the past and the present. On the other hand, if you plan to do something in a public way (or are a person that the public watches relentlessly), why wouldn’t you (or someone who works for you) bother to spend 5-10 minutes doing some basic research on the implications of what you plan to do?
As I read the hoopla surrounding the cartoon of Serena Williams by Mark Knight, I couldn’t help but scratch my head. Yes, Knight is Australian, but he chose to portray an image of Serena Williams, an African American athlete. Knight claims the cartoon depicts bad behavior, not a racist image of bad behavior. Maybe that is true. But even if that is true, is that how his cartoon will read to an American audience that may be familiar with the history of blackface and minstrel depictions of African Americans?
The most effective satire takes into account the culture it is satirizing.