Minstrelsy and the Construction of Race in America

Posted: November 17, 2011 in Jason H. Lee, Minstrelsy

Author: Jason H. Lee

Source: http://library.brown.edu/cds/sheetmusic/afam/minstrelsy.html

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“Minstrelsy emerged in the early 1800’s as the first distinctly American form of popular culture. While its content served to entertain audiences, it also worked to provide a means with which common Americans could learn about and understand the events occurring in their large and constantly evolving country. One of the main topics of interest that minstrelsy took up was race. In his work Blacking Up, Robert Toll argues that the content of minstrel songs worked to reinforce the racial ideology of white superiority—a system where “whiteness” allowed for full citizenship rights to the American body politic, while “blackness” and “yellowness” implied inferiority and exclusion. A thorough examination of minstrel material from the second half of the 19th century, a period which witnessed rising levels of immigration into the U.S. as well as the demise of the formal system of second class citizenship for blacks (slavery), confirms Toll’s claim. The numerous ways in which both black Americans and Asian immigrants were portrayed as inferior to whites, within this material, clearly reveals minstrelsy’s attempts to confirm the ideology of white superiority.

From the outset, minstrelsy unequivocally branded black Americans as inferiors. Its content provided assurances of white common people’s identity by emphasizing the “peculiarities” and inferiority of black individuals.[1] These assurances, it seems, could not have come at a better time for the white community, whose official confirmation of black inferiority—institutionalized slavery—vanished with the victory of the Union forces during the Civil War. The “Negro peculiarities” highlighted in popular culture and in minstrel songs allowed for white audiences to laugh in relief at the idiotic, backward behavior of black characters on stage whose “blackness” represented a set of inherent traits that would never allow blacks to rise above their second-rate place in society. Physical appearance, manners of speech, and cultural practices were all caricaturized to stress “difference” and lowliness. Grotesque exaggerations became reality as audiences desperately sought any type of proof that whiteness was superior to blackness.”

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