Archive for the ‘Minstrelsy’ Category

Author: Eric Lott


Abstract :

“For over two centuries, America has celebrated the very black culture it attempts to control and repress, and nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the strange practice of blackface performance. Born of extreme racial and class conflicts, the blackface minstrel show sometimes served to usefully intensify these conflicts. Based on the appropriation of black dialect, music, and dance, minstrelsy at once applauded and lampooned black culture, ironically contributing to a “blackening of America.”” “Drawing on recent research in cultural studies and social history, Eric Lott examines the role of the blackface minstrel show in the political struggles of the years leading up to the Civil War. Reading minstrel music, lyrics, jokes, burlesque skits, and illustrations in tandem with working-class racial ideologies and the sex/gender system, Love and Theft argues that blackface minstrelsy both embodied and disrupted the racial tendencies of its largely white, male, working-class audiences. Underwritten by envy as well as repulsion, sympathetic identification as well as fear – a dialectic of “love and theft” – the minstrel show continually transgressed the color line even as it enabled the formation of a self-consciously white working class.” “Lott exposes minstrelsy as a signifier for multiple breaches: the rift between high and low cultures, the commodification of the dispossessed by the empowered, the attraction mixed with guilt of whites caught in the act of cultural thievery.”



Author: Jason H. Lee



“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.”



Author : Robert C. Toll

Source :


“It is on our supermarket shelves, in our advertising, and in our literature. But most of all, it is in our entertainment. From Aunt Jemima to Mammy in Gone With the Wind , from Uncle Remus to Uncle Ben, from Amos ‘n’ Andy to Good Times , the inexplicably grinning black face is a pervasive part of American culture. Only very recently have black performers been able to break out of the singing, dancing, and comedy roles that have for so long perpetuated the image of blacks as a happy, musical people whc would rather play than work, rather frolic than think. Such images have inevitably affected the ways white America has viewed and treated black America. Their source was the minstrel show.

Before the Civil War, American show business virtually excluded black people. But it never ignored black culture. In fact, the minstrel show-the first uniquely American entertainment form-was born when Northern white men blacked their faces, adopted heavy dialects, and performed what they claimed were black songs, dances, and jokes to entertain white Americans. No one took minstrel shows seriously; they were meant to be light, meaningless entertainment. But it was no accident that the blackface minstrel show developed in the decades before the Civil War, when slavery was often the central public issue, no accident that it dominated show business until the 1880’s, when white America made crucial decisions about the status of blacks, and no accident that after the minstrel show died, the basic stereotypes it had nurtured endured-the happy, banjo-strumming plantation “darky,” the loving loyal mammy and old uncle, the lazy, good-for-nothing buffoon, the pretentious city slicker.”




Author : Robert B. Winans & Elias J. Kaufman

Source :


“In the 1840s the minstrel show in the United States popularized what had previously been a black folk instrument with African origins, the banjo. This popularization led to the development of banjo traditions in both folk culture, white as well as black, and popular culture (in the parlor as well as in the theater). In the more familiar folk tradition of five-string banjo playing, folk musicians (mostly rural southern) have continued to maintain the early minstrel style of playing, now called
clawhammer or frailing, long after its decline on the stage and in parlor traditions of the 1880s.1 In England, on the other hand, blackface minstrelsy, though popular, spawned no lasting folk tradition of banjo playing. The most likely explanation of this phenomenon is that while the American folk tradition was already an amalgam of Anglo-American and African American music, into which the banjo fit well musically, mid-nineteenth century British folk music was not such an amalgam. English banjo traditions have existed primarily at the professional and parlor levels with which this article is mainly concerned.”



Author : Robert B. Winans

Source :


“The first complete minstrel show was put on in 1843 and was an immediate “hit,” spawning many imitations and initiating what was to be the most popular of popular entertainments for the next forty years or more.  What was it about, this entertainment, especially in its first, formative decade, 1843-1852, that so captivated a nation? Though many factors might enter into the answer, surely one of the more important ones is the music of the shows. For the minstrel show was primarily a musical event, not really “musical theatre” in the modern sense, but what one might call “theatrical music.” Musical performances were what structured the early minstrel show. Printed programs for the shows, which are the primary sources for this essay, look like concert programs (see figure 9). Of course, much more occurred on stage in the actual shows than appears in the programs, which do not indicate all the dialogue and comic “business” that went on in between musical numbers. But the musical pieces on the program structured the evening. And previous scholarship has not dealt very substantially with the music of the early shows, with the partial exception of Hans Nathan’s book on Dan Emmett. So my purpose here is to examine some of the features of that music as it was performed on stage between 1843 and 1852.”