Blackface minstrelsy is inextricably linked to socioeconomic changes that occurred in the United States in the first decades of the nineteenth century. As working-class white Americans clung to their position on the social ladder, they began to see African Americans in the northern milieu as a threat, and as a result, they sought ways to maintain power but also to demarcate a boundary between who did and did not belong. In the 1840s, the minstrel stage became an outlet for white, working-class men to thwart their anxieties about the changing political and social milieu. As Eric Lott, author of the 1993 book, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class writes, "In minstrel acts and other forms of 'black' representation, racial imagery wastypically used to soothe class fears through the derision of black people, butit also often became a kind of metonym for class....Indeed, the popular theater, the saloon, the museum, and the penny press ... prominently displayed the ambiguitiesthat resulted from the grounding of much racial discourse in working-classculture." [1]

1. Edwin Pearce Christy, Christy Minstrels sheet music cover, 1847. Source: Public Domain.

2. Cover to early edition of Jump Jim Crow sheet music as drawn by Edward Williams Clay, c. 1832. Source: Public Domain.

Minstrelsy sought to contain Black progress by caricaturing Black men and women as being perpetually stuck on the Southern plantation and perpetually out of place in the industrial North. As economic and racial tensions reached their climax in the 1830s, as evidenced by race riots in New York and Philadelphia, it became fundamentally important to maintain segregated boundaries between whites and African Americans. The minstrel stage helped to do that. Robert Toll, author of one of the first books on blackface, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America writes, "As the first new popular entertainment form to grow out of the turbulent 1830s and 1840s, the minstrel show escaped most of the problemsthat plagued other stage entertainment. It was unabashedly popular in appeal,housed in its own show places, performed by middling Americans, focused onhumble characters, and dominated by earthy, vital, song, dance, and humor." [2]

Thomas “Daddy” RiceDan Emmett, and Edwin Pearce “E.P.” Christy (born in New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania respectively) are generally recognized as founders of blackface, in addition to Stephen Foster, the major white composer of minstrel music. These men were all northerners, at least three came of “old stock” American families, were of middle-class background, and most had direct contact through their travels in the lower Mississippi Valley with the music and dance of enslaved African Americans, who they consciously used to develop their routines. As legend has it, Rice, at a loss for a new routine one night, imitated the dance of a Black stable-hand he had observed earlier in the day, and his song and dance performance of “Jump, Jim Crow” in late 1832 launched a national American obsession with blackface entertainment. “Jim Crow” and Rice are some of the first publicized performers/characters of blackface who appeared in Toronto’s newspapers in the 1860s and 1870s. Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” (also known as “Swanee River”) (1851) and “My Old Kentucky Home” (1853) are still remembered today, as well as “Camptown Races” (1850) and “Oh! Susanna” (1848). In fact, when Dr. Cheryl began taking piano lessons in the early 1980s, these songs were part of the repertoire.

3. Cover to "Oh! Susanna" by Stephen Foster, 1848. Source: Public Domain.

The name “blackface” and “minstrelsy” have two origins.

When Dan Emmett, the son of a village blacksmith in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, organized the Virginia Minstrels, a blackface quartet that performed as a one-night fill-in at New York’s Chatham Theatre in 1843, he created the first known performance of formalized blackface. Along with three performers – Billy WhitlockFrank Brower, and Dick Pelham – the Virginia Minstrels, inaugurated an official wave of minstrelsy across North America and Britain. In his formidable study of blackface in Britain, Michael Pickering observes, "As a form of popular drama and music, the history of blackface minstrelsy in Britain falls roughly intothree main stages.... In the first phase, from the 1830s to the mid-1840s, minstrelsy evolved from an initial solo type of performance within a routine theatrical package towards an autonomous genre of entertainment with established conventions,a specific style of performance, and sufficient magnetism and repute to warrant the staging of an entire show in separate halls and theatres." [3] Like in the US (and Canada), minstrelsy in Britain hit its peak in popularity between the 1860s and the turn of the twentieth century - a period marked by the emancipation of African Americans from slavery, their Great Migration to the North, and the rise of American modernism, industrialization, and urbanization.

Importantly, the Virginia Minstrels, four white men who called themselves “minstrels” in 1843 because of the great success of the Tyrolese Minstrel Family, a non-blackface Swiss singing group that had toured America. [4] They also called themselves the Virginia Minstrels to enhance claims of Southern authenticity, as the first enslaved Africans were brought to the Virginia Colony in 1619. The Virginia Minstrels became an overnight sensation, and their name became a symbol of the new genre of blackface minstrelsy.

After 1843, all theatrical performances with white actors darkening their skin to caricature Black people was labelled minstrelsy. Blackface, on the other hand, symbolized the primary convention that identified minstrelsy as entertainment.

4. Ethiopian Serenaders from Henry Mayhew's "London Labour and the London Poor", 1851. Source: Public Domain, see also Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University.

5. Cover of The Celebrated Negro Melodies, as Sung by the Virginia Minstrels, 1843. Source: Public Domain.


Selected scenes from Bamboozled (2000), directed by Spike Lee.






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