It is a peculiarity of American culture that during the height of the oppression of blacks, a whole musical culture should arise that, in so many ways, was dependent upon black culture and black music. It was the first truly successful mixing of black culture into the mainstream. Today, it has come to be regarded as a shameful aspect of times (thankfully) past, perhaps deservedly so. But despite all the other traits and stigmas it has come to bear or to embody, the fact remains that blackface minstrelsy is one of the few truly authentic American musical traditions.

History

The first minstrel show is believed to have taken place in the 1820s. It is known that by 1843 - 1844, it would become the single most popular form of entertainment in the country, aided by such notables as Thomas Dartmouth Rice, whose "Jim Crow" would become the very symbol of blackface. This fact is either explained or made more remarkable, depending on one's point of view, when the political and societal climate at the time is taken into account. At the beginning of the 1800s, integrated celebrations -- that is, non-segregated -- had been the norm. During the first quarter of the century, however, segregation became more and more a fact of life, and black performers began to vanish from the scene. By the 1830s, segregation was in full swing. It was then, with actual black performers a scarcity, that the phenomenon that was blackface emerged. The trend would drag on well into the 1900s, lingering especially in the South, but peaked in the 1850s.

Description and Show Format

The minstrel show essentially consisted of white performers in "blackface", imitating blacks. The controversy lies in the fact that the black characters thus portrayed were no more than racist caricatures. One wonders, however, if this was not the only outcome one could reasonably expect of segregation -- having, by and large, removed interaction with the black from their everyday lives, could whites be expected to faithfully portray the now-unseen black with any accuracy? It is known that most whites of the time did believe that the caricatures presented to them were accurate portrayals of blacks, their behaviour, and their personalities.

The shows themselves varied little from each other; the classic picture of the minstrel show depicts the performers seated in a semicircle around the stage. Traditionally, a tambourine player, Mr. Tambo, is seated at one end and a castanet player, Mr. Bones, at the other. Before them, in the center, stands or sits the Interlocutor, who elicits quaint lines from the blacks during the course of conversations, and who speaks, in a real sense, on behalf of the white audience. In the Interlocutor's obvious superiority to the blacks with whom he interacts, the white audience finds reassurance that they, too, are superior to the blacks in every way.

During the 1840s, a two-part show format became popular, with the first half of the show devoted to the city black, and the second to his poor cousin, the plantation slave. As minstrel shows developed, however, the black section slowly found itself relegated to the very end of a three-part show (a position lacking in prestige, in some ways, since audience members were free to leave early). The first section would then consist of music suitable for the urbane white man, who was accompanied, perhaps, by his family. The second part would then be a hodgepodge of showcased talents. The conclusion, however, including the black segment, would remain a popular staple of the show.

Impact and Ramifications

Today, the overwhelming opinion of blackface is negative. The true impact, however, is not nearly so bleak. While the majority of blackface performers were white, real blacks could and did perform blackface. At first, they went without "blacking up", but it was not long before audience demand won out, and whites and blacks both donned coal or greasepaint. Blackface was perhaps the one avenue blacks had to perform in front of relatively affluent white audiences. There were even a few minstrel shows owned and operated by blacks.

And, as previously mentioned, the material blackface drew upon was authentic black culture -- exaggerated, yes, caricatured, without a doubt, but still introduced into the everyday lives of whites in a way that was simply not possible outside of blackface. Performers such as Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson, and Eddie Cantor were subsequently able to introduce blues, ragtime, and jazz -- all distinctively black genres -- to a white audience who might never have listened to them otherwise. One might even argue that the ramifications of blackface extend to the present day: after all, what is Eminem, but a white performer bringing a facet of black culture into the mainstream?

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Sources:

Stephen Railton: Mark Twain in His Times | Black-Face Minstrelsy
University of Virginia Library
http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/railton/huckfinn/minstrl.html

Jessica McElrath: A Look Back at Minstrelsy
http://afroamhistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa100800a.htm

Blackface Minstrelsy
PBS Online
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/foster/sfeature/sf_minstrelsy_1.html

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