"If I could have the nigger show back again in its pristine purity,
I should have little use for opera." -- Mark Twain
In 2000, then, it is understood that minstrelsy is the most odious entertainment imaginable. Why?
Minstrel shows lampooned black people as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, happy-go-lucky, and musical. … Racial integrationists decried them as falsely showing happy slaves while at the same time making fun of them.
Mel Watkins, minstrelsy scholar:
This line is held everywhere today: Euros once thought of (and continue to think of) Afros as 'lazy, superstitious, and slow' because popular culture forced them to.So this was not advertised as a stage show. It was advertised as a peephole view of what black people were really like. To that extent, it affected all of society because those people who didn't know blacks, and there were many places where there were very few blacks, assumed that those characterizations, those depictions, those foolish characters on stage, were real black people. And so it had an immense effect on the way mainstream society thought about blacks.
We at Those Who Can See propose that the causal chain goes in the opposite direction. Over-the-top as they were, minstrel shows were at root based on whites' real perceptions of black behavior. The shows' enduring popularity is proof that 1) the cognitive and behavioral gulf between Afros and Euros was and remains immense, and 2) there is something in the 'black spirit' that Whites have envied and wanted to emulate.
The roots of minstrelsy lie in the plantation slave quarters, which inevitably had a talented individual or band that could sing and dance to the accompaniment of the banjo, the tambourine, and the "bones" (ribs of a sheep or other small animal) and tell jokes. These individuals and bands frequently entertained for their masters and fellow slaves, […]
Negro mannerisms and customs being inherently funny to whites, the white entertainers began to adapt them for comic appeal. As early as 1810, blackface impersonations were being presented by what can best be described as circus clown-type performers. [...] By the next decade, solo blackface acts with the traditional slave instruments had become popular. The use of these percussive instruments, the banjo, tambourine, and bones, helped to establish the rhythmic foundation of later minstrel shows. (1)
The 19th century Christy Minstrels, in classic formation: Mr. Tambo on the right,
Mr. Bones on the left, musicians in between.
Mr. Bones on the left, musicians in between.
Minstrelsy in the form with which we are most familiar began around 1828-29 when, according to legend, an actor named Thomas Rice included in his act the song and dance of an old black man who worked in the stable next to the Louisville theater where Rice was appearing. (1)
Fascinated by the old man's jig and song—
'Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb'ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow'
--Rice dressed himself up in rags and reproduced it on stage that night. It was an instant sensation. (Listen here.)
Rice's act spawned a host of imitations, almost exclusively white actors in blackface. Parodies of Negro songs became popular sellers in sheet music. ... By the middle of the century troupes of white entertainers were traveling the circuits presenting blackface performances that included music, dancing, and jokes, the full minstrel show that was the precursor of vaudeville. (1)
I. THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY
Money Was Made for Coons to Spend, Harry Wellmon, 1904
'LAZY, SHIFTLESS, IMPROVIDENT, AND SLOW'
What angered people so about the minstrel show? Frederick Douglass called these performers
'the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow-citizens.'
Stock characters were the coon, mammy, Uncle Tom, and Sambo.
Unlike Mammy and Sambo, Coon did not know his place. He thought he was as smart as white people; however, his frequent malapropisms and distorted logic suggested that his attempt to compete intellectually with whites was pathetic. His use of bastardized English delighted white audiences and reaffirmed the then commonly held beliefs that blacks were inherently less intelligent. The minstrel coon's goal was leisure, and his leisure was spent strutting, styling, fighting, avoiding real work, eating watermelons, and making a fool of himself. If he was married, his wife dominated him. If he was single, he sought to please the flesh without entanglements.
A peek into the past: Davis and Miller's 'Minstrel Math'
The standard minstrel portrait of the plantation Negro emphasized traits suggested by the adjectives lazy, shiftless, improvident, superstitious, stupid, ignorant, and slow, and those reflected in a fondness for watermelons, chickens, gin, crap games, razors, and big words. This stereotyped picture conforms closely to the concept of the "average" Negro which exists in the heads of many white people today . . . .(2)
Calumny? Were we to take these traits one by one, we might get an idea of where they came from, and how strongly they endure. Far from 'invented stereotypes,' these are simply a testimony of how Euros perceived and continue to perceive Afros. We lack the space to dissect them here, but the curious reader can pursue at his leisure:
The standard minstrel portrait of the plantation Negro emphasized traits suggested by the adjectives lazy, shiftless, improvident, superstitious, stupid, ignorant, and slow, and those reflected in a fondness for watermelons, chicken, gin, crap games, razors, and big words. This stereotyped picture conforms closely to the concept of the "average" Negro which exists in the heads of many white people today ...
The overriding trait Euros have always noticed about Afros, and that bleeds through in every minstrel show, is his childlikeness. Every major anthropological work (before the present Age of Egalitarianism) made note of it. Adrien Bonger, 1943:
If one would express the general impression of those who know the North American Negro, then one would say: He is childlike. He does not look very far ahead, he is not very accurate, he is fond of bright colors and finery, is easily distracted. These characteristics may, naturally, be inherent, but this is not necessarily so." (3)
LeRoi Jones, in 'Blues People':
I suppose the "childlike" qualities of the African must have always been amusing to the American. I mentioned before how the black man's penchant for the supernatural was held up for ridicule by his white captors, as were other characteristics of African culture. Also, I am certain that most white Americans never thought of the plight of the black man as tragic. Even the Christian Church justified slavery until well into the nineteenth century. The "darky" at his most human excursion into the mainstream of American society was a comic figure. (4)
... `Dis being free,' complained one minstrel character who had run away from the plantation, `is worser dem being a slave"' ("Behind the Blackface" 102). Before it became the anthem of the white Confederacy, that characteristic example of Southern home-sickness expressed in music, "Dixie," had been a minstrel song. Minstrelsy often created for its audience a black America which wanted only security and endless play--which could exist only in a state of arrested childhood. (5)
The relative comfort of plantation slaves remains a subject hotly debated by scholars. A few points are not in dispute:
-Slaves in English colonies generally fared better than those of the Spanish or Portuguese, where the brutal working conditions sharply cut life expectancy.
-After Emancipation, American slaves underwent a veritable health crisis, with malnutrition and communicable disease rising and life expectancy dropping sharply.
-The best source for slave experience—their own testimony—paints a varied picture. Some remember horrors, some remember tranquility, many remember both.
The 'carefree plantation darky' was as much propaganda as Harriet Beecher Stowe's brutally suffering version; the truth no doubt lies somewhere inbetween.
Walker and Williams--'The Two Real Coons'-- When Afros began to
take to the minstrel stage
Minstrelsy, through the body, expressed wildness, expressed abandon, it expressed joy, it expressed sex, it expressed all of these things that the middle-class was trying to repress through a worship of the mind.
John Strausbaugh puts it this way:
"To this day," he writes, "Whites admire, envy and seek to emulate such supposed innate qualities of Blackness as inherent musicality, natural athleticism, the composure known as 'cool' and superior sexual endowment," a phenomemon he views as part of the history of blackface.
Blackface allowed Al Jolson to break through his stagefright:
Jolson also stated that he donned the black paint not for racial insult, but it brought forth a confidence he wouldn’t be able to convey had he not had it. Jolson was “terribly nervous about enacting the comic role, but a blackface monologuist on the same bill suggested to Al that wearing burnt cork would make him feel he was someone else. Al tried it, and the resulting persona was exciting, spontaneous, joyous. The dull, self-conscious kid was on his way to becoming an electrifying presence.”
"There was another thing about this match-dance that made [white dance rival Jack] Diamond want to win… it was a case of white against black. So Jack Diamond went at his dancin' with double energy—first, for his place, next, for his color." He beat Juba's time and "gave a hop, skip and a jump, a yell and a bow". A black man shouted out, "He's a white man, sure ... but he's got a nigger in his heel."
I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is physical difference between the two which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality.
BLACKFACE: STAYING POWER
Edward Harrigan's shows poked fun at the immigrant working classes
Irishmen, Germans, Jews, and many other nationality groups have been characterized on the stage. Frequently they have been presented in comedies, farces, and revues among numerous other character types; and perhaps much more frequently they have been caricatured in burlesque and in variety and vaudeville acts along with numerous other "turns."
The Irish types were based upon the immigrants who had arrived in the United States after 1847, and did not represent the earlier arrivals who had become assimilated. Not only Irish ballads (1860's and later), but also "Dutch" slap-stick comedy (in the 1850's) were features of the minstrel olio, and many black-face soloists sang in "Dutch" dialect. … The Jewish type appeared in the minstrel in black-face much later…The appeal of blackface, however, has had a much longer life.
[Edward] Harrigan's farces followed closely the period of the great popularity of the minstrel. It is significant that his plays depicted, not the older Irish who had become assimilated, but the recent arrivals who were not, and that, when the latter had absorbed many native folkways and were no longer conspicuous by their alien ways, a revival of Harrigan's farces found audiences unresponsive. (6)
Enduring popularity: 1954 high school minstrel show, Livermore High School, California
Top of the charts: The Mitchell Minstrels variety show, a huge hit in the U.K.,
ran on BBC prime time until 1978
'DARKY' AROUND THE WORLD
This sense of 'differentness' between Afros and others extends around the globe, as the 'darky' or blackface image can be found in many countries and cultures, even those who've never had colonial adventures in Africa.
Netherlands-- Swarte Piet, a black page who accompanies Santa Claus.
Also: 'Darkies' in advertising around the world:
'OTHERNESS' TODAY: BLACK GUILT OVER 'COONING'
If it is true, as we suggest, that the Afro is more expressive than the Euro in both body and face, then it follows that popular entertainment put on by the former will have a more 'clownish' energy. In fact the wide white mouth we associate with 'clown face' today first came from blackface minstrelsy.
Today, though minstrelsy has fallen out of fashion and Afros produce and market their own entertainment to the masses, Blacks continue to accuse each other of 'cooning.' To wit:
There is even a YouTube channel updating us regularly with 'This Week in Coonery,' as well as a website called Stop the Coonery, both by self-identified Afros.
Clearly, such constant scolding between Blacks wouldn't exist if so many of them did not take pleasure in so-called 'buffoonery' (showmanship). This trait can be seen in the way Afros seem to break into song and dance more frequently than other groups.
In religion: Black churches are famously entertaining, so much so that foreign tourists pay their hard-earned money to spend a morning visiting them.
Every minority group has to deal with stereotypes about itself. Put on the defensive, Afros even today—150 years after Emancipation, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act—are highly sensitive to the way their natural predilections and behaviors are perceived by outsiders. But that doesn't make these natural predilections and behaviors any less real.
Perry’s over-the-top act had for years entertained black folks in gospel musicals and on videotape, in beauty shops and at home —any controversy came only once his tremendous success allowed the white establishment to see that black audiences enjoyed black stereotypes on their own time.
* * *
The official line on minstrel shows today is that they were a giant conspiracy, put on by white America, to portray Afros as something other than what they were.
Two hundred years after the first blackface show, it's still plain to see that the expressive, uninhibited, gregarious nature of the Afro and his love for song and dance continue to lead other races to find him highly entertaining. The fact is, Whites love to watch Blacks ham it up—and so do other Blacks. All the pious lies in the world won't change that.
As for the qualities and behaviors ridiculed on the minstrel stage (laziness, improvidence, gambling), here again, they are biologically selected-for traits, part of that 'otherness' that has always set the Afro apart from the Euro, wherever they have co-existed.
Continued attempts to deny this otherness—itself the very foundation of 'diversity,' that sacred cow of progressives—only serve to intensify our already schizophrenic discourse on race. True celebration of diversity means accepting our real, intractable differences. The enduring popularity of the minstrel show is one evidence of this. Acknowledgement of difference is the opposite of blank-slatism, and it is the bedrock on which any sensible public policy in a multi-ethnic society should be founded.
(1) Haskins, James and Benson, Kathleen, Scott Joplin, Garden City: Doubleday, 1978.
(2) Simpson, George E. and Yinger, John M., Racial and Cultural Minorities: An Analysis of Prejudice and Discrimination,
Harper & Row, 1972
(3) Bonger, Willem Adriaan. Race and Crime. Trans. Margaret Mathews Hordyk. New York: Columbia University Press,1943.
(4) Jones, LeRoi, Blues People:Negro Music in White America.NY: William Morrow. Place of publication: New York, 1963.
(5) Herring, Scott, 'Du Bois and the Minstrels,' MELUS, Volume: 22. Issue: 2, Summer 1997.
(6) Adams, Harold, 'Caricatures of Minorities,' in Locke, Alain and Stern, Bernhard J., ed., When Peoples Meet:A Study in Race and Culture Contacts, NY: Committee on Workshops, Progressive Education Association, 1942.