Discovering Blackface Minstrelsy and its Relation to Music Today Jocelyn Labombarde
Word Count: 1,996
When I first came into this class, I knew very little about blackface minstrelsy beyond the basic concept that it included white men blackening their faces and putting on shows to mock African Americans. I had heard of Stephen Foster and some of the more famous minstrel composers and knew the general time period in which minstrelsy was common. Much of what I learned about blackface minstrelsy in class surprised me and differed from the ideas I had of blackface was. I didn’t realize the wide variety of black stereotypes portrayed, that blacks performed in the shows as well, and just how popular minstrelsy was at the time. It had never occurred to me that upper-class white people enjoyed putting on blackface because it allowed them to say things they normally wouldn’t such as political opinions. As I read more into the details behind blackface minstrelsy, I was able to relate parts of it to contemporary music, particularly how the caricatures are meant to stereotype certain types of people and races in society. Most of what I know about society and racism during the nineteenth century is related to the Civil Rights movement, but studying blackface minstrelsy and music during that time has given me a greater understanding of how society was structured then and caused me to evaluate more of the entertainment people listen to nowadays.
Due to my limited knowledge of blackface minstrelsy going into this class, there were many details of minstrelsy that differed from my expectations, the most shocking of which was that black people participated in these shows. After the Civil War, a number of minstrel troupes had managers or owners who were black. The first reason this surprised me is that I didn’t think blacks were widely accepted on the stage at that time. Next, I found it extremely ironic that blacks were playing caricatures which were meant to mock their own race. They were essentially imitating themselves and not in a positive perspective. I didn’t understand why they would want to perform blackface and enforce the negative racial stereotypes that already existed in society. As I did more research and thought deeper into the idea of blacks performing in blackface minstrelsy, I realized that it was simply a way for them to make a living. For black musicians, minstrelsy performance was a necessary way to financial safety. This made their participation in the shows more understandable but still I doubt that they got paid very much and I can’t imagine going on stage and making fun of my race in such a crude and unrealistic manner.
Another fact that surprised me about minstrelsy is that it was once the most popular form of entertainment. Most people in my generation have at least heard of vaudeville and other popular entertainment in history, but so few people in this generation have heard of blackface minstrelsy, making it difficult to think of it as being so popular. Not only was it the most popular form of entertainment, but its popularity was dominant in the north and the center of blackface entertainment was New York City. This seemed strange to me since the people in the north were generally against slavery and the cruel treatment of blacks. It is reported that Abraham Lincoln, an adamant abolitionist, loved blackface minstrelsy. I had expected blackface minstrelsy to be more popular in the south since that is where the majority of slavery and hatred towards African Americans occurred.
When I imagine actors imitating blacks, I picture them portraying one universal stereotype of black people, but minstrelsy shows included a wide variety of stereotyped characters. The most popular of these caricatures were Jim Crow and Zip Coon. The first main minstrel character was “Jim Crow” who was always portrayed as a happy-go-lucky plantation hand whose blind arrogance...
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