The Problem with Minstrelsy

Since ancient times satire has been a powerful form of theater with socio-political ramifications.  So, it is not surprising that the first uniquely American popular entertainment, the Minstrel Show, was born in the spirit of satire. Originally intended to “lampoon” Black slave society, its main purpose was to amuse through ridicule. Sadly, in this it succeeded.  

An early solo act by Tom “Daddy” Rice caught on. He performed as an eccentric character, Jim Crow, whose antics became a precursor of later group shows. To summarize, these group shows preposterously suggested that some people are so “inferior” that they were better off as chattel slaves working on plantations for benevolent masters whose enterprise was so harmonious that days were spent singing and dancing. It did not matter how caricatured or unfair the depiction was if it caused a comic sensation. 

Emerging around 1830 the Minstrel Show first became a fad in the Northeast. Actual Black slaves were not well-known in the North and therefore reality was easily distorted. This discriminatory depiction eventually became a successful propaganda tool used against both abolitionism and assimilation.   The popularity of this propaganda contributed to pervasive white supremacy through-out Jim Crow American culture.

Minstrelsy’s sensational spectacle was heightened by being performed mostly by white people in blackface make-up.  The theatrical illusion was considered by some to be a mitigation to the otherwise odious mockery. Ironically, nearly from the beginning Black performers participated in performing minstrelsy also in Blackface, perhaps to compete as artists and surely to join in the profit.

Also popular for containing supposedly authentic Black music and dance, today we know that little of the music was authentic, but rather by white composers creating stereotypical impressions of Black music.  With the notable exception of the Cakewalk the dance was theatrical rather than realistic.

Minstrelsy is roundly condemned today for its insidious racism.  Nevertheless, we should know that its format and comedic spirit were influential subsequently.  The form was later subsumed in variety, including Vaudeville and cabaret, and was employed by white and black artists alike.  The force of its comic spirit was unmatched until it was reimagined by Black artists who transformed it with innate humanity and classic wit, toward the end of the 19th Century, when it became a precursor to Black musical comedy.

This is a subject of such controversy that it is difficult to discuss with necessary historical detachment. It seemed to me that the webpage history section couldn’t conclude without some needed acknowledgement.

— Opinion by Daniel Johnson