"If I could have the nigger show back again in its pristine purity, I should have little use for opera." -- Mark Twain
Blackface performers are, "...the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens." -- Frederick Douglass
Minstrelsy evolved from several different American entertainment traditions; the traveling circus, medicine shows, shivaree, Irish dance and music with African syncopated rhythms, musical halls and traveling theatre.
The "father of American minstrelsy" was Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice (1808-60), who in 1828, in a New York City theatre, performed a song-and-dance routine in blackface and tattered clothes. Rice's character was based on a folk trickster persona named Jim Crow that was long popular among black slaves. Rice also adapted and popularized a traditional slave song called Jump Jim Crow.
His act was an immediate sensation and while continuing to prefect the routine, Rice gained fame and fortune by performing it throughout the U.S. and in England.
Come listen all you galls and boys
I'se jist from Tuckyhoe,
I'm goin to sing a little song,
My name is Jim Crow
Fist on de heel tap,
Den on the toe
Ebry time I weel about
I jump Jim Crow.
Weel about and turn about
En do jus so,
And every time I weel about,
I jump Jim Crow.
Jim Crow Performed
In 1842, the songwriter Daniel Decatur Emmett and three companions devised a program of singing and dancing in blackface to the accompaniment of bone castanets, fiddle, banjo, and tambourine. Calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels, they made their first public appearance in February 1843 in a New York City theater.
The show was so popular that many imitators emerged while the demand for minstrel shows quickly became insatiable. In 1844, only one year after the first performance of the Virginia Minstrels, a blackface minstrel troupe called the Ethiopian Serenaders played at the White House for the "Especial Amusement of the President of the United States, His Family and Friends."
Over time, minstrel shows developed into a standard format of three parts, developed by Edwin Christy, incorporating skits and songs performed in an imitation of black "plantation" dialect. In the first part, the show began with a walkaround -- the company marching onto the stage singing and dancing. A staple of walkaround was the cakewalk. White audiences loved the cakewalk, not realizing that it originated with plantation slaves imitating their master's walk.
The troupe was then seated in a semicircle, with one member on each end playing the tambourine or the bones. The endmen were named Brother Tambo and Brother Bones, and they engaged in an exchange of jokes between the group's songs and dances. It was customary for Tambo to be slim and Bones to be fat. A character called Mr. Interlocutor sat in the middle of the group, acting as the master of ceremonies. As the interlocutor took his place in the middle of the semicircle he uttered the time-honored phrase: "Gentlemen, be seated. We will commence with the overture." During the performance he conducted himself in a dignified manner that contrasted well with the behavior of the rowdy endmen.
Part two (the olio) was the variety section and a precursor to vaudeville. It included singers, dancers, comedians, and other novelty acts, and parodies of legitimate theater. A preposterous stump speech served as the highlight of this second act, during which a performer spoke in outrageous malapropisms as he lectured. His demeanor was reminiscent of the hilarious pomposity of Zip Coon; he aspired to great wisdom and intelligence, but his hilarious mangling of language always made him appear foolish and ignorant.
Part three ended the show with a one-act play, typically a vignette of carefree life on the plantation. After Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1852 and the play became famous, minstrel shows appropriated the major characters for sketches that changed the abolitionist themes in the original into an argument for the supposedly benign character of slavery.
Although the structure of minstrel shows changed over time, the images -- blackface -- and the content -- caricatures of Blacks -- continued. Prior to the Civil War (1861-1865), pro-slavery Whites used the racist stereotypes as a way of countering the abolitionist movement. Performers defended slavery by presenting denigrating stereotypes of Blacks who supposedly needed the civilizing influence of slavery to keep them in check. Black slaves were portrayed as happy and content with their lot in life and fearful of life outside of the plantation.
With the dramatic increase in the popularity of minstrel shows in the years following emancipation, Whites continued to wear the blackface mask in performances that would serve to define the meaning of blackness for many Americans who by choice or geography had little contact with Blacks.
After the Civil War, white minstrels concentrated their portrayals of Southern Negroes on the nostalgic stereotype of "Old Darky." Whether these characters had gone North and then returned or had never left, they found their old plantation gone, destroyed by the war. Aged, weak, and alone, they recalled the happy, carefree prewar days, which further underscored the tragedy of the destruction of the plantation. Since it was gone, audiences did not have to consider the more unfortunate aspects of plantation life -- like slavery. Yet they could still bask in its warmth through the memories of the Old Darky. They could envy his carefree life of perpetual childhood -- singing, dancing, and frolicking. The could even momentarily share his simple world, free of the worries, insecurities, and responsibilities that they had to face. At the same time, they could feel comfortably superior to him and certain that, whatever else changed in their lives, he would always be their subordinate. Through him they could also mourn for lost simplicity, order, and control. Although he certainly did not offer an antidote for their problems, the Old Darky provided a temporary diversion, a reassuring certainty that whites desperately needed and clung to.
Black Face Performances
A "Performance" of a minstrel as depicted in Spike Lee's "Bamboozled"
Spike Lee's "Bamboozled"
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Near the beginning of Black Like You, Strausbaugh lines up the nativists -- arguing "that American culture was and always had been the culture the first Europeans had brought with them across the Atlantic" -- against the multiculturalists, who subscribe to the melting pot theory and rally "against the evil, imperialist, genocidal, sexist, racist, homophobic, exclusionist culture the Founding Fathers brought with them and transplanted here." Though he refuses to side completely with the second faction because of what he perceives as their often ironic divisiveness, he does conclude that America owes its true personality to the collective makeup of its various ethnic groups. Americans of color will likely shrug their shoulders at this, an observation they have long taken for granted. How Strausbaugh goes about supporting his perhaps obvious point is what matters most, though, as he delves into the origins of blackface, the minstrel show, early African-American literature, black cinema and Negrobilia collectibles (e.g, "mammy" cookie jars).
A friend once admonished me for being offended by comedian Mike Myers's hip-hop parody in "Austin Powers in Goldmember," for the same reason Strausbaugh offers when denouncing the politically correct: "Surely no one can still be so hypocritical as to believe disrespectful stereotypes are acceptable from people who look like you, but insist it is racism when a member of another race finds humor in it." The author has a point, and he raises it to defend white comedians' right to find above-the-belt humor in the ways of African Americans in the same manner that, say, jokesters on BET's "Comic View" continually poke fun at the behavior of whites. Though Strausbaugh doesn't wholeheartedly excuse the harsher aspects of blackface, this is typical of his stance in Black Like You. He is confident that modern Americans are mature enough to be able to indulge in some mutual teasing about our differences, and he is hopeful that this may lead to some reciprocal appreciation as well.
Strausbaugh is most on target with his rundown of minstrel history, which he concludes by drawing a parallel with modern aspects of rap music. In 1832, T. D. Rice, a white man professionally known as Jim Crow, toured frontier towns dressed in tatters and blackface makeup -- the infamous mixture of burnt-cork ashes worn with clownish red lipstick. His hillbilly minstrel hit, "Jump Jim Crow," sparked a craze that lasted another 50 years as the dominant form of popular music in the United States, before giving way to vaudeville and ragtime. Following the Civil War, black performers took to minstrelsy for the rare professional opportunities it offered.
"Some minstrel songs started as Negro folk songs, were adapted by White minstrels, became widely popular, and were readopted by Blacks," writes Strausbaugh. "The question of whether minstrelsy was white or black music was moot. It was a mix, a mutt -- that is, it was American music." The same case is made nowadays to claim jazz as American music rather than the sole invention of black Americans.
The chronological approach of Black Like You surveys the evolution of minstrel music from backwoods immigrant entertainment to its appearance in more legitimate theater, such as stage adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin. In 1890 Ernest Hogan incorporated ragtime into the minstrel format with his "All Coons Look Alike to Me," creating the offshoot of "coon songs." Strausbaugh makes it simple to trace the lineage from a minstrel dandy such as Zip Coon to the current rap popularizers of bling such as Lil Jon. He occasionally strays off message, such as when he wanders into an ill-considered exploration of Ebonics. But overall, Black Like You is an all-encompassing, breezily written summary of an aspect of American popular culture usually swept under the rug.
Reviewed by Miles Marshall Lewis
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.