The American Minstrelsy: Remembering Africa, Birthing America
By Sybil R. Williams
The American minstrel show is a musical variety style of entertainment featuring ragtime music; the latest popular dances as well as tap dance, soft-shoe, and sand dance; the popular songs of the period; and comedy sketches and farcical skits performed by a troupe of 12 men including a master of ceremonies called Mr. Interlocuter and two clowns named Tambo and Bones. It is the forerunner to vaudeville and musical theater.
The minstrel show emerged from many disparate yet distinctly American sources. It is multi-racial, black and white; multi-ethnic, Jewish, Irish, Italian, African, etc; and aesthetically wide ranging. The American minstrelsy borrows from opera, English farce, Shakespeare’s plays, and Irish jigs. It also borrows from such African American forms as the juba, the knock Jim Crow (a children’s game), the ring shout (sacred ritual), and the cakewalk. One could even find the striking poses of Josiah Wedgwood’s anti-slavery medallions on the minstrel stage.
Some scholars suggest that class unified minstrel performances and performers. In Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip-Hop, W.T. Lhamon, Jr. asserts that the early minstrels had African Americans in the audience. “In essence, the white working and African Americans united around themes of confinement and disenfranchisement. In neighborhoods such as the Five Points in New York City, African American actors may have performed right alongside Thomas Dartmouth Rice.” What is certain is that the American minstrel show was an urban form that developed and was culturally cross-fertilized by various ethnic groups living in New York City as early as 1830.
In 1830 Thomas Dartmouth Rice, also known as “Daddy Rice,” a Caucasian New York born actor/singer, would blacken his face and “jump Jim Crow.” This act would mark the beginning of the minstrel tradition. The Virginia Minstrels become the first blackface troupe to play New York in 1843. They were headed by Dan Emmett. During this period something else became prominent, again largely through the influence of the Virginia Minstrels. They, and others at this juncture, insisted that minstrelsy was delineation of plantation life. This was straight-up faux anthropology done as theater. The Virginia Minstrels announced their performance in a newspaper on June 19, 1843 with:
In their delineations of the sports and pastimes of the Southern slave race of America they offer an exhibition that is both new and original, which they illustrate through the medium of songs, refrains, lectures, and dances, accompanying themselves on instruments of a peculiar nature… Their melodies have all been produced at great toil and expense, from among the sable inhabitants of the Southern States in America, the subject of each ascribing the manner in which the slave celebrate their holidays, which commence at the gathering of the sugar and cotton crops. (Raising Cain)
As AnneMarie Bean states in Black Minstrelsy and Double Inversion, Circa 1890, “minstrelsy was not an ethnography-based performance nor was it based in any way in the authentic presentation of African American cultural life…Ultimately it was not the concern of the minstrels to present a race with a culture, but rather, to present a color, as in ‘This is how people of color act.’”
The Whitmark Amateur Minstrel Guide dates to around 1899. Books such as this guided performers who wished to recreate popular shows in their communities. From advice on applying blackface to sample scripts, jokes, and songs, this guide reveals the standardization of the minstrel show form. Courtesy of Division of Culture & the Arts, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution.
The most damaging aspect of the minstrel show was this codification and popularization of the “negro” stereotype. In 1846, E.P. Christy gave the show its definitive three-part structure which included: Part One, The Olio, and Part Three. He also gave the semi-circular seating arrangement, the use of clowns Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones, as well as Mr. Interlocutor, who acted as the master of ceremonies. Christy’s troupe would not only give the minstrel its definitive form but would also popularize the music of Stephen A. Foster, whose most famous song composition is “Oh, Susanna.” Christy’s shows became so popular that the minstrels themselves would become known as the “Christies”. Christy continued the popularization of the “negro” stereotype in the most devastating manner in the “olio” portion of his minstrel show. This portion of the show purported to show the “peculiarities of the southern negro” which included eating watermelons, stealing chickens, butchering language, and the worst of all, the “negro wench character” who was foul tempered and often attacked her husband with a skillet.
Enslaved African Americans probably made the first American banjos from gourds in the 18th century, basing them on traditional African stringed instruments. It became a popular feature of minstrel shows around the time of the Civil War. Courtesy of Division of Culture & the Arts, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution.
The popularity of the minstrel show declined after the Civil War, but the damage was done. Dr. Eleanor Traylor notes in her classic essay Two African American Contributions to Dramatic Form, “the minstrel character has enjoyed longevity and even dominance over artistic forms created or inspired by Black Americans…”
After the Civil War, African Americans began to apply the burnt cork to their own faces and perform in the minstrelsy. The “burnt cork mask” of “blackface” had become a standard convention of the minstrel stage. In order for African American artists to perform they too had to adhere to the conventions of the stage. Annemarie Bean quotes James Weldon Johnson, who performed as a minstrel, explaining the complicated nature of African American participation in the form:
. . .these companies did provide stage training and theatrical experience for a large number of coloured men. They provided an essential training and theatrical experience, which, at the time, could not have been acquired from any other source. (Bean, p.177)
While white actors blackened their faces to caricature African Americans, African American actors continued the long tradition of “masking” that began the moment they crossed the Atlantic. African masking rituals, or “masquerades,” refers to both to a performance given by masked characters and to the masked performer. The most important masquerades are those through which the spirits enter the human world. In these, the human performer is not simply hidden from view, but is the embodied spirit. The supernatural and secret ability makes the mask, the masker, and the masquerade sacred and powerful. While Africans in the Americas did not have the physical mask, they often continued these sacred rituals by subsuming African sacred practices in Christian religious practices and icons, which gave rise to such syncretic religions as Vodun, Candomble, and Santeria. Masking was also used to conceal secular rituals such as the African martial arts calinda and capoeira. On a daily basis, masking often concealed the enslaved African’s true feelings, their deepest identity, thus ensuring their safety. By blackening their faces and “performing color,” African American minstrels were able to conceal their true identities while honing their craft as artists and serving their communities by becoming cultural ambassadors and building charitable organizations. As vaudeville performer Aida Overton Walker observed in Colored Men and Women on the Stage:
In this age we are all fighting one problem―that is the color problem. I venture to think and dare to state that our profession does more toward the alleviation of color prejudice than any other profession among colored people. The fact of the matter is this, that we come into contact with more white people in a week than other professional colored people meet in a year and more than some meet in a whole decade…When a large audience leaves the theatre after a creditable two and a half hour performance by Negroes, I am sure the Negro race is raised in the estimation of the people…
Bert Williams founded The Frogs in the early 1900s, a charitable organization for African American theater practitioners at a time when they were excluded from such other organizations as The American Actor’s Benevolent Association. Yet, masking did not always shield these performers from danger. In 1902, Louis Wright, a black minstrel performer was lynched in New Madrid Missouri:
Shortly after midnight on the morning of Sunday, February 16, 1902, black minstrel performer Louis Wright was lynched by hanging in New Madrid, Missouri. Prior to the performance, he was involved in an altercation with several white men from the town. The performance itself was marred with insults and jeers hurled from the audience. After the minstrels left the stage, a few white men rushed it in an apparent attempt to harm or even lynch some of the performers. (The Minneapolis Journal; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Mon, Feb 17, 1902 – Page 1.)
However, there was something minstrel audiences did not see. They did not see how Africa took to the American stage and created what would be the first known American theater form. They would not see John “Picayune” Butler, a black French singer and banjo player who lived in New Orleans, Louisiana, whose musical prowess led him to participate in the first banjo tournament held in the United States in New York in 1857. They would not know that the banjo itself is an adaptation of the West African kora and continues the tradition of the djeli in the Americas. They would not see the juba, often referred to as “patting Juba,” a dance with intricate steps performed without accompaniment except stomping, clapping and the percussive striking of the body.
The most important masquerades are those through which the spirits enter the human world. In these, the human performer is not simply hidden from view, but is the embodied spirit, through stomping, clapping, and the percussive striking of the body. The dance is said to have originally been brought from the Congo by enslaved Africans. It may have also developed in Haiti where it was known as Giouba or Djouba. The dance becomes the “walkaround” in the American minstrel. Minstrel audiences would not see William Henry Lane, who is credited as one of the most influential figures in the creation of American tap dance. Lane developed a unique style of using his body as a musical instrument, blending African-derived syncopated rhythms with movements of the Irish jig and reel. Lane’s melding of these vernacular dance forms is recognizable today as the foundations of the ever-evolving style of American tap dance. In witnessing the white gloved hands of the minstrel men, they would not see the beautiful gestures of the adowa dance from Ghana. It is a “dance of hands” performed sometimes with a white cloth meant to serve as intimate communication. In watching Africans perform, whether on the plantation or selling fish at the wharf at Little Five Points in New York City, the complicated language of this dance survives.
Even when African Americans began to perform in the minstrel shows and audiences saw new dances and comedy routines that the whites had not yet appropriated, such as stop-time taps, the sand, and Virginia essence, they would not see the improvisation of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton building on syncopated rhythms that began with field hollers, and work songs, and the blues.
What audiences definitely would not see, but certainly feel, is the power of the “nommo”, the African practice of word, practiced on the minstrel stage in song, dance, and humor. They would not see the magic that created a viable life, culture, and art from the wreckage of slavery and Jim Crow, magic that shines with the brilliance of the ancestors who sacrificed all that they had, knowing that they would indeed live on. In Yoruba culture, we speak our ancestors’ names with the sacred power of our breath knowing that they live forever. So tonight we speak the names of all the African American artists who have come before, and we speak the names of the Scottsboro Boys. They will live forever: Ashe’.
Bean, Annemarie. “Black Minstrelsy And Double Inversion, Circa 1890.” African American Performance And Theater History, edited by Harry Elam, Jr. and David Krasner. Oxford University Press, 2001.
Lhamon, W.T. Raising Cain: Blackface Performance From Jim Crow To Hip-Hop. Harvard University Press, 2000.
Mahar, William J. Behind The Burnt Cork Mask. University of Illinois Press, 1998.
Master Juba: The Inventor of Tap Dancing. Last modified 2014. http://www.masterjuba.com.
Traylor, Eleanor. “Two African-American Contributions to Dramatic Form.” In The Theater of Black Americans: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Errol Hill. N.p.: Applause Books, 2000.
Walker, Aida Overton. “Colored Men And Women Of The Stage.” The Colored American, January 1905.
Woll, Allen. Black Musical Theatre: From Coontown to Dreamgirls. N.p.: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.