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Page last modified Friday, 13-Jun-2003 10:58:38 PDT
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Sources: Comer, Jim. Every Time I Turn Around: Rite, Reversal, and The End of Blackface Minstrelsy; bamboozledmovie.com

To mention blackface minstrelsy is to evoke a collective groan. Indeed, there are many Americans who have never heard of it. Blackface performances may embarrass us today, but far from being an aberration, minstrelsy is part of a huge complex of folk practices. The minstrel show was a popular form of entertainment from the 1840s to the 1960s, and forms of entertainment derived from it continue to the present. In fact, remants of the minstrel show can be actually found in everyday American culture, unbeknownst to late 20th century generations of Americans.

In Spike Lee's new film "Bamboozled," a television writer reinvents the black-face minstrel show as a 21st century network hit. In reality, television's first real view of African-Americans came from that same minstrel tradition. It was 1951 when two black actors became television's first African American stars in "The Amos and Andy Show," which actually began as a radio show -- with two white actors playing a pair of comically uneducated southern black men. "Amos and Andy" was America's highest-rated radio show and became equally popular on television - without ever altering its crudely racist content.

"Amos and Andy" arose out of an even earlier tradition of stereotypical entertainment that started in the 19th century: the minstrel show. The tradition began in the early 1800s on stage, with white actors using burnt corks to darken their skin - a method that became known as "black-face" - allowing them to portray African-American slaves, usually as lazy, child-like providers of comic relief. This later evolved into Vaudeville-style parody shows consisting of songs, dances and comic repartee performed by white actors made up as blacks.


The father of the American minstrel show was Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice, who in the 1830s drew immense popularity with a song-and-dance routine in which he impersonated an old, crippled black slave named Jim Crow. In New York City, the act of "Tambo and Bones" was one of the Manhattan stage's biggest draws. These shows introduced some of Africa's musical instruments - especially the banjo - to white audiences for the first time.

After the Civil War, black entertainers themselves began to enter the tradition -- appearing in black-face makeup themselves and forming their own minstrel theatres - taking with them the caricatures and stereotypes created by the white performers. Perhaps the first major black minstrel success was Brooker and Clayton's Georgia Minstrels, who hailed themselves in their advertising as "The Only Simon Pure Negro Troupe in the World." In 1876, the black group known as Callendar's Minstrels broke the mold, and became the first African-American minstrel band to perform without black-face.

Although the minstrel shows began to decline at the turn of the century, the tradition was continued in the newfangled entertainment forms of movies and radio. Early silent films continued to cast white actors in black-face as shiftless, lazy, comical characters. One of the most popular characters of the silent film era became the "Uncle Tom," a head-scratching old black man portrayed by white actors in such films as For Massa's Sake, Ten Pickaninnies and The Wooing and Wedding of A Coon. Other popular film stereotypes included the big, waddling black woman, often known as Mammy, who chased her man with a cast-iron skillets; and the chicken-stealing, shifty-eyed black hooligan, frequently named Rufus or Rastus. One of the most shocking examples of black-face in the silent era came in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, in which cinema's largest early audiences were subjected to vivid images of white actors in black faces raping, stealing and threatening the people of the South.

The "Talkies" saw the rise of Stepin Fetchit, a black comic named Lincoln Perry who became Hollywood's first major African-American star, joining the ranks of other early film millionaires. Stepin Fetchit's brilliant comic timing won the admiration of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin among others, but he was also criticized for perpetuating the stereotyped images of the day, playing what became known as "the laziest human being in the world." His films included Hearts of Dixie, The Galloping Ghost and Helldorado - and Stepin Fetchit often received top billing with white actors.

During the 1940s, Mantan Moreland (the inspiration for Savion Glover's character Mantan on the New Milliennial Minstrel Show") became one of America's top black stars. Although he starred in several of the era's black-directed "race" movies - which were shown to segregated audiences in major urban centers - he became best known for his portrait of the wide-eyed, scared-to-death chauffeur, Birmingham Brown, in the Charlie Chan movies.

It took decades for the scope of black life on film to begin to expand, but at the same time the rise of television provided a new outlet for images of African-Americans. Following a cry of outrage over "Amos N Andy," the networks handled the controversy by staying away, rarely creating black-themed shows for several decades. Black television shows resurged in the 70s with such hits as "The Jeffersons," "Benson," "Diff'rent Strokes" and "Good Times" - but the one-dimensional and sometimes degrading comedy caused another backlash, with sit-coms showcasing upper-middle class African Americans like "The Cosby Show" taking off.


The origin of the white world's obsession with black-faced clowns is lost. It is amusing that the first clown in history, a pygmy at a Pharaoh's court around 2500 B.C., was black. However, the connection between him, the black-faced phallophoroi of Athens, and the comic slaves of Plautus is impossible to trace. The word minstrel, from the French menestrel, used as early as the fourteenth century, describes a professional musician. Performances in blackface date from this early period. Certainly groups sang and danced, as described in the Romance of the Rose, but no single form seems to have been followed. The masque, in which masked aristocrats entered a hall to enact a play with gambling and dancing, was a stylized form of entertainment, but although Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, wore blackface in one (as a "Moorish Lady"), they were not comical. Blackface performers on the London and colonial stages of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were often comics, derived ultimately from the servi of Plautus.


Charles Dibden, the most famous actor who specialized in these "Ethiopian Delineations", would dress in Georgian court costume and sit at his harpsichord to regale the audience with jokes and songs, lecturing comically on black customs. He played the slave "Mungo" in the comic opera The Padlock, including a song and dance in character. Dibden's son was the mentor of Joseph Grimaldi, a nineteenth-century clown who originated the whiteface makeup and costume typical of European clowns. Note that the fright wig, exaggerated lips and eyes, oversized clothing and props of the American clown, props such a seltzer water, stuffed clubs, exploding cigars, and whistles filled with soot, are not Grimaldi's. They belong to Tambo and Bones. The English blackface comedian Charles Mathews came to America in 1822 to perform and studied black life and customs. Like American minstrels after him, Mathews claimed to have derived his music and dialect from slaves. He even transcribed a stump speech at a prayer meeting.


Blackface was not just entertainment, but a symbolic inversion of social order. The social implications are very interesting. In the minstrel show, white becomes black. White men will pretend to be black, but only as clowns. There were also sexual reversals: men would pretend to be women. Racial and sexual reversal are powerful means of expression. White minstrel troupes had to reassure their audience that underneath the burnt cork they were white! (In small Scottish towns they were not believed and had to remove the makeup publicly.) Posters showed the troupes both as elegant whites and as grotesque Negroes with sloping foreheads and bulging eyes. Even black minstrels wore blackface makeup on stage-they were not minstrels without it. Reversal colors such songs as Old Dan Tucker: in the original lyrics, Dan washes his face and combs his hair to change from black to white. The minstrel shows originated in a milieu of racial and sexual tension, and by diverting tension over roles available for both blacks and women they helped make society laugh at its troubles. Jim Crow "weel'd about/and turned just so" in more ways than one, it would seem.

Sexual reversal added to the charge of the minstrel shows. As early as 1843, in Dan Emmet's troupe, a male comedian donned blackface, a gown, and a black wig to originate the "wench" character. During the singing of the love song Lucy Long, this apparition would cavort about the stage, dancing and flirting with everyone. Later the blackface transvestites would adopt one of two distinct roles: that of the coal-black mammy, grotesquely disfigured and comically dressed in rags with huge feet, and the lighter-skinned octoroon, or 'yellow gal'. The latter character was portrayed as beautiful and desirable, and was the object of romantic songs. The mania induced by such female impersonators as Francis Leon, or, as he called himself, 'The Only Leon", can be compared to the popularity of RuPaul and Boy George in our own time. Leon boasted that he did not wear "costumes"; his huge wardrobe was "genuine".


The early Warner Brothers cartoons in fact were so racist that they were withdrawn over massive NAACP protests. Yes, WB cartoons, as in the Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show. Daffy Duck is a perfect example, doused in full black, bearing big staring eyes, big lips and big feet, constantly made a fool by the far wittier Bugs Bunny, dressed in full white. Some episodes originally had scenes with all the characters -- Bugs, Elmer Fudd and the rest -- singing and dancing in blackface, but these scenes were censored for modern audiences. Tap-dancing arose from minstrel show performances depicting the clumsy shuffle of the Negro. Some media scholars posit that urban talk shows - which often present troubled minorities for public consumption - are a direct descendent of minstrel stereotypes. Others point to the detrimental depictions of African-American characters in currently-running sitcoms as signs that the minstrel show continues to exert its influence. The makeup and fright wigs of Uncle Tom's Cabin return on cereal boxes, while the minstrel-show plantation is reborn as the hood of rap videos. The setting is different, but the effect is the same: a black culture marketed for white profit, with black performers tagging along for what they can get. Once again performers claim that they represent black America authentically, while protests decry the caricature.

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