Being called a “minstrel” seems to be the ultimate accusation of wearing a mask — being false. But it is more than that. As “America’s longest-running form of popular entertainment,” minstrelsy captures the story of American racism: It reduces individuals to racially defined stereotyped roles. Yet it also reveals the strange way white Americans yearn to see, and indeed idolize, black performers and black culture. Wearing blackface, a white person tries on a life he simultaneously disdains.
Minstrel performances demeaned black people. But they also allowed whites to admire translated forms of African American music and dance and, eventually, provided paths of economic empowerment for African Americans in blackface. Black performers were able to use the humiliating dialect, gestures and characteristics that they loathed to become stars. White audiences simultaneously sought to be endlessly reassured of their superiority to black people while demonstrating their fascination and even admiration of black culture. This touch point of contempt and desire is central to our history and still plays out today in the world of both sports and entertainment.
Legend has it that blackface minstrelsy began in the 1830s, when the white performer Thomas Dartmouth Rice borrowed the clothes and copied the dance of an elderly African American, creating the song and dance of Jump Jim Crow. According to the New York Tribune, “Never was there such an excitement in the musical or dramatic world; nothing was talked of, nothing written, and nothing dreamed of but ‘Jim Crow.’ ”
African Americans were excluded from the audience, but white spectators were excited by performances of white entertainers in blackface, as they simultaneously showed African Americans to be foolish, illiterate, superstitious — and more creative and artistic than musicians and dancers in the white world.
Frederick Douglass saw minstrelsy as “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.” Yet, historians such as Eric Lott have shown that white working-class audiences felt a sense of identification with black people and a kind of personal rebellion watching minstrelsy. For some white workers, watching minstrels was a way to let loose themselves, evident in the way white audiences streamed up to Harlem’s segregated jazz clubs in the 1920s to experience “hot,” “primitive” music. But some in the all-white audience at minstrel shows went beyond enjoying their own moments of exuberant fun — they began to actually identify with the struggles of real African Americans.
An early version of the lyrics to “Jump Jim Crow” included these lines: “Should dey get to fighting, Perhaps de blacks will rise, For deir wish for freedom, Is shining in deir eyes.” Even as the dialect demeaned the blackface speaker, he was recognized as a deep-feeling person entrapped both in slavery and in the minstrel mask. Rice’s Jim Crow act then paved the way for his performance as Uncle Tom in the theatrical version of the abolitionist classic “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
After the Civil War, African Americans themselves began to put on blackface, using the same exaggerated features and performing the same demeaning dialect and acts before white audiences. Why? Because such acts paved the way to stardom.
Bert Williams began his entertainment career in 1893 touring in a blackface minstrel troupe. By 1910, still in blackface and staring in the Ziegfeld Follies, he became the first solo African American Broadway star. Even in the 1920s, as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith toured with tent shows in the South, playing to white and African American audiences, they included African American performers in blackface doing chicken-stealing skits similar to those used by the white minstrels of the 19th century.
These performers weren’t simply sacrificing their dignity to chase stardom. They used the campy stereotypes as a kind of consciousness-raising theater. According to blues scholar Paige McGinley, the exaggerated performance of minstrelsy reminded the audience of the harsh reality of the plantation South, where black people were required to play the fool, even as that past was being romanticized in pageants and films such as “Birth of a Nation” and later “Gone With the Wind.”
Black artists confronted directly the negative images that persisted in minstrelsy. In 1941, the famed jazz composer and pianist Duke Ellington created a new show and title song, “Jump for Joy,” in an effort to kill Uncle Tom and the tradition of Jump Jim Crow. “Fare thee well land of cotton/ Cotton lisle is out of style/ Honey chile/ Jump for joy,” he sang. Neither the song nor the show entirely ended blackface minstrelsy — the short film “Minstrel Days” celebrating the art form as all-American nostalgia came out the same year. But the modern sound of Ellington’s music was more in tune with a country about to go to war against ideas of white racial supremacy. The “happy darky” of the plantation South was indeed going “out of style.”
Ellington, like Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, wanted to scrub off the burned cork and show African Americans as individuals, not clownish distortions. This critique of minstrelsy continues to shape the conversation today.
But it is also important to understand what the strange yearning seen in minstrelsy reveals — both yesterday and today. Minstrelsy allowed black and white society to touch while maintaining distance.
To this day, white audiences maintain the complicated dance of adoring what they simultaneously demean — a basketball star such as Sterling Brown becomes merely a black man once off the court and subject to police assault. In reverse, rappers whose lyrics explore life stories few white people experience sell to white audiences. We connect through performance while living separate lives. In turn, as Marsalis suggests, as black artists use minstrels’ racist vocabulary, some subvert it, while others become its mouthpiece. Instead of just using minstrelsy as a term of derision, we need to treat it as a chance to examine those tangled and entangled relationships that are so disturbing, and so defining, of all of us as Americans.