Behind The Blackface

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It is on our supermarket shelves, in our advertising, and in our literature. But most of all, it is in our entertainment. From Aunt Jemima to Mammy in Gone With the Wind , from Uncle Remus to Uncle Ben, from Amos ‘n’ Andy to Good Times , the inexplicably grinning black face is a pervasive part of American culture. Only very recently have black performers been able to break out of the singing, dancing, and comedy roles that have for so long perpetuated the image of blacks as a happy, musical people whc would rather play than work, rather frolic than think. Such images have inevitably affected the ways white America has viewed and treated black America. Their source was the minstrel show.

Before the Civil War, American show business virtually excluded black people. But it never ignored black culture. In fact, the minstrel show-the first uniquely American entertainment form-was born when Northern white men blacked their faces, adopted heavy dialects, and performed what they claimed were black songs, dances, and jokes to entertain white Americans. No one took minstrel shows seriously; they were meant to be light, meaningless entertainment. But it was no accident that the blackface minstrel show developed in the decades before the Civil War, when slavery was often the central public issue, no accident that it dominated show business until the 1880’s, when white America made crucial decisions about the status of blacks, and no accident that after the minstrel show died, the basic stereotypes it had nurtured endured-the happy, banjo-strumming plantation “darky,” the loving loyal mammy and old uncle, the lazy, good-for-nothing buffoon, the pretentious city slicker.

For better or worse, the American people made the minstrel show what it was.

America’s cities mushroomed after 1820, and American show business grew along with them. The new city audiences were large, boisterous, and hungry for entertainment; they hollered, hissed, cheered, and booed with the intensity and fervor of today’s football fans, and shrewd impresarios quickly learned to give them what they wanted. Between the acts of every play, whether it was Hamlet or the Original, Aboriginal, Erratic, Operatic, Semi-Civilized and Demi-Savage Extravaganza of Pocahontas , audiences were treated to short variety turns of songs, dances, and comedy. Between-the-act performers drew heavily on American folklore and folk song, so it was no surprise that the unique culture of black Americans became a regular feature of these brief skits. The only surprise might have been that the performers were white men wearing burnt-cork make-up. But before the Civil War, blacks were rarely allowed on the popular stage, just as they were rarely allowed in white hotels, restaurants, courthouses, or cemeteries.

As early as the 1820’s, some white performers specialized in what they called “Ethiopian delineation.” The Ethiopian delineators were entertainers, not anthropologists, of course, and they had no particular interest in the authenticity of their performances. But they had an insatiable appetite for fresh black material that could be shaped into popular stage acts.

 

Appearing in Louisville, Kentucky, about 1828, Thomas D. “Daddy” Rice, a blackface performer, saw a crippled black stablehand doing a peculiar shuffling, hopping dance. The stablehand’s name was Jim Crow, and as he danced he sang a catchy song with the refrain: Weel about, and turn about/And do jus so;/ Eb’rytime I weel about/I jump Jim Crow . Rice knew a good thing when he saw one; he memorized the stablehand’s song, copied his hobbling dance, wrote some new verses, and tried out the routine on stage. He was an immediate hit in the Ohio River Valley and was soon “Jumping Jim Crow” to a standing-room-only crowd of over thirty-five hundred in New York’s Bowery Theater.

 

The “Jim Crow” song and dance, observed writer Y. S. Nathanson in 1855, “touched a chord in the American heart which had never before vibrated.” It brought black culture to white Americans, who could no more resist the urge to try the new black dances of the 1830’s than their twentieth-century descendants could resist trying new black dances, from the Charleston to the Hustle and beyond. Nathanson recalled seeing a “young [white] lady in a sort of inspired rapture, throwing her weight alternately upon the tendon Achilles of the one, and the toes of the other foot, her left hand resting upon her hip, her right… extended aloft, gyrating as the exigencies of the song required, and singing Jim Crow at the top of her voice.”