Behind The Blackface

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Minstrel humor ranged from skits to one-liners, from slapstick to riddles. End men explained that the letter t was like an island, because it was in the middle of “water”; that a man who fell off a boat used a bar of soap to wash himself ashore; that firemen wore red suspenders to hold up their pants; and that chickens crossed the road to get to the other side. In this punchy language play, minstrels were beginning to introduce the rapid-fire humor of the city, the humor later perfected in vaudeville, burlesque, and radio. “My new place does not have a single bug,” end man Charlie Fox boasted in 1859 about his boardinghouse. “All of them are married and have large families.” Minstrels also performed long comic monologues, “stump speeches” which depended on the foolish misuse of language rather than anecdotes or plot for laughs: Transcendentalism is dat spiritual cognoscence ob pyschological irrefragibility, connected wid conscientient ademption ob incolumbient spirituality and etherialized connection … dat became ana-tomi-cati-cally tattalable in de circum ambulatin commotion ob ambiloquous voluminiousness . Besides mocking pretentious blacks for being “better stocked with words than Judgement,” stump speeches also poked fun at pompous politicians and professionals who seemed to talk in such gobbledygook.

 

Minstrel slapstick could be wonderfully elaborate. In one act, a cast of sleepwalkers-a super-patriotic politician, a passionate lover, a quick-fingered kleptomaniac, and a “canine hydrophobia patient” who thought he had been bitten by a rabid dog—roamed the stage, acting out their obsessions in their sleep while a burglar tried to tiptoe among them without waking them up. Finally, the canine hydrophobiac pounced on the thief, biting, snarling, and barking as the stage exploded with action and real fireworks.

With America’s best songwriters, comics, singers, dancers, and novelty acts, the minstrel show offered more than enough lively variety entertainment to ensure its popularity. But it was not just the nation’s first top-notch variety show. It was a top-notch variety show performed in blackface and black dialect. Race was a central part of its initial and enduring appeal.

The Northern white public before the Civil War generally knew little about black people. But it knew that it did not welcome blacks as equals and that it did enjoy watching minstrels portray the “oddities, peculiarities, eccentricities, and comicalities of that Sable Genus of Humanity.” With their ludicrous dialects, grotesque make-up, bizarre behavior, and simplistic caricatures, minstrels portrayed blacks as totally inferior. Minstrels created two sets of contrasting stereotypes-the happy, frolicking plantation darkies and the foolish, inept urban fools.

In their plantation material, minstrels concentrated on the fun and games of slave Hf e—what the Virginia Minstrels described as “the Sports, and Pastimes of the Virginia Colored Race.” This made for an entertaining show, but it also meant presenting slaves as happy, dancing children for whom life was a continual frolic. Beginning with Christy’s in 1853, minstrels even turned Harriet Beecher Stowe’s popular antislavery novel and play Uncle Tom’s Cabin into Happy Uncle Tom , a plantation farce about the joys of living in the old Kentucky home:

Oh, white folks, we’ll have you to know Dis am not de version of Mrs. Stowe; Wid her de Darks am all unlucky But we am de boys from Old Kentucky. Den hand de Banjo down to play We‘ll make it ring both night and day And we care not what de white folks say Dey can’t get us to run away.

In the minstrel shows, “darkies” (they rarely used the more disturbing word “slaves”) “tink ob nuthin but to play.”

The stereotyped plantation was also the home of an idealized, interracial family: master and mistress were the loving parents and all the darkies, regardless of age, their children. The most popular black members of this family were the mammy and the old uncle, specialty roles that provided some minstrels with long, successful careers. Milt Barlow was a star for thirty years playing “old darkies,” from Old Black Joe to Uncle Remus. Many of the minstrels’ most popular and moving songs celebrated the allegedly close bonds between masters and their old slaves. In Stephen Foster’s “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground,” “all de darkeys am a-weeping” because the kind master they dearly loved had died and left them behind. These aging black folks stood for the loyalty, love, and family values the minstrel plantation preserved in a mythic setting.