Behind The Blackface

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In minstrel shows, blacks lived either on Southern plantations where they were contented and secure, or in Northern towns where they were bewildered and insecure-which is probably very much the way life seemed to the many minstrel fans who had recently moved from farms to cities. But minstrelsy’s Northern black characters were not just common people suffering the anxieties of urban life. They were ignorant, bumbling buffoons who were totally out of place outside the South. A black brakeman on a train spent all day breaking into luggage. A drunk claimed he was a lawyer because of all the practicing he had done at the bar. A cook hung up toast to dry. And black soldiers, when ordered to “fall in,” fell into a lake. No one in the audience could have been as stupid as these hapless dolts; the spectacle they presented allowed white audiences to laugh-and look down-at blacks. The other major minstrel stereotype of Northern Negroes was the prancing dandy who thought only of flirting, fun, and fashion. Wearing skintight “trousaloons,” a long-tailed coat with wide, padded shoulders, a high ruffled collar, white gloves, a long, gold watch chain, and a shining monocle, Count Julius Caesar Mars Napoleon Sinclair Brown and other fops not only showed how absurd blacks could be when they tried to live like white “gemmen,” but also gave white common people a chance to ridicule upper-crust white dandies.

The minstrel show’s message was that black people belonged only on Southern plantations and had no place at all in the North. “Dis being free,” complained one minstrel character who had run away from the plantation, “is worser dem being a slave.” Songs like Dan Emmett’s “Dixie,” a Northern minstrel song which was introduced in New York City in 1859 by Bryant’s Minstrels, underscored these messages by having Northern blacks wish they were in the land of cotton. “Dixie” was a great hit in the North before it became the unofficial Confederate national anthem. Even after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, minstrels and their public still sang of blacks pining for the old plantation.

For decades, minstrels had few show-business competitors. But beginning in the 1870’s, they faced serious competition in cities from large-scale musical comedies and variety shows. In response, J. H. Haverly, the greatest minstrel promoter of them all, created his United Mastodon Minstrels, which, instead of eight or ten performers and two end men, boasted “Forty—40- Count ‘Em-40-Forty” minstrels and eight end men. In 1880 the Mastodons featured a “magnificent scene representing a Turkish Barbaric Palace in Silver and Gold” that included Turkish soldiers marching, a Sultan’s palace, and “Base-Ball.” And that was just one feature of the first part of the show. After a longolio, the program closed with “Pea-Tea-Bar-None’s Kollosal, Cirkuss, Museum, Menagerie and Kayne’s Kickadrome Kavalkade,” a parody of Barnum’s circus that included equestrians, clowns, tightrope walkers, and “trained elephants.”

Haverly also made his minstrels a national touring company, instead of a resident urban troupe as earlier minstrels had been. His handsomely outfitted minstrels, led by a blaring brass band, paraded grandly through every town they entered. Other minstrels followed Haverly’s formula, taking to the road, mounting lavish productions, and shifting away from plantation and black material. Some late-nineteenth-century troupes, like those led by George Primrose and William West, “The Millionaires of Minstrelsy,” even began to perform without blackface make-up. “We were looking for novelty,” recalled George Thatcher, a star of that troupe, “and for a change tried white minstrelsy” with the cast in “Shakespearian costumes.” It was not just novelty and other entertainment forms that forced such changes.

 
 
 
 

After the Civil War, large numbers of black performers broke into American show business as minstrels. To do so, they had first to win white audiences away from white minstrels. The way they did it set an enduring pattern for black entertainers. Brooker and Clayton’s Georgia Minstrels, the first successful black troupe, billed itself in 1865-66 as “The Only Simon Pure Negro Troupe in the World” and claimed that it was “composed of men who during the war were SLAVES IN MACON, GEORGIA, who, having spent their former life in Bondage … will introduce to their patrons PLANTATION LIFE in all its phases.” Other black minstrels also stressed their race, claiming to be ordinary ex-slaves doing what came naturally, rather than skilled entertainers acting out white-created stereotypes of blacks. By the 1870’s, black minstrels had become the acknowledged experts in plantation material. One white critic even attacked the white minstrel as “at best a base imitator.” But the public still wanted the same old stereotypes. “The success of the [black] troupe,” one reviewer baldly stated, “goes to disprove the saying that the negro cannot act the nigger.” “Acting the nigger” was exactly what white audiences expected and demanded of black performers.