Behind The Blackface


“It was a big break when show business started [for blacks],” observed black minstrel Tom Fletcher. “Salaries were not large, but they still amounted to much more than they were getting [before] and there was the added advantage of opportunity to travel.…” “All the best [black] talent of that generation came down the same drain,” recalled W. C. Handy, the composer of “St. Louis Blues” and countless other songs, who began his long career as a black minstrel. “The composers, the singers, the musicians, the speakers, the stage performers-the minstrel show got them all.” They had no choice. Because of minstrelsy, then, black people became part of American show business. Initially, they were limited to stereotyped roles and given little credit for their performing skills. But they had a foot in the door and could begin their long struggle to modify and break free of the patterns and images imposed on them by white minstrels.

By the turn of the twentieth century, as major changes in society produced major changes in show business, the minstrel show’s popularity began to wane. With the reunification of the North and the South, public interest and concern was shifting from minstrelsy’s plantation topics to industrial and urban problems and to the influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Minstrels adapted their material to these changes as best they could. But their blackface make-up limited the effectiveness of their portrayal of immigrants, and they lost their identity as minstrels if they discarded the burnt cork. Eventually, the blackface act, kept alive by stars like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, became just one of many standard vaudeville and musical-comedy turns; the minstrel show disappeared-but not the stereotyped black mask behind which lay the uncomfortable reality of Negro life in America.