Blackface Minstrel Shows

by Sam Amidon

[Note:  Our son Sam Amidon wrote this paper exploring precisely these issues for his African American history course with Komozi Woodard when Sam was a student at Sarah Lawrence College.]

From the late 18th century through the 1950s, American entertainers have worn burnt cork makeup to imitate, ridicule, and some say celebrate African-Americans and African-American culture. The practice of these blackface minstrel shows experienced its popular peak between 1830 and 1870, during which time it was the most popular entertainment form in the United States. In fact, one can safely say that blackface minstrelsy was the first American pop culture. From its inception, minstrelsy met with wildly varied responses, from high praise as an example of a real American art form, to anger for its racism. Starting with Hans Nathan’s Dan Emmett and the Rise of Negro Minstrelsy in 1960, the issue of what role blackface minstrelsy has played specifically in our culture became a topic of interest to scholars and historians. This interest has picked up speed in the 1990s with Eric Lott’s Love and Theft, W. T. Lhamon’s Raising Cain, and William J. Maher’s Behind the Burnt Cork Mask.

In this essay I will outline the current views of blackface minstrelsy. I will show where the current arguments stand and what the development of these arguments has been. I will do this by approaching the four aforementioned books separately, in chronological order, and will trace the development of the scholarly perspective on blackface minstrelsy.

Hans Nathan starts off Dan Emmett and the Rise of Negro Minstrelsy by connecting blackface minstrelsy to a late 18th century tradition sentimental abolitionist songwriters and poets in Britain. Many of these songs were done in vernacular and made a very feeble attempt at sounding “Ethiopian.” It is interesting that he chooses to make such a direct connection, partially because he seems uninterested in making the case that minstrelsy was abolitionist, and partially because this connection has been left untouched by subsequent historians. However, there have been attempts by subsequent historians to connect minstrelsy at least with a certain brand of lower-class (interracial) rebellion (W. T. Lhamon is one of these historians).

Nathan’s views are somewhat racist (even for 1960), in that he considers the portrait of the African-American depicted in Minstrel performance was “a realistic concept of the Negro” (Nathan, p. 44). He clearly enjoys much of the racist humor in the songs and scripts he includes in the book, and he considers the stock characters of blackface (such as Dan Tucker and Jim Crow) to be “close to reality” (Lhamon, p 59).

As a historian, Nathan’s authority is hurt by the fact that he takes first-hand accounts at face value, often in situations when he clearly shouldn’t be. For example, many of the minstrel performers claimed to have spent time studying slave culture and lifestyle in order to legitimize their art. Nathan assumes the truth of these stories and it is often clear from the context of the stories that they are at least exaggerated if not wholly fictional. Of course, the amount of research that had been done so far in the realm of blackface minstrelsy in 1960 was so slight that Nathan didn’t have much else to go on.

Despite these problems, Nathan’s narrative is valuable because of his basic conviction that blackface minstrelsy holds the key to much of what has happened to American popular culture since then. Beforehand, minstrelsy had been seen as an almost forgettable footnote to American culture, a forum for lowbrow theatre and not much else. Despite the fact that Nathan’s enthusiasm for the form runs slightly too high for comfort racially, the fact that he called attention to it at all as an influence on modern culture is what started the current debate in the first place.

Hidden inside what is (in terms of its take on the racial implications of minstrelsy) a misguided narrative, are the seeds for many of the current fundamental views of blackface minstrelsy. An example of this is that when Nathan is discussing the standard stereotype character “Jim Crow,” he connects certain personality traits to the American folk-tale tradition of tall-tale characters such as Davy Crockett. This is something historians such as W. T. Lhamon have picked up on.

Sometimes it is Nathan’s refusal to admit a level of racial insult in the content of minstrel performance that is its connection to more modern accounts. Nathan claims “the Negro was often shown as ill mannered and cowardly, but mainly to entertain and not to criticize” (Nathan, p. 15). William J. Mahar picks up and modifies this line of argument when he argues that although certain portrayals of blacks in blackface performance relied on stereotypes, white counterparts to those stereotypes existed also and it is only incidental that the subject of such stereotyping was black.

Eric Lott has come the closest of all the minstrel historians in understanding the complexities and implications of blackface minstrel performance. He sees minstrel performance as being not an entity with set implications and meanings, but as a forum in which both conscious and sub-conscious (and often contradictory) cultural emotions were worked out. This is the most important of Lott’s points: the acknowledgement of contradictory feelings in a culture as well as in an individual, and the concept of blackface minstrel performance as being a result of subconscious desires as well.

Sometimes Lott goes overboard in his analysis of elements of minstrel performance in his desire to prove that such subconscious elements existed. Of course such a thing is extremely hard to document, so his analyses sometimes seem to rely on readings that go on more than what was going on. It is important simply that he acknowledges it because certain elements of minstrelsy, such as the extremity of the lampooning, and the reliance on cross-dressing, force a psychological reading as well as a historical one.

A strong point of his essay is his outlining of two general historical perspectives on minstrelsy. One is that of the “people’s culture,” exemplified by Mark Twain and continued up through W. T. Lhamon’s Raising Cain in 1999 (which I will discuss later). This viewpoint is that blackface minstrelsy was a celebration of American and specifically African-American culture. The other viewpoint starts with Frederick Douglass and is modernized most eloquently by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) in Blues People. This viewpoint is that blackface was “cultural domination,” a racist form that helped to keep lower class whites satisfied with their position and made them to feel superior by ridiculing African-Americans. Lott proves that there was actually a fair amount of overlap between the two standpoints by citing examples of Frederick Douglass praising a certain element of a blackface performance, and of Mark Twain decrying a blackface performance’s racism. He also successfully does away with both arguments by simply acknowledging that the situation is a lot more complicated than simply being one way or the other. Blackface minstrelsy was a living entity that was constantly being tugged in different directions by different interests, some conscious and some not.

One interesting element of Lott’s standpoint is in his reading of one aspect of blackface minstrelsy as an expression of white attraction to, and repulsion from, the black body. He tends to read minstrelsy as not simply appreciation or insult, but as acting out a desire and a fascination for and with black people and culture. In the case of the attraction to/repulsion from the black body, he seems to be reading too far into it psychologically, especially considering the lack of evidence for him to work from. However, by simply raising the issue he has done something important, because the general concept of white culture’s fascination with African-American culture is what most closely connects blackface minstrelsy with modern equivalents, such as white upper-middle class youth culture’s fascination with hip-hop. This is the territory on which W. T. Lhamon focuses, in his book, which I will discuss presently.

Raising Cain is Lhamon’s update of the traditional academic view of blackface: a people’s culture, the creativity and ingenuity of its practitioners overshadowing its racist content. It is not a break from this traditional view; on the contrary, Lhamon’s work defends many of this school’s arguments, albeit in a modern light.  Lhamon’s challenge is to pull this viewpoint off at a time when the prevalence of racist attitudes in blackface is a focus of artists and scholars alike. Lhamon deals with this by acknowledging the racist elements of blackface and going in two primary directions. First, he argues that blackface as a medium encouraged and reflected on inter-cultural interaction before it was converted into a form that focused on racist put-downs and the separation of the races. Second, he connects antebellum and post-emancipation interest in black culture to current interest in hip-hop, and sees early blackface performance as an act of lower class cultural rebellion.

One of the key elements of Lhamon’s argument is that blackface performance was an accurate representation (or appropriation) of elements of black culture at least to a certain extent. It is important for him to prove this fact because otherwise his general position that blackface minstrelsy had its origins as more of a celebration of black culture than an empty lampoon of it does not hold up. If he can prove that blackface minstrels represented black culture with a degree of reality a level of respect and even admiration is implied. His main vehicle for this is his analysis of dance moves. This is only somewhat successful because his knowledge of dance moves seems to come primarily from illustrations of minstrel performers on playbills advertising performance. Such evidence is simply not sufficient for convincing a reader of his argument.

The more successful arguments in favor of the ‘validity’ of blackface minstrel performance come from Lhamon’s use of the Catherine’s Market motif. Lhamon sets the tone of his book in the description of a cross-cultural New York City marketplace where slaves danced for the groups of consumers passing by. He sees minstrel performance as coming out of this cross-cultural environment. Through this and other images of antebellum northern city culture, he shows the reader that there was a lot more cross-cultural interaction than historians such as Eric Lott are ready to admit. This also connects minstrelsy to the genuine transfer of music and dance across the cultures, which puts it in the context of a “people’s culture” as opposed to a “cultural domination” (to use Eric Lott’s terms). In other words, it puts minstrelsy in the light of a culture mediated by the working class and therefore accurately reflecting their interests and anxieties (such as mixed feelings about race). This as opposed to a situation where blackface would be used to enforce racial anger (presumably instigated by the persons in whose interests such racial enmity is profitable).

Finally, Lhamon is interested in connecting both early black folk culture and blackface minstrelsy to modern black popular culture. As when he is attempting to prove the relative validity of minstrels’ imitations of black culture, dance ends up being the fodder for his argument. Once again, the analysis of dance poses is unsatisfying in its shakiness as an argument. The similarities in particular dance moves is a connection that seems stretched and probably coincidental.  The far more powerful argument in this case (similar to the one I outlined earlier) is the one he spends less time on. That is the symbolic connection of early blackface minstrelsy to modern hip-hop culture, namely the general concept of white interest in black culture, which in the case of blackface minstrelsy could be seen as a way for whites to “rebel” against the racist authoritarian ruling class by appreciating black culture.

This brings to light one of the most interesting elements of blackface performance: many of the blackface plays and songs tell stories of an underclass rebellion, such as a slave standing up against his master. The focus on this underclass rebellion reflects the interests of the white working class and their resentment for the upper class. Yet at the same time minstrel performers often defiantly strove to depict the slave as happy and content with his or her lot; in postbellum minstrel shows the sentimental character of the old “plantation negro” was an integral part of the show.

Lhamon’s use of dance-moves to express a connection between 19th century minstrel performance and late 20th century popular culture exposes a fundamental problem with his argument: his attempt to prove what is essentially an argument about the cultural uses and functions of blackface minstrelsy is mostly dealt with by addressing particulars in the substance of the minstrelsy itself.  It seems almost ridiculous to argue about similarities in terms of particulars because so few exist. Maybe there are a couple dance moves used in minstrel performance that are similar to hip-hop dancing. But hip hop musicians don’t play banjos and blackface performers did not rap. I am not saying however that parallels do not necessarily exist. The parallels exist if for no other reason than that both traditions are part of the same overarching tradition: American popular culture. The parallels exist because of a connection in the way the performances are perceived and “mediated” (Eric Lott’s term) by the public.

Another basic problem, especially concerning Lhamon’s attempt to prove that blackface minstrelsy was a way for the working class to appreciate African-American folk culture, is that he is never quite able to shake the overtly satirical (and demeaning) nature of blackface minstrelsy. This same problem is a characteristic in the other major work on blackface published in the late 1990’s, namely William J. Mahar’s Behind the Burnt Cork Mask, which I will now discuss.

William J. Mahar’s Behind the Burnt Cork Mask is primarily a reaction against the kind of racial psychology that took over the study of blackface with David Roediger and Eric Lott. Between the publication of Hans Nathan’s Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy in 1960 and Mahar’s book, the focus of most writing on blackface minstrelsy has been on its racial implications, culminating in Lott’s Love and Theft. Mahar’s book is a return to the focus on content prevalent in Nathan’s study, and is the most scholarly account yet.

Mahar’s focus on the content of minstrel performances is a refreshing change from the theoretical focus of earlier studies. With much of the writing done in the late 1980s and in the ‘90s, the writing is almost theoretical in its focus on trying to understand what the audience’s reaction to blackface was. Mahar’s research is thorough and acknowledges the areas in which there is a lack of evidence.

The disadvantage of Mahar’s focus on artistic, musical, and theatrical elements is that it goes too far in the direction of downplaying minstrelsy’s racial side. As I said earlier, even when focusing on the musical and theatrical elements of blackface minstrelsy, one cannot forget that one is discussing a form in which white people put burnt cork on their faces to imitate and ridicule black people. Mahar does not forget this element but he seems eager to get beyond it enough that at times one feels it is being downplayed.

One argument supported by Mahar (foreshadowed in Dan Emmett and The Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy) is that since many of the stereotypes portrayed in blackface minstrelsy existed in white culture too, this relieves the stereotypes of being racist. In other words, the stereotype of the black northern dandy is not unique because there also existed the equally mock-able stereotype of the white northern dandy. The problem with this line of reasoning is twofold: 1) the stereotypes of black culture that existed in minstrel performance exist in many other elements of American culture, specifically pertaining to blacks. 2) Those stereotypes have been deeply ingrained in our consciousness and survive to this day in popular culture as stereotypes specifically pertaining to black culture (Jim Crow, Aunt Jemima, Zip Coon, etc).

Mahar’s book does contain not only comprehensive but innovative research. The most important of these innovations is his discussion of the influence of the Italian opera. Mahar shows that many of the minstrel songs were also lampooning Italian opera performances (presumably ones that were currently showing in the city). Eventually, these songs took on a life of their own. His research about the Italian opera gives more evidence to the argument that blackface minstrel performance was closely connected to the consciousness of the working class because it is a lampooning of bourgeois culture.

The debate over the meaning and significance of blackface minstrelsy is still wide open. I have shown where it has gone in the past 10 years, where certain studies have been more successful than others in analyzing the forces were surrounding blackface minstrelsy during the antebellum and postbellum period, as well as the implications of such a unique period in American culture as it pertains to our culture today.  Eric Lott has brought to light the complexity of the issues involved when considering the implications of minstrelsy. W. T. Lhamon has argued strongly for the connection of blackface performance to the culture of the people. William Mahar has brought the focus of minstrelsy back to the study of the performances themselves. What is needed now is a study with the depth of Mahar, that acknowledges the complexity of the situation the way Lott did, but which approaches it with W. T. Lhamon’s eye on the effects of minstrelsy on current popular culture.