Ridicule and Wonder: The Beginnings of Minstrelsy and New York

Article excerpt

If they imitate they should imitate, not any meanness or baseness, but the good only; for the mask which the actor wears is apt to become his face. --Plato, The Republic 

Blackface minstrel plays were a cultural phenomenon that became one of the most popular forms of entertainment by the Civil War in 1861 As theatrical productions in which white men caricatured blacks for sport and profit by painting their faces black using a burnt cork paste, minstrelsy held obvious racial implications. Principally found in the urban North in the early nineteenth century, these plays were the space for more than just the blackface performers themselves; they were the stage to a collision of culture and race, class and gender that helped create the definition of a new American identity.

The study of minstrelsy therefore treads upon the uncomfortable territory of racial conflict. The inherent discomfort of this topic has been ubiquitous in our society for years, a paradigm of which perhaps minstrelsy itself is a root. Developed during a tumultuous time in our nation's history, minstrelsy was elemental in shaping the American perception of black culture, and the burnt cork black on a white face was an ominous foreshadow of the residue of blackness to be left on the newly created white culture. However, we must not be satisfied to merely condemn the inherent evils of minstrelsy and move on, for its legacy is all around us, imbedded in our culture. From TV shows to Hollywood movies, cartoons to comedies sketches, popular music to the jargon and dress of what is known as American culture, minstrelsy fomented a process that still affects our society today. The setting is different--the idyllic plantation exchanged for the mean streets of urban America--but the process of black culture being marketed for white profit is the same. We must revisit these plays and their audience and find how it all began. To find the social origins and psychological motives behind these plays, we must take inventory of their cultural effects, tracing the change back to the source in the nineteenth century United States.

The minstrel show began in an environment that was struggling to find identity. The antebellum North was deeply engaged in urbanization, industrialization, minstrel show. The wars abroad were over, but the wars at home were only about to begin, on and off the battlefields of Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Antietam. At a time in which the United States was arguably at its weakest, masses of working-class, white Americans of diverse descent flocked to the minstrel stage and helped popularize a new cultural identity. The minstrel depiction of blacks created a perception of black identity based on how the white actors presented it, and the white audience embraced the production with cheers and applause.

A difficult, yet irrevocable truth is that blackface minstrelsy's audience was not motivated solely by racial prejudice and slander. There were contradictory impulses at work. Condescending racism combined with potentially positive elements of what was portrayed as black culture to create "cultural theft"--a concept that carries the connotations of envy as opposed to hatred.

In his masterpiece on minstrelsy, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993), author Eric Lott describes this phenomenon, holding that "the blackface performance ... was based on small but significant crimes against settled ideas of racial demarcation, which indeed appear to be inevitable when white Americans enter the haunted realm of racial fantasy." (2) Although the study of minstrelsy is not uniform, there tends to be two broad views on blackface: the populist and revisionist views. (3)

The revisionist view is the more controversial in that it does not align nicely with the immediate negative impression of minstrelsy and requires a certain objective detachment from minstrelsy's inherent inequalities. …