USF Library Exhibit on Blackface Minstrelsy Black History Month


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Pat Young

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Minstrelsy began in the North, but quickly became a popular comedic form. From the exhibit:

Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice developed the first popularly known blackface minstrel character (called “Jim Crow”) in 1830 and became the “Father of Minstrelsy.”

Born in New York in 1808, Rice became a traveling actor in the 1820s, performing all over the country. Standing over six feet tall with a wiry build, he was a gifted dancer and actor. Through his experiences growing up in an integrated northern neighborhood and as an actor touring the South, he had an opportunity to observe African American speech, song and dance over the years and used his observations, along with humor and exaggeration, to develop his first black stage character, “Jim Crow.” Wearing tattered clothing and a burnt-cork blackface mask, Rice accompanied his new song with an explosive dance that he claimed to have learned from an African American slave.

Like his music, Rice’s dance derived from Irish and African American styles, but for most Northern audiences, the combination was altogether new. While his jig-like footwork marked the rhythm, his arms and hands followed the melody. As the extremely exaggerated and stereotypical black buffoon “Jim Crow,” Rice’s stunning dance moves and witty irreverence quickly inspired a new genre of racialized song and dance: minstrelsy, America’s first unique artistic genre.
 

Pat Young

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Blackface provided white performers a mask behind which they could deliver a populist critique:

Blackface allowed actors and artists to hide behind a caricature while protesting and mocking the powerful without fear of retaliation. Minstrel performers could safely question authority while claiming to be acting out authentic African American expressions.

Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice supposedly lifted his solo act from firsthand observations of African American song and dance. According to Finson, Rice “was less concerned with authenticity than with assuming the mask of the folkloric. The exaggerated features of his disguise bear all the marks of a counterculture: he is not only poor, but his extremities and facial features protrude in ungainly ways meant to confront the smooth regularity of idealized gentility.” Some white performers augmented their noses and other features when performing to look more stereotypically “black.”


While pre-Civil War blackface was deeply racist, it could also offer a critique of slavery. In one of Rice's shows, the slaveowner went to hell and was condemned to perform the tasks that he had force blacks to carry out.
 

zburkett

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Pat, I can't tell you how much I appreciate your post. Yesterday, after taking a young friend to an exhibit of Black Horseracing at Montpelier, she asked what "Jim Crow" was and where it came from. I could tell her what it was but had no idea where it came from. Now I can tell her. Thank you.
 

Joshism

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I've been surprised by research in my local newspaper and seeing periodic mention of ministrel shows, sometimes by school groups, in my small town well into the 20th century. It makes me suspect blackface was far more common that we might imagine today. Then again, it lent itself to an entire era (Jim Crow) so maybe we shouldn't be surprised.
 

zburkett

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I remember seeing a "medicine show" that came through my small home in either the late 40s or early 50s that included a Black Face Minstrel show. It wasn't funny then, either.
 
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Pat Young

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Pat, I can't tell you how much I appreciate your post. Yesterday, after taking a young friend to an exhibit of Black Horseracing at Montpelier, she asked what "Jim Crow" was and where it came from. I could tell her what it was but had no idea where it came from. Now I can tell her. Thank you.
Glad it was helpful.
 

Pat Young

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Pat, I can't tell you how much I appreciate your post. Yesterday, after taking a young friend to an exhibit of Black Horseracing at Montpelier, she asked what "Jim Crow" was and where it came from. I could tell her what it was but had no idea where it came from. Now I can tell her. Thank you.
Glad it was useful.
 

Pat Young

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I've been surprised by research in my local newspaper and seeing periodic mention of ministrel shows, sometimes by school groups, in my small town well into the 20th century. It makes me suspect blackface was far more common that we might imagine today. Then again, it lent itself to an entire era (Jim Crow) so maybe we shouldn't be surprised.
At least until the 1920s minstrel shows were still "a thing" in the Midwest as well as in the South. And, as the Jazz Singer demonstrated, even as national audience could go to watch a blackface movie.
 

Pat Young

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Here is a Hollywood depiction of a Civil War Era minstrel show in blackface at a theater in Chicago. Not only was this racist depiction not controversial among many whites in the 1850s, it was able to be depicted in a nationally distributed movie nine decades later.

 

WJC

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***Posted as Moderator***
Please limit posts to discussing nineteenth-century minstrel shows. Some extension into the EARLY 20th-century will also be allowed so long as it does not enter into modern social or political issues.
 



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