Faults and Merits
by Tess Lantos
In the book Blacking Up, Robert Toll describes minstrelsy as a way in which people could experience and come to terms with social issues of the time. His thesis assumes that the common depiction of blacks as the fool was a way for whites to come to terms with their own place and position in society. While most minstrel shows reinforce this idea, black minstrelsy (shows written and performed by black people) offers a different lens to view the time. If this was truly a movement by and for whites, it is unclear why black minstrels entered the scene at all. A couple of things propelled blacks to enter the minstrel scene. First, while black minstrelsy clearly had to fit the mold that whites had set, they used subtle, more subversive scripts and lyrics to challenge the status quo of white minstrel shows and culture. Racism was an accepted ideology and even the subtle criticisms that blacks were able to make were impressive in the middle 19th century. Second, there was a demand for the genuine quality that black minstrels could offer. Eventually black music and culture profoundly influenced minstrel performances and made the shows a black cultural expression. Finally, being a minstrel and in show business offered better living conditions than most other options for free blacks at that time.
Robert Toll explains that minstrelsy arose because of whites' need to explore the changing social environment that they lived in. "Precisely because people could always just laugh off the performance, because viewers did not have to take the show seriously, minstrelsy served as a ‘safe' vehicle through which its primarily Northern, urban audiences could work out their feelings about even the most sensitive and volatile issues" (Toll, p. 65). Because the blackface meant the character was a "fool", he was allowed to talk about things more openly than ordinary people. They were silly and foolish which allowed their message to be ignored if necessary, but it also gave them a voice to say it in the first place. "Set apart from society, believed to be mentally inferior and immature, black characters could express serious criticisms with out compelling the listener to take them seriously" (Toll, p. 160). Furthermore, when times changed, the content of minstrelsy followed. While blacks were always the fools in minstrel shows, before the Civil War, the content of the show allowed for some dialogue about the value of slavery. Once the war broke out, the depictions of blacks became almost entirely happy, plantation scenes that did not exacerbate the tension that already existed at the time. For example, in the skit "Old Pompey", a sad, lonely ex-slave meets a young girl who used to be on the plantation with him. He sings a song about the loneliness of life and his longing for the system of the past. The critical voice that existed before the Civil War was lost to simplistic celebration because of the fear of controversy at the time.
Gary Engle, in the introduction to This Grotesque Essence: Plays from the American Minstrel Stage, offers another theory to understand why minstrelsy became so successful. The 19th century was a critical period in American identity formation. Many Americans came from Europe and a system in which class distinctions were heavily enforced. In America, democratic philosophy created a meritocratic system that embraced social mobility. It was never clear exactly where one stood in the social spectrum. Add to this uncertainty the tension over African slaves as well as the increasing numbers of European immigrants who challenged the already fluid social dynamics. This pressure to define one's place in society made minstrel shows even more appealing because they clearly labeled black people or immigrants in the lower, inferior positions that calmed white northerners. For example, on the cover of The Dutch, Negro, Irish and Yankee Sketchbook (New York Popular Publishing Co.), the caricatures of the immigrants' faces illustrate the differentiation that was made between American's and others. "From the outset, minstrelsy unequivocally branded Negroes as inferiors. Although it offered its audiences no heroic white characters, it provided even more certain assurance of white common people's identity by emphasizing Negroes' ‘peculiarities' and inferiority" (Toll, p. 67). While much of minstrelsy' content is now scene as purely racist, looking at the way the people did fight through these feelings can be interesting if not quite reassuring. People were living in a period of significant change, most affected by industrialization and urbanization. They were deeply concerned about the survival of the family and way of life that was endangered by modernization. Often, the defenders of slavery offered the most reassuring descriptions of the family; this calmed people's fears enough to forget about the morality of slavery. They were torn between their beliefs and their fears; minstrelsies content expresses strong negative feelings towards the brutality and violence of slavery while simultaneously embracing the images of happy plantation slaves.
While white minstrel shows can be explained and understood, it soon followed that black people bought into this performance and created their own shows. Toll's thesis explains minstrelsy as primarily undertaken by and performed for white common people. But history tells us that black people soon created their own profitable touring companies. Black minstrel Troupes first appeared in the 1850's but it was not until after the Civil War that blacks had established themselves in minstrelsy. Pretty soon, black minstrels began to carve their own niche in the show business scene of the time. Yet, the question remains why blacks embraced minstrelsy despite its content being fundamentally derogatory towards blacks.
While black minstrels did have to remain true to the general form of white minstrel shows that existed by this time, looking at the songs and the scripts from shows written and performed by black people suggest that shows put up by black performers managed to add a new dimension that did not exist before this. The form of minstrel shows was traditionally a three-part show. The first part was the Minstrel Line in which all the performers sat in the traditional semi-circle and the black-faced host stood in the middle. The second act was the Olio, the musical performance, which was often performed without make-up. Finally the show ended with a one-act musical that always embraced the ‘foolish' black characters and told stories with the most famous minstrel characters. The semi-circle arrangement and a lot of the music used in these acts were influenced by traditional black art forms. The fact that it was one of the two main structures for both white and black minstrelsy shows the give and take that occurred between the two cultures. There are countless minstrel scripts written and performed by white troupes that represent blacks that way that history remembers, where the black characters play fools, morons, or characters with a lack of morals. Black scripts fell into this pattern, but the black characters often have a more interesting edge to them.
In all of the minstrel scenes, blacks are mischievous and silly to get laughs, but in the white minstrel scenes the black characters, if not foolish, are mean and independent-minded. For example, in "Helen's Funny Babies", two young boys, Buddle and Toddle, are both working to outsmart Harry, an adult figure. Yet, in all of their efforts to outsmart Harry, they are pitted against each other. While it is true that they are very mischievous, there is no sense of relationship or camaraderie between the two boys; rather they just have an instinct to get ahead. Again, in the skit, "Deaf as a Post" (Dramatic Publishing Co.) two black men try to outsmart the other. One is a music teacher who had offended the other earlier that day. In order to seek revenge, the student pretends to be deaf to make the teacher behave in stupid ways. In the end, both men behave very badly towards each other.
Yet in the scripts written and performed by black men, the men often team up with one another to try to outsmart or outplay the white men. While the skit usually resorts to silly antics and stunts, the fact that the black characters come off with some measure of success contrasts with the typical depiction of the fool. It is also important to recognize that racism was an accepted ideology of the time and that even small liberties show the voice that these performers were able to have. In the show "Chops: An Ethiopian Farce" (Ames Publishing Co.), Chops is left to feed and take care of his master's guest. Strikingly, this skit opens with a comment about Abraham Lincoln and his attempts to free slaves. "Abeum Lincoln says he's a gwine t/ Free all de niggers in de war/ Old massa Johnsons say he's a mind/ See how Abeum do dat" (p. 3) This material includes the social questioning that minstrelsy delicately embraced. The scene continues with Chops continually teasing and outsmarting Cornwell, the guest. Chops keeps giving him bad food and drinking his wine when he looks in the other direction. Also, he continually pokes fun at his very English sounding name, another way of distinguishing what it means to be an American. In the play "Handy Andy" (School Publishing Co.) the relationship between servant and master is again explored. The show begins with Andy telling his master that he is going to leave him for a better paying job. While Andy never does leave, his independence and ability to reason is shown through his skills of outsmarting his master. Andy is clearly the one setting the rules in the relationship. The play continues with the master continually asking Andy for help, only to be mocked and made fun of by Andy's teasing.
Another reason that black people entered the minstrel scene was that the art form borrowed and celebrated a lot of traditional African music and dance. While minstrelsy was ultimately a compilation of black and European forms, black, especially spiritual, music heavily influenced the content of the shows. Furthermore, the music that came about during the minstrel period has influenced entire movements of music during the next century. Especially in the later years, as Toll describes, black performers took on the role of genuine or ‘plantation' slaves, which really gave them the opportunity to embrace their own culture to perform. Much of the music that was introduced came under the assumption that genuine blacks could perform this way better than whites; this claim opened the door for blacks to legitimize new material. While much of their material was influenced by the heavily racist precedent that had been set, this ‘legitimacy' gave them a chance to excel in ways that had not been seen before. "In fact, although with in a heavily stereotyped framework, black minstrels clearly demonstrated the diverse talents of black people. In the nineteenth century, minstrelsy was their only chance to make a regular living as entertainers, musicians, actors or composers" (Toll, p. 214). Ultimately, the music that emerged in minstrel shows has contributed enormously to many subsequent musical genres.
Finally, black minstrelsy was one of the most profitable ways for free blacks to live at this time. During reconstruction and even more as Jim Crow developed, there were very few professions available to freed slaves. While it is clear that being a black performer was very different from the lifestyle of whites, it did offer them new opportunities that were hard to find elsewhere. "Financially, black minstrels seem to have fared worse that whites, but they were in a better position than most Negroes" (Toll, p. 223). Traveling around the country and staying in different hotels offered blacks both many opportunities and many hardships. They were forced to deal with racism and discrimination at their venues and in boarding houses, but were able to escape the sharecropping system. Therefore, while many people can not understand why blacks were willing to enter the minstrel scene, it is important to underscore the financial difficulties of the time and the economic incentives that they were faced with.
Ultimately, understanding minstrelsy changes with whichever lens you choose to look through. Furthermore, the original documents hardly make the answer any clearer. Just as with second-hand descriptions, the scripts of the shows can be taken to mean so many different things. It is possible to explain the entire art form as a representation of how pervasive racism was in 19th century America, especially as slavery was tearing the country apart. Yet, because of the multi-layered depictions of blacks and slaves as well as the interest that black performers got, there is a lot of evidence that America was grappling with more nuanced emotions than hatred. The artificial distinction between whites and blacks in the shows allowed the characters to talk about things that were generally discouraged. While the surface layer is obviously racist, the dialogue introduced many controversial ideas that did not exist other places. Ex-slaves could reminisce about a simpler time, while simultaneously criticizing the system; this voice was rarely tolerated elsewhere. Minstrelsy can never be excused for the fundamentally racist and stereotypical content that it embraced, yet to ignore its complexity simplifies the entire historical period. Finally, with both faults and merits, America's celebration of so much of the culture that stemmed from the "fools" of the shows left a strong legacy regardless of why and how minstrelsy came about.
Written in partial fulfillment of requirements for AC 161.02: American Popular Culture (Professor Susan Smulyan -- Spring 2004)