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Part II: A Brief History of Blackface Minstrel Shows

Content Warning: This post contains graphic and unsettling language regarding race, racism, slurs, and socioeconomic class.




Since my last post on blackface in burlesque, I've taken part in many conversations (both public and private) on the subject. Thankfully, all have been friendly and understanding. While most share my disdain, others are much more light-hearted about it and don't understand why darkening skin and using kinky afro wigs for performances is so offensive.


This is obviously still a controversial subject. There's a new wave of blackface gaining popularity. Please don't misunderstand: this subject is very painful for me as a black woman, and I do not enjoy discussing blackface and I hardly enjoyed researching its origins. But I made a promise to dig deeper into the themes of race and class within burlesque, and I will not shy away from it because that's how things end up buried under the rug. (Also, scholarly pursuit actually does wonders to calm my inner rage at societal wrongs.)


After I finished my finals last week, I dove into research on the use of blackface throughout burlesque history. I wanted to share with you all what I've found so far. This may provide a helpful and historical context to frame discussions about blackface in burlesque for those that are interested in constructive dialogue and truly learning its ugly history. It may also shed some light on why we know with historical accuracy that blackface is inherently a form of oppression against black people.


The Beginnings: Blackface Minstrel Shows

There is evidence that slave captains forced cargos of black laborers to dance and sing on their way to America from Africa. Historian Newman White also discovered substantial evidence that black plantation overseers received special favors from white owners when they encouraged slaves to sing as they work. The best singers and dancers were invited to perform in plantation mansions, and these entertainer-slaves were models for the first blackface performances in America. (Davidson, 1952)


Blackface can be traced definitively back to Pittsburgh at Griffith's Hotel on Wood Street in 1830, and it started off with white working-class commodification of black bodies. Although there were more than likely people performing in blackface much sooner to less fanfare, a white man named T.D. Rice, also known as "Jim Crow Rice" or "Daddy Rice," made it famous by emulating an elderly black man he knew named Cuff. Rice brought Cuff to the venue and stole the black man's clothing before his first performance, leaving Cuff naked in the wings (much to the audience's delight).


Check out this rowdy snippet of a re-telling from an 1867 edition of Atlantic Monthly:

After a minute or two of fidgety waiting for [Rice's] song to end, Cuff's patience could endure no longer, and, cautiously hazarding a glimpse of his profile beyond the edge of the flat, he called in a hurried whisper: "Massa Rice, Massa Rice, must have my clo'se! Massa Griffif wants me,-steamboat's comin'!" The appeal was fruitless. Massa Rice did not hear it, for a happy hit at an unpopular city functionary had set the audience in a roar in which all other sounds were lost.... [Another appeal went unheeded, when,] driven to desperation, and forgetful in the emer- gency of every sense of propriety, Cuff, in ludicrous undress as he was, started from his place, rushed upon the stage, and, laying his hand upon the performer's shoulder, called out excitedly: "Massa Rice, Massa Rice, gi' me n*'s hat,-n*'s coat,-n*'s shoes,- gi' me n*'s t'ings! Massa Griffif wants 'im,-STEAMBOAT'S COMIN'!!" The incident was the touch, in the mirthful experience of that night, that passed endurance. (609-10)

As told in the slightly questionable snippet above, the roots of popular blackface are deeply embedded in the direct humiliation of black people. In fact, blackface without the subsequent humiliation of black people, may not have even become famous (hence the author's final note that that blackface itself "was the touch[...] that passed endurance."). Our humiliation was quite integral to the humor of it all. Historian Eric Lott actually refers to this scene as the first use of "racial burlesque" as a minstrel device (25).


Legal scholar Kelly Kleiman also noted that, at the time, "analyses of blackface minstrelsy - even those that conceded its racism - concentrated on the meaning of the performance to the performers and the audience, ignoring or discounting its meaning to, and impact on, the people being portrayed."


If this line of thinking sounds familiar, it's because many burlesque audiences still view blackface in this sanitized manner. When speaking with someone about the blackface I saw online occurring at a major festival, a fellow performer remarked, "She obviously didn't mean any harm! She looks great - maybe she meant it as a compliment." This is a great example of "ignoring or discounting" the true meaning of blackface, and focusing instead on the overall "effect" as an audience member of seeing a "black" woman perform onstage. For some, it wasn't offensive because the performer in question technically wasn't doing anything offensive -- her skin was 'simply' much darker, and her hair was 'simply' just kinkier. To some who don't understand the offense, blackface is as 'simple' as costume design. As a black person, it's not simple to view such performances through this lens.


Black Folks in Blackface

It's no secret that many black performers in those days also performed in blackface. This is often brought up as an argument in favor of the virtue of blackface. However, note this tidbit from historian Sterling A. Brown in Contributions of the American Negro:

It should always be remembered that black-face minstrelsy was composed by white men, performed by white men, for the approval of white audiences. More than burnt cork and grease and huge red lips were necessary to make it Negro. Indeed, Negro performers were not acceptable in minstrelsy until after the Civil War. Even then, strangely enough, Negroes had to make use of the exaggerated make-up. They were not entertaining, otherwise.

When audiences are confronted with a white performer donning notably darker skin and afro hair, it's a signal that we cannot be in on the joke, because we are the joke.


When black performers wore blackface, this was more than likely mandated by by producers or done in order to break into venues that otherwise may not have booked them. It was done out of necessity. Black minstrel companies copied successful white companies in order to carve out a living, but blackface was never favored by black audiences (Brown, 1945).


Many black entertainers also found a home in the circus, but many were only allowed to perform in blackface. (Davidson, 1952, 54)


Modern Blackface

It's actually not surprising that blackface is still prevalent today in burlesque. It is known, after all, as "America's only form of indigenous drama," after all (Davidson, 1952, 1).


Ironically enough, blackface in minstrel and vaudeville shows actually helped white people at the time break down their own prejudices, and without the influence of black people in blackface, American folk music may have never developed (Davidson, 1952, 211). With this in mind, I'm guessing many producers decided to keep blackface in action.


In his article, Davidson noted that many minstrel show producers in the early 1950s still practiced blackface because the audience didn't seem to mind that black people were being presented in a negative light. The producers surveyed also shied away from the concept of "whiteface".


Davidson proffers this as an explanation for the decline of the minstrel show:

Critics have argued that the decline was due to the failure to represent the Negro accurately on the stage; but it seems more plausible that part of the minstrels popularity was due to the insistence of the public on the exaggeration and distortion. By the time the untrue nature of the caricature was understood, the minstrel show had already declined.

Also, the rise of burlesque itself -specifically, "dancing girls" - took over the minstrel and vaudeville shows.


If anything, the use of blackface in modern entertainment is confusing at least, and incredibly troubling at worst. The New York Times article "Why Won't Blackface Go Away?", released in February 2019, may provide some modern context as to the psychological and societal implications of performing in blackface for modern audiences. There's also this 21st Century Burlesque article written in 2016 that may offer some guidance.


Unfortunately, I'll probably have to keep writing about this. I'll keep y'all posted.

References


Sterling A. Brown, "Contributions of the American Negro, Chapter XXXIII," One America: The History, Contributions, and Present Problems of Our Racial and National Minorities (1945): 606.


Frank Costello Davidson, "The Rise, Development, Decline, and Influence of the American Minstrel Show (1952).


Kelly Kleiman, "Drag=Blackface," Chicago-Kent Law Review 669 (2000): 669-70.


Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).


Robert P. Nevin, "Stephen C. Foster and Negro Minstrelsy," Atlantic Monthly 20, no. 121 (1867): 608-16.


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