Minstrel shows emerged in the 1840s as the first indigenous form of American musical theater. Their tremendous popularity reinforced negative stereotypes of African Americans while also utilizing African American musical sources. Minstrel performers drew on African musical precedents and European reels, jigs, and airs. Beginning in the 1830s white minstrels such as the internationally famous Joel Walker Sweeney, of Appomattox County, Virginia, borrowed freely from the music of enslaved plantation bands, popularizing the banjo, an instrument rooted in Africa. Minstrel shows integrated comedy, music, and dialogue into a wildly popular format. Unfortunately, the fully developed minstrel show also put forward demeaning stereotypes of African Americans through characters such as Zip Coon, a gaudily dressed, lazy man from the city, and Jim Crow, a dull-witted and subservient plantation slave.
Early groups such as the Virginia Serenaders donned blackface for their performances, playing to sold-out audiences across America. Minstrelsy's distorted stereotypes of blacks influenced later generations of white and black artists in vaudeville, on the traveling stage, and in medicine and tent shows. Well-known American tunes such as “Turkey in the Straw” originated in the minstrel show.
1. What are the origins of the minstrel show?
2. What is a caricature? How does it relate to a stereotype?
3. What are some of the different caricatures featuring African Americans that became a part of American popular culture?
1. What is the relationship between a caricature, a stereotype, and social behavior? How do racist images fuel discrimination? Do you believe that the legacy of stereotypes made it more difficult to end legal discrimination in the twentieth century? Why or why not?
2. Are there contemporary examples of the use of caricatures and stereotypes?
Users of this broadside should be aware that some of the language on the page might be offensive to modern readers.
Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Carlin, Bob. The Birth of the Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney and Early Minstrelsy.
Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2007.
Bean, Annemarie, et al., eds. Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century
Blackface Minstrelsy. Hanover, N.H.: Weslyan University Press, 1996.
Cockrell, Dale. Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World.
Cambridge Studies in America Theatre and Drama, No 8, 1997.