Minstrel shows developed in the 1840s and continued to gain in popularity throughout the nineteenth century. These stage shows often featured white men, who blackened their faces with burnt cork and other compounds, lampooning African Americans. The shows were popular with both white and African American audiences. Despite the stereotypical nature of these shows, in many cases it was the first opportunity for African Americans to perform professionally. The African Americans who were a part of such shows often also appeared in blackface, to ensure that all actors were “black” enough.
Blackface and minstrelsy are not synonymous. There is a history of white actors appearing in blackface decades earlier than the first minstrel shows. About 1830 Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice performed the song “Jump Jim Crow,” and created a national phenomenon. Jim Crow became a standard character in minstrel shows, and a term for the legalized oppression of African Americans in years between Reconstruction and the civil rights movement.
Minstrel shows, through plays, jokes, and musical numbers including songs and dances, relied on the exploitation of African American stereotypes and presented racist images of black people as unintelligent, as well as displaying a sentimental view of the world of plantation slavery. This poster for Oliver Scott's Refined Negro Minstrels depicts many of the stereotypes that were standards for the minstrel shows, including Toms, Mammies, Coons, and Pickaninnies, all of which portrayed African Americans as comic sources of amusement. For generations these remained the standard stereotypes of African Americans in film, radio, and television.
The most prominent character in the poster is the Tom, a socially acceptable, nonthreatening African American man who gets chased, harassed, enslaved, and insulted but retains good will towards his white masters. Toms remain submissive, generous, and kind throughout hardship, sometimes emerging as a hero of sort to white audiences. Another male stereotypical character is the Coon, who lacks the admirable traits highlighted in the Tom caricature, and instead is shown as lazy, childlike, and discontented, often engaging in frivolous or negative behavior like chicken-stealing and speaking poor English. Shown on this poster as an urban Dandy, Coon characters often adopt gaudy dress and "put on airs." Similarly, another male character, the Sambo, remains childlike, but is a contented servant figure.
African American women and children are caricatured as well. A female caricature, the Mammy, shows black women as loud, dominating, and unattractive, but still as completely loyal servants. The Pickaninny caricature depicts a negative image of African American children, characterized by protruding eyes, untamed hair that stands on end, and wild, mischievous behavior. All of these racist stereotypes characterized African Americans as docile and either complacent with or nonthreatening to the racial caste system that existed in America during that time.
In the 1890s, Oliver Scott purchased a minstrel troupe and renamed it Oliver Scott's Refined Negro Minstrels. The group disbanded in December 1904 after Scott boarded a train during a performance, leaving twenty-two performers stranded without pay in Middlesboro, Kentucky.
1. What were minstrel shows?
2. What were the important elements of the standard minstrel show?
1. Why is it important to study minstrel shows and the African American stereotypes they propagated? Are these stereotypes still with us today? What other stereotypes are dominant in our culture?
Sampson, Henry T. The Ghost Walks: A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Business, 1865–1910. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1988.
Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2004.
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.