Minstrelsy and Performing as "Other"

cropped Murray costume.JPG

Minstrel Costume, c.1912

Beginning in the 1830s, white musicians began performing minstrel acts wearing black face make up. The primary function of blackface was meant not only to mock African Americans, but also to serve as a “mask” which performers could hide behind while mocking the socially powerful. In addition to applying black face makeup, blackface minstrelsy involved wearing wigs and eccentric costumes. According to music scholar Jon W. Finson, early minstrelsy had three primary characteristics. 

Most minstrel performers were white and came from lower class backgrounds. Blackface allowed these performers to safely question authority while proclaiming to be acting as an African American. A minstrel performance usually began with joking banter and quips, eventually giving way to singing and dancing. While minstrel groups would play instruments, it was common for solo performers to simply sing and dance.

By the end of the 19th century, minstrels were absorbed as part of larger vaudeville performances. By the 1890s African American artists, who had limited professional opportunities, also performed in minstrel acts. In order to fulfill the expectations of their white audience, Black artists also had to blacken their faces, however, they sought to counter many of the negative stereotypes of Black identity portrayed by white performers. By 1900, African American musicians and performers moved beyond minstrelsy and made many artistic innovations, starting with ragtime. Scholars Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff note,

 “Ragtime released a pent-up reservoir of modernism in African American culture, providing the antidote to ‘Ethiopian minstrelsy,’ which had stifled the development of race entertainment for most of the nineteenth century. Just as the century drew to a close, the lid blew off, unleashing a torrent of creativity that swept thousands of black writers, performers, musicians, and entrepreneurs into the professional ranks.”

Scott Joplin, perhaps the most successful ragtime composer, published the “Maple Leaf Rag,” the first piece of sheet music to sell more than 1 million copies.

Blackface performance and minstrelsy is a disturbing and difficult topic. We encourage you to visit these sources to learn more about the history and long-term implications of this practice. 

"Blackface: The Birth of an American Stereotype" by The National Museum of African American History and Culture at The Smithsonian. 

"History of Minstrelsy: From "Jump Jim Crow" to "The Jazz Singer" by The University of South Florida Libraries Special Collections. 

Minstrelsy and Performing as "Other"