Every Time I Turn Around
Rite, Reversal, and the end of blackface minstrelsy
With white faces the whole affair would be intolerable. It is the ebony
that gives the due and needful character to the monstrosities, the breaches of
decorum, the exaggerations of feeling, and the "silly, sooth" character of the
whole implied drama.
-The London Illustrated News, on minstrelsy
About All This
IntroductionTo mention blackface minstrelsy is to evoke a
collective groan. Indeed, there are many Americans who have never heard of it.
Blackface performances may embarrass us today, but far from being an
aberration, minstrelsy is part of a huge complex of folk practices. The
minstrel show was a popular form of entertainment from the 1840s to the 1960s,
and forms of entertainment derived from it continue to the present. Here I
propose to examine the minstrel shows through literary and oral sources, and
to reimage them as rites of reversal similar to others in the
Origins of the Minstrel ShowThe minstrel show was the creation
of three men who performed on the ante-bellum Northern stage.
- The first was Tom Rice, whose blackface character "Jim Crow" made his
fortune. Rice would dance comically while singing "...weel about, and turn
jist so/ and ev'ry time I turn around I jump Jim Crow." Supposedly Rice
emulated the song and dance of a crippled black hostler, but the details of
the story vary.
- The second of these men was Dan Emmett. According to legend, three other
performers sat down one day to play: with Emmett fiddling, the other men
played the banjo, tambourine (or tambo), and bones. This foursome of
instruments was typical of African musicians performing in the South. The
four men then donned old clothes and blackened their faces to present the
first minstrel show.
- Later still, George Christy invented the "line", a semicircle of
performers in blackface in which 'end men' joked at the expense of a
"middleman". This practice remained unchanged from 1850 to 1961, the latest
minstrel show which I have been able to document.1 Christy called the white
middleman "Mr. Interlocutor" and the blackfaced endmen, "Mr. Tambo" and "Mr.
Bones", from their instruments.2
What Happened in a Minstrel Show
The show began with the company processing onto the stage singing and dancing. Mr. Interlocutor then
gave his famous command, "Gentlemen, Be Seated!". The "first part" of the show
was jokes between Mr. Interlocutor and the endmen, mixed with songs, dances,
skits and speeches imitating black oratory. The "second part" was often a
parody of high art such as a play by Shakespeare. The minstrel tunes were
presented as "Plantation Melodies", but were a mixture of songs by white and
black composers, such as Stephen Foster. Christy also originated the idea of a
parade before the show, usually in loud costumes rather than the rags Emmett
History of the Minstrel Shows 1843-1900Before the Civil War
minstrel shows gained world-wide popularity, with the American companies
performing in Europe and Japan. All levels of society attended: Thackeray and
Gladstone were two British fans of the minstrel shows, which also toured
Australia. Visitors to the US left accounts of the performances. Joseph Gungl,
a German traveler, saw early slapstick as the minstrels of one troupe began to
"fight" on-stage. As immigrants worried the people who shared the American
consensus, blackface Irishmen and even Chinese began to appear; these must
have appeared a little strange. Door prizes and familiar songs were staples;
the jokes changed from town to town, commenting on local issues. The shows
were popular in Ohio, where two black musicians claimed to have taught "Dixie"
to Dan Emmett.4 The music and humor of the blackface shows long outlived
them-their puns and chicken jokes filled jokebooks of my childhood. The soft
shoe, buck-and-wing, cakewalk, and clogging are all minstrel steps derived
ultimately from African dancing, while songs like "Bile'em Cabbage Down" and
"Dan Tucker" are still enjoyed.
Minstrel shows became part of circuses and fairs, and European-American
clowns took on minstrel characteristics which they still have. In 1865, the
first black minstrel troupe, the Georgia Minstrels, took the stage. Other art
forms began to emerge- in 1869 a mixed troupe of men and women originated
burlesque. The shows gave America entertainers: John Philip Sousa, George M.
Cohan, Jimmie Rogers, Minnie Pearl, Mickey Rooney, Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey,
Bessie Smith, Little Richard, Bert Williams, Buddy Hackett, Roy Acuff, Gene
Autry, Shirley Temple and Judy Garland performed in minstrel shows, as did
Charles Carroll and Freeman Gosden, the creators of Amos'n'Andy.
History of the Minstrel Shows 1900-1961By 1900 the genre was
suffering competition from vaudeville, movies and radio. By 1890 there were
only ten great companies remaining, some of which had abandoned blackface save
for the endmen. Old minstrel men blamed the desire for "girl shows" and turned
to whiteface performances, disguising their tunes as folk music or country
music and their jokes as vaudeville, while black musicians turned to ragtime
and jazz. But minstrelsy would not die: amateur groups staged minstrel shows
from Maryland to Texas for college fraternity carnivals and PTA fund raisers.
The minstrel style of joking between "Mr. Interlocutor" and the endmen became
the comic performances of Jack Benny, Tallulah Bankhead, Martin and Lewis, and
Finally in the 1960s, the civil rights movement forced the end of the
amateur minstrel show. Although examples of blackface clowning have taken
place since then, I have not been able to discover any authentic minstrel
I have recorded interviews from participants in the blackface minstrel
shows from 1928 to 1961. They express opinions on the shows, and remember
their participation. Whatever the reader's opinion of the minstrel shows,
their importance in American cultural history cannot be denied. In this paper
I present a comparison of the American minstrel tradition with similar forms
of entertainment in other places and times. I hope that the contrast is
Rites of ReversalThe minstrel show was the most popular
entertainment in America in the nineteenth century. But it was much more
than entertainment. It was a rite of reversal. In rites of
reversal, phenomena common to many cultures, the participants relieve
tension by pretending to be what they are not. Saturnalia, in which
slaves sat at the table while masters served, is an example. In the minstrel
show white becomes black. The power of the makeup to transform is
hard to explain.
Minstrel StereotypesMinstrels often took stage names, such as
Rastus or Hickory, reflecting the rustic, childlike nature many whites
attributed to blacks. They also assumed roles that persist to this day as
ways to describe and perceive.
Two of the most familiar were Scipio Africanus, Zip Coon for short,
and Jim Crow.
- Zip Coon was a dandy, his lapels wider than his shoulders, his coat
and hat wild parodies of fashion.
- Jim Crow was a field hand, hay in his hair and wearing shoes big as
boats, his slow drawl betraying his rural roots. These character types,
originating in ante-bellum comic songs, persisted in minstrel skits
until they were immortalized on radio as Amos 'n' Andy.6 Even now they
are with us, as Bart Bull observes: Jim Crow returned as Fats Domino,
and Zip as Michael Jackson. There were other characters as well.
- One is the cute pickaninny, first played by Joseph Jefferson to Tom Rice's Jim
Crow and reincarnated in our time by Gary Coleman and Tevin Campbell,
not to mention the young Michael Jackson.
- Another character was the Old Darky, mourning for the plantation and loyal to ' massa'.
Uncle Ned and Old Black Joe are examples, as are the
narrators of My Old Kentucky Home and Carry Me Back to Old
Virginia . The most popular plantation lament, surviving Civil War,
Reconstruction, and civil rights, is of course Dixie, the lament
of a dying slave for moonlight and magnolias.
- Mammy, a huge coal-black "woman", was the Old Darky's consort. Always ready
with food of some kind, she wore a headscarf and long skirt and had huge
eyes, lips, and mouth.
Blackface Clowns In HistoryThe origin of the white world's obsession
with black-faced clowns is lost. It is amusing that the first clown in
history, a pygmy at a Pharaoh's court, was black, but the connection between
him, the black-faced phallophoroi of Athens, and the comic slaves of Plautus
is impossible to trace. The word minstrel, from the French
menestrel, used as early as the fourteenth century, describes a
professional musician. Performances in blackface date from this early period.
Certainly groups sang and danced, as described in the Romance of the
Rose, but no single form seems to have been followed. The masque,
in which masked aristocrats entered a hall to enact a play with gambling and
dancing, was a stylized form of entertainment, but although Anne of Denmark,
wife of James I, wore blackface in one (as a "Moorish Lady"), they were not
comical. Blackface performers on the London and colonial stages of the
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were often comics, derived
ultimately from the servi of Plautus.
English Blackface ClownsCharles Dibden, the most famous actor who
specialized in these "Ethiopian Delineations", would dress in Georgian court
costume and sit at his harpsichord to regale the audience with jokes and
songs, lecturing comically on black customs. He played the slave "Mungo" in
the comic opera The Padlock, including a song and dance in character.
Dibden's son was the mentor of Joseph Grimaldi, a nineteenth-century clown who
originated the whiteface makeup and costume typical of European clowns. Note
that the fright wig, exaggerated lips and eyes, oversized clothing and props
of the American clown, props such a seltzer water, stuffed clubs, exploding
cigars, and whistles filled with soot, are not Grimaldi's. They belong to
Tambo and Bones. The English blackface comedian Charles Mathews came to
America in 1822 to perform and studied black life and customs. Like American
minstrels after him, Mathews claimed to have derived his music and dialect
from slaves. He even transcribed a stump speech at a prayer meeting.
Mummer's PlaysBut blackface reversals meant more than clowning in the
English world of the eighteenth century. No one knows where the mummers' plays
and Morris dances came from. In such plays there is a mishmash of characters
including "kings" and "saints", cross-dressing, and blackface roles; the faces
of Morris (or "Moorish") dancers were also blackened. The mummer's plays were
not for fun. Most were performed by poor men in the hungry time after
Christmas. The plow gangs of Sussex would demand money at the end of a play
performed the Monday after Christmas. If denied, they would plow the
offender's yard. The Derby Play of the Tup was performed for food and
beer by unemployed youths. This usage of blackface for political action
disguised as entertainment persisted in America when the descendants of these
men blackened their faces to protest taxes. One such protest has entered
American history as the Boston Tea Party. In gaudy outfits and blackface, the
"Calico Indians" of the Hudson Valley protested the rent system of New York in
1839-1845, often adding animal masks in a struggle called the Anti-Rent War. A
few dozen men seized tea on the eve of the Revolution; over ten thousand
joined the "Calico Indians", whose gowns often added sexual reversal to
racial. Blackface then had political and emotional connotations in English and
Anglo-American society that went far beyond the slave and the plantation. What
a white man's mouth could not say, perhaps the mouth of blackface could, and
the black faces said a lot more than jokes. More information about morris
dancing is available on the web, including information on several sides(dance
groups) in Canada, the UK, and the US.
For information on morris dances, click
here.A few of these sides also perform English folk plays. Contact
them for details.
There is no accurate information available on mummer's plays on the net.
The Guide to the Traditional Customs of Britain, reproduced below,
offers a few remaining plays.
ReversalsRacial and sexual reversal are powerful means of expression.
White minstrel troupes had to reassure their audience that underneath the
burnt cork they were white! (In small Scottish towns they were not believed
and had to remove the makeup publicly.) Posters showed the troupes both as
elegant whites and as grotesque Negroes with sloping foreheads and bulging
eyes. Even black minstrels wore blackface makeup on stage-they were not
minstrels without it. Reversal colors such songs as Old Dan Tucker: in
the original lyrics, Dan washes his face and combs his hair to change from
black to white. The minstrel shows originated in a milieu of racial and sexual
tension, and by diverting tension over roles available for both blacks and
women they helped make society laugh at its troubles. Jim Crow "weel'd
about/and turned just so" in more ways than one, it would seem.
Minstrel TransvestitesSexual reversal added to the charge of the
minstrel shows. As early as 1843, in Dan Emmet's troupe, a male comedian
donned blackface, a gown, and a black wig to originate the "wench" character.
During the singing of the love song Lucy Long, this apparition would cavort
about the stage, dancing and flirting with everyone. Later the blackface
transvestites would adopt one of two distinct roles: that of the coal-black
mammy, grotesquely disfigured and comically dressed in rags with huge feet,
and the lighter-skinned octoroon, or 'yellow gal'. The latter character was
portrayed as beautiful and desirable, and was the object of romantic songs.
The mania induced by such female impersonators as Francis Leon, or, as he
called himself, 'The Only Leon", can be compared to the popularity of RuPaul
and Boy George in our own time. Leon boasted that he did not wear "costumes";
his huge wardrobe was "genuine".
Here the bugbear of authenticity rears its head once more. When he appeared
as a lovely octoroon, the crowd went wild, and he was the highest paid
entertainer in America in 1883. No one but a white, after all, knew what it
was like to be a jolly Rastus; no one but a man knew how a woman ought to act.
In the age of George Eliots, Lucretia Motts, and Elizabeth Blackwells, Leon's
dreamy burlesque reassured men that their sexual prejudices were well
Hickory, with Mr. Interlocutor in foreground
These styles survived until the end of the genre. In 1954, a Petersburg minstrel show put on by an
all-female troupe for a PTA benefit featured "Hickory", a "yellow gal" in the
height of Fifties fashion. This lady (played by a woman) was surrounded by a
bevy of blackfaced mammies as she danced and sang. In similar vein, several of
my male informants had taken part in "womanless weddings", transvestite
affairs noted for singing and dancing! Another former participant told me that
she dressed as a man to sing Old Man River. In the 1950s Dick Reeves, a
gentleman of Charleston, would lecture on the Gullah language, pausing now
and then for jokes and songs, as Dibden had in the 1700s.
Authenticity and MeaningThe question of how authentic the minstrel
show was is really meaningless. Authenticity is an idea of limited value to
entertainers. Dan Emmett claimed to have listened to the songs of slaves, and
Tom Rice to have imitated the dances of a crippled black hostler named Jim
Cuff. In our own time a minstrel recalled to me that blacks she knew in the
1920s helped her assemble costume and coached her on dialect and behavior. Is
it a surprise that the English and Anglo-American workers who had thrilled to
the mummer's plays with their singing, dancing, cross-dressing and
blackface liked the minstrels? The most popular of the blackface
entertainments was the adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin: an antislavery tale, it met with few objections even from
the anti-theater religious right. A mixture of minstrel show, circus, and zoo,
with trained dogs, ponies, and even a crocodile, it remained the most commonly
performed play in America for a century. The moralizing of Harriet Beecher
Stowe's novel vanished. When taken to see it, Stowe was unable to follow the
plot. Companies failed when they hired professional actors as opposed to
minstrel hams. As Robert Toll has pointed out in his Blacking Up, the
minstrel show was born in the 1840s, a period of racial tension. It is
significant that its end came in the Sixties. But the minstrel shows of the
twentieth century preserved the old ways till the end.
Frank DavidsonIn 1950 Frank Davidson, a graduate student at New York
University, sent out a questionnaire to companies which published minstrel
material. Of the fourteen that replied, three no longer sold the material
owing to complaints. Eleven answered his questions, establishing that complete
minstrel-show scripts sold better than individual jokes and songs, that
minstrel material sold fairly well compared to other kinds of musical
material, and that high schools, men's and women's clubs, and "community,
business, and recreational groups" produced most shows. One publisher said
that the shows portrayed blacks in an unfair light, and were unpopular, but
nine denied this. Minstrel formats were on sale for men, women, mixed groups,
Army, and even Boy Scout troops. Davidson also tried to contact professional
minstrels in 1947, although he managed to find only nine. He asked them a
number of questions about the decline of the art: several believed that radio
and television had doomed the shows, but all agreed that first, the techniques
of presentation had not changed over the decades that they had performed(the
average respondent had been in minstrelsy for thirty years) and that second,
that the civil rights movement was not responsible for the decline. He also
asked about professional troupes ogram reinterpreted the classic Zip
Coon(Andy) and Jim Crow(Amos) roles as black migrants to the North. Carroll
and Gosden started their careers as blackface minstrels and played the
"Sam'n'Henry" characters(prototypes for Amos'n'Andy) in blackface on-stage.
Through trick lighting, they even switched from 'black' to 'white' instantly!
Successful for decades, the radio show even moved to TV, with black actors
playing the roles, and had millions of fans both black and white.
Letter-writing campaigns, organized by black church leaders, failed to halt
the show because so many fans were black.
Last Days of the Minstrel ShowsMy informants felt that the civil
rights movement did end the minstrel shows. Shows went on in the Fifties, in
locations as scattered as Seattle, Champaign, Illinois, and northern Florida.
However, rising consciousness among blacks, focused through the NAACP, began
to support protests. The earlier letter-writing against Amos n Andy had failed
largely because of the show's many black fans. The NAACP protested minstrel
shows in 1949 in Wilmington, Delaware(this one given by a Jewish Bnai Brith
group!), in Milwaukee in 1952, and in 1955 filed protests against the Lions
Club, recalled by many of my interviewees as a patron of minstrelsy. Minstrel
movies brought the "Christy Minstrels" to the screen. A catalog from Denison,
a minstrel supplier, featured scripts and music books and props such as
imitation diamond rings, dice and razor blades, white gloves and spats, wigs
for Uncle Tom and Topsy, even huge rubber hands and feet for endmen. A half
mask was described as suitable "for the colored chicken thief"!! There were
even the cans of "peanut brittle" with a spring-loaded snake within that we
now associate with joke shops, as well as the nose-and-glasses sets now
associated with Groucho Marx(and at the time called a "Jew Nose"). Scripts set
the minstrels in Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana,
Carolina, Kentucky, and Dixie. The company sold two shades of blackface
makeup-black for end men and "Superfine Creole" for the "yellow wench" roles.
What was obviously one of the last Tom shows was the recipient of more protest
in 1955 in Olympia, Washington. Featuring a grotesque Aunt Chloe in blackface,
this production sparked letters from angry blacks and from an unidentified
person who objected to the "anti-slavery" play. The protests after many years
had their desired effect, and the minstrel shows are gone forever. Buddy, one
of my informants, commented that laws banning them were unnecessary in view of
such vehement protests. "It may be tasteless, but it's not against the law",
he told me. The 1979 CBS recording Gentlemen, Be Seated is the last
attempt of which I am aware to amuse America with minstrelsy, and it is mostly
music, with a few jokes and no skits or speeches at all. Such matters as the
incident in which Ted Danson, the actor, wore blackface are really outside the
scope of this study. It is significant that performers such as Butch
Wunderlich and Michelle Shocked who perform minstrel favorites in our own time
try to educate their audiences about minstrelsy and blackface.
Mr. Interlocutor and Mr. Bones share a joke in a 50s minstrel show.
The minstrel chorus at the same show
The English television program The Black and White Minstrels
The Minstrel Presence TodayThe minstrel show, like the "haunts" of
black folklore, refuses to die. The author hears persistent reports of
minstrel shows performed in clown makeup, or isolated examples of blackface
clowning. The songs of the minstrel show are still favorites. The jokes traded by endmen reverberated
through jokebooks even as comic animals (Daffy Duck is a perfect example) mug
and mime with black face, staring eyes, big lips or beak, and big feet.
The early Warner Brothers cartoons in fact were so racist that they were
withdrawn over massive NAACP protests, the same protests that cut blackface
scenes from TV showings of such films as Babes in Arms and Holiday
Inn. The makeup and fright wigs of Uncle Tom's Cabin return on
cereal boxes, while the minstrel-show plantation is reborn as the hood of rap
videos. The setting is different, but the effect is the same: a black culture
marketed for white profit, with black performers tagging along for what they
can get. Once again performers claim that they represent black America
authentically, while protests decry the caricature.
As Bart Bull points out in his Does this Road go to Little Rock?,
even the Bugs Bunny cartoon program is a minstrel show complete with striped clothes and straw hats. His wife,
Michelle Shocked, has put out an album of minstrel favorites with old and new
lyrics, titled Arkansas Traveller. It would seem that as much as American
society has 'weel'd around and turned jist so', still every time we turn
around we see Jim Crow.