Every Time I Turn Around

Rite, Reversal, and the end of blackface minstrelsy

Jim Comer


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

Introduction

To 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 European-American world.

Origins of the Minstrel Show

The minstrel show was the creation of three men who performed on the ante-bellum Northern stage.

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 wore.2

History of the Minstrel Shows 1843-1900

Before 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 1900-1961

By 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 many more.

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 shows.

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 instructive.

Rites of Reversal

The 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 Stereotypes

Minstrels 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.


Blackface Clowns In History

The 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 Clowns

Charles 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 Plays

But 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.

Reversals

Racial 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 Transvestites

Sexual 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 grounded.7

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 Meaning

The 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 Davidson

In 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 Shows

My 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 Today

The 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.

Email: jcomer@bgnet.bgsu.edu