From PBS American Experience Documentary on Stephen Foster

From PBS American Experience Documentary on Stephen Foster
How did blackface minstrelsy begin?
Dale Cockrell: In probably the summer of 1830, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, who was called "Daddy" Rice,
a sort of minor character actor out of New York City, was in Louisville, Kentucky. And he had the idea of
dressing in shabby attire, which he may or may not have borrowed from an African American that he met
in the streets of Louisville, and going on stage, and it was the kind of entr'acte between parts of a play, he
got on stage and did this extraordinary and extravagant dance to this tune called "Jim Crow." And the tune
featured not only an extraordinary dance but an extraordinary moment of elevation in which his body kind
of exploded off the stage, turned around, wheeled around and jumped Jim Crow, with the exclamation on
the "jump." And T. D. Rice, in that moment of exploding off the stage, took us into a completely new realm
of popular culture where white audiences (and Thomas Dartmouth Rice is himself a white actor who put
on blackface to pretend to be that African-American on the street of Louisville), and in that moment, whites
in the audience as well as white actors appropriated an aspect of African-American culture and changed the
face of popular culture.
Why did it spread in the 1830s?
Sean Wilentz: It's not really a coincidence that T. D. Rice and the so-called Ethiopian delineators got going
in the early 1830s. That's precisely when issues around slavery and abolition begin to heat up -- not at the
center of American politics but certainly as its margins and increasingly moving towards the center. In 1831
there's the Nat Turner rebellion. In 1831 William Lloyd Garrison begins his newspaper, The Liberator, in
Boston, proclaiming the cause of immediate abolition. By the middle of the 1830s there are tense riots
directed against abolitionists in the North and in the South.
What was a blackface minstrel show?
Mel Watkins: It presented the black character as being stupid, as being comical, as being basically a
frivolous character. Now, how that impacted upon society itself was that they embraced it. They loved it.
This was what people had thought about blacks all along. So Rice's characterization of blacks then
reaffirmed what mainstream America had been thinking all along.
When the Virginia Minstrels came along what they did was to develop other characters, and the characters
they developed were much more over the edge than the character Rice had portrayed. That's when you get
Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo. That's when you get the semi-circle with the traditional minstrel set-up, with
these two characters being outrageous, who fidgeted all the time, who were saying the most inane things
that could possibly be said. The masks had become much more grotesque. That's when you really get the
negative characterization of blacks as the total comic fool, and that is what minstrelsy was about, to a certain
Who went to the shows?
Eric Lott: The audience for minstrelsy, especially after the 1830s and into the 1840s was a quite localized
and specific working class, lower middle-class, mostly male audience that responded very vocally to the
kinds of syncopated, pre-rock-and-roll sounds that were put forward on the minstrel stage. There were
aesthetic components of this response as well as racial components, as well as class components of this
response. But I think that the rousing nature of the event -- I mean, this is a moment in theater history when
it was typical and more or less sanctioned for men to rush the stage. For everyone to kind of be collecting
in a rowdy way, right in front of the footlights, be spitting tobacco on the floor in the theater. It was a kind
of madhouse. People congregated around the footlights. Dancing was done in the theater, people called for
their favorites and booed things they didn't want to hear. They spit upon the stage, they threw peanut shells
on the stage, and the kind of jumpy quality that the music exemplified was right up their alley.
How were the minstrel shows racist?
Mel Watkins: Minstrelsy is much under-rated historically in terms of its influence on American society.
[Consider] the stereotype of Uncle Tom, for instance, the black man who is without backbone and who is
really the white man's black man. That characterization of Uncle Tom did not come from the book by
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin. It came from the images portrayed in minstrelsy. In the book
Uncle Tom was relatively intelligent, although not educated, and an example of Christian morality, in one
sense. On stage in the minstrel show he became the shuffling toady. He became the sniveling black man
who was really a coward and was ignorant and somewhat comical in his connection to the slave masters.
So that image came totally from minstrelsy, and if we could go down the line and point out other ways in
which those images pervaded the society at that time, those were the images of what black people were
like. I think it becomes much clearer when one looks at black minstrelsy again because when black minstrels
started to take to the stage, they were advertised as the real thing. In fact, one group was called "The Real
Nigs." And this was -- they were advertised as "Come to the theatre and get a real look into what plantation
life was like." So this was not advertised as a stage show. It was advertised as a peephole view of what
black people were really like. To that extent, it affected all of society because those people who didn't know
blacks, and there were many places where there were very few blacks, assumed that those characterizations,
those depictions, those foolish characters on stage, were real black people. And so it had an immense effect
on the way mainstream society thought about blacks. Certainly it had a [lasting] effect on the entertainment
industry in the sense that most producers in Hollywood, most producers on the radio demanded that black
people speak the same way they spoke during the 1800s, even when we get to the 20th century and we get
to film, we get to radio. In fact, many actors and actresses were taught by whites to speak as if they were
black because that was demanded. It was the way the world was. Blacks were presumed to be this way, the
stereotype was this and therefore the media had to reflect it in that way. And most of that came from
minstrelsy. You can trace it all the way up to the "Amos 'n Andy" show in the 1950s, to the maids that
appeared in "Beulah" and other shows on radio and on television in the 1950s.
Although blackface minstrelsy was racist, did it have any benefit for African Americans?
Mel Watkins: On stage you had white performers saying, "Okay, we accept this type of music, we accept
the antic performers," and even though it was done in a ridiculing manner, there was some acceptance -- at
least on stage. And by the 1860s black performers [were] going on the stage themselves and performing in
a similar manner. Because basically when the black performers did minstrel shows, they were doing the
same acts that whites had done before. It was necessary for. Otherwise, they would not have been allowed
there. Gradually, they would change it, they would make modifications.
What's the connection between blackface minstrelsy and rock and roll?
Ken Emerson: I was fascinated by the question of, "When did it first become cool for white teenagers to
pretend they were black?" It goes back a lot further Elvis Presley singing, "That's All Right, Mama" in
emulation of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup. It goes back beyond the jazz performers Benny Goodman and the
nice Jewish boys from the housing projects of in Chicago. It goes back before the turn of the century when
immigrant songwriters such as George Gershwin and Irving Berlin fell in love with black culture. And it
goes all the way back to blackface and minstrelsy before the Civil War. Think of Mick Jagger performing
almost as if he were a minstrel performer, mimicking and caricaturing of black mannerisms that many
people do in rock and roll.
Eric Lott: It's kind of like in the 1950s if you were a middle class guy and you saw Elvis, you knew that
Elvis was shaking his hips in ways that weren't typically countenanced for white middle class boys, and
that's why all the citizens' councils in the South called Elvis "nigger music" and were terribly afraid that
Elvis, white as he was, being ambiguously raced just by being working-class, was going to corrupt the
youth of America. Stephen Foster was deeply attracted to this kind of ambience of the minstrel show.