Burnt Cork and Water Abstract The cinematic experience of minstrel

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The cinematic experience of minstrel shows as we know it changes when we introduce an
interracial element into what we think of when there is discussion of minstrel shows today. The
purpose of this paper is to identify the ways in which advertisement shaped a Fort Wayne
audience member’s expectation of upcoming shows. In the late nineteenth and twentieth century
the audience had not yet come to know what a genre was or meant to a live show audience; yet
the publicity of minstrel shows reinforced certain common themes that were evident in an
audience member’s experience. Finally, the introduction of race as an interracial element
changes the way we view minstrel shows in that when one mentions a minstrel the general
consensus of today is thoughts of a white man in black face. This paper also explores the
implications of race when this interracial element is introduced to a Fort Wayne audience’s
cinematic experience, when it is not a white man in black face, but black artists.
According to Allen and Gomery (1985) the assumption that cinematic stereotypes reflect
stereotypic attitudes within society underlies several works that examine the image of blacks in
American cinema. For example, in To Find an Image: Black Films from Uncle Tom to SuperFly, James P. Murray argues that films reflect “what people think of themselves in relation to the
world.” In much of the literature on black screen images the concern is expressed that
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stereotypic images affected as well as reflected public attitudes toward blacks. The effect of
Hollywood’s representation of blacks, says Murray, was to reinforce the notion among both
blacks and whites that “it was whites, not blacks, who were significant” in American society.
(pg. 159) There is no denying that minstrelsy of the late nineteenth century was a largely whiteowned and white-performed social phenomenon. One might ask why these shows are such a
phenomenon and what is their significance, but when one considers the peculiar institution of
slavery, post slavery ideology and romanticism of racism, and social norms that reinforced racist
ideology; the presence of minstrel shows and the introduction of blacks in the performance of
these shows raises a much larger question of why and how did blacks perform in these shows
and the modes of reception from Temple audience members.
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Dorman (1988) describes this phenomenon as the “coon
song craze” circa 1890-1910. These images and
representations of the caricatures in these shows were
“ignorant”, “maladroit”, and “outlandish” in its misuses
of the forms and substance of white culture. While they
were normally portrayed as happy go-lucky dancing,
singing, joking buffoons, they were above all either
humorous or pathetic. In either case according to
Dorman (1988) these caricatures were safe figures and
the accepted version of what was commonly perceived
as the “real” American black. Additionally, when these
shows are performed by all black casts or blacks artist as
a part of these performances; this fascination for this
caricature as a mass form of entertainment becomes
more problematic. In that the performance of black
artist in these shows is symbolic of a “real” black
experience to a white audience who interaction with
blacks of the time would have been either “confirmed”
or embellished”.
Significance of Race
The historical context in which blacks or African Americans have been identified over the
context of time by whites is fluid. In that using identifiers to identify race by a white audience
over this context of time, is to use language such as negro, colored, black, and/or AfricanAmerican. In the context of time that this paper explores the language will be used
interchangeably by using language of the time that identified blacks or African-Americans as
Negro or colored. The fluidity that exists in identifying race of the late nineteenth and earlier
twentieth century is also representative of this same fluidity. The language of the time when
identifying race used the language as negro to identify black. However, to promote shows the
language that identified race changes and becomes “colored” to promote these minstrel shows.
“Burnt Cork and Water” The Minstrel Show
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Friday May 3, 1895, Stouder and Smith managers of the then Masonic Opera House proposed to
offer three shows for the price of one admission. This is an indication that minstrel shows were
on the decline amongst Fort Wayne audience members. On the same day in the News Billy B.
Van argues that minstrelsy will never be the same. “Billy Van, a veteran minstrel, says there is
no longer such thing as real Negro minstrelsy. Van gives readers a glimpse of what minstrelsy
was to a Masonic Temple audience and how these shows will change for viewers.
In the late nineteenth and twentieth century the audience had not yet come to know what a genre
was or meant to a live performance show audience; yet the publicity of minstrel shows
reinforced certain common themes that were evident in an audience member’s experience. In the
viewing of the minstrel shows a Fort Wayne audience had come to expect certain viewing
experiences and some common themes can be generated. For example, in Billy Vans article he
writes, Part One: “commenced with the first part…40 men sitting in a semi circle…at the end of
this semi circle were usually three men called bones and tambo...named according to the
instruments they played. At the rise of the curtain you had the “interlocutor” or narrator who
would say gentlemen please be seated; then the orchestra would gallop, then end men “tambo
and “bones” would accompanying the orchestra “and then different men would use the “dialect
of the Negro perfectly…” Van further states, “Everyone is in blackface” and the first part only
“tended to make one believe he was witnessing a negro jubilee…” “…The costumes consisted of
black pants to the knees, red coats, yellow vests, and wide collars, with bushy hair…” Then he
talks about the present day 1895, only the end men are in black face and the rest of the cast is
white…” “The Negro character is almost lost…” and “anything that maybe seem to be funny in
a minstrel show at the present day is told as a negro joke…” Arguably, what is interesting is that
the connection could be made between the article and the admissions sale (three shows for the
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price of one); and a conclusion could be made about the decline of these shows as follows. The
minstrel show had lost its “zest” for life amongst Temple audiences. Had audience members
grew tired of the common themes in these live shows? Had the relationship between race in
society and the racist dialogue that these exhibited changed and the Temple audience grew tired
of it and changes had to be made? These are questions that remain unanswered.
Discussion & Analysis “An advance argument”
As stated previously in the paper these shows were largely owned by whites and the significance
of black artists in these shows means that they—black artists, would have been hired by whites.
That being said raises more questions that this paper does not explore, but has the potential for
future research and exploration. The significance of blacks in minstrel shows implies that blacks
in addition to whites used “blackface” entertainment as a form of occupation. Black artists
would have traveled alongside whites to the Fort Wayne area and would have with whites
performed at the Masonic Temple Opera House. This paper also does not explores what these
performers would have experienced as visitors to the area or experienced at the Opera House, but
there is potential for research to answer such question as: What were the social norms of the
time? Did the Masonic Temple Opera House have separate areas for Black performers? Did
they use different entrances for blacks than white performers? When introducing this element of
interracial performances at the Temple there with it introduces many more questions that can be
answered in future research.
Some challenges in the research of this interracial element of minstrel performances at the
Masonic Temple Opera House is that in unraveling the complexity of understanding minstrelsy
and audience experience means trying to find adequate meaning and answers to what blackface
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meant to Temple audience members. Meaning what would “blackface” have meant to a white
audience? Does this blackface performance reinforce stereotypical images of blacks and continue
racist dialogue between Blacks and Whites in the area at the time? All of which this research
fails to answer, but has the potential to do so in the future; given more time, as time was a
constraint in this research and being a novice of research methods in this area of research.