How did blackface minstrelsy begin?
Before the 1830s, when blackface minstrelsy begins formally, African Americans, people whom we today would call African Americans, have been involved in local entertainment. They are the fiddlers at the Virginia reels there, the entertainers in local restaurants and saloons and that kind of thing. But what happens with blackface minstrelsy is that it begins the formal or well-organized entertainment industry in the United States because blackface minstrelsy is created by a small number of people who then begin touring all over the country and indeed to western Europe and to other parts of the world. It becomes the first kind of a national theater or national entertainment that people began to see outside of their local setting. It starts out as a humorous and dance-oriented, music-oriented, joke-oriented variety show, in between other kinds of more formal theatrical acts, but over time minstrelsy becomes itself the entertainment.
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.
Minstrelsy swept the world in the 1830s and 1840s much the same way that rock and roll did more than a hundred years later. In the same way that Elvis Presley electrified the world, so did Daddy Rice when he did "Jump Jim Crow" on the London stage.
return to questions | next