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Stephen Foster

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Blackface Minstrelsy

What legacy did blackface minstrelsy create for American culture today?

Eric Lott:
Eric Lott Minstrelsy is the first public commercial venue in which blacks, though of course, they're not blacks, are represented on the theatrical or musical stage. It's the arena, for better or worse, in which black people come to be displayed and black issues come to the floor, in the American culture industry, beginning in the 1830s and 1840s and extending all the way to our own day. Not only does minstrelsy mirror in many ways the cultural and social predicaments of the country in the 19th century, it itself changes form and gets new life every 20 years or so until, as a stage form, it basically dies out in the 1920s and migrates to film, where it has a very long afterlife all the way to the present day in a film like Warren Beatty's Bullworth. Now its political charge varies enormously through the decades, but there are exemplars of the minstrel tradition all around us, both white, as well as black. The centrality of it as a cultural institution makes it an inescapable cultural condition for black performers moving into public. It's one of the things that defines your stance as a black public performer; there's no easy way around it.

I think the stereotypes that emerge from the 19th century minstrel show circulate to the present day and are crucial in defining white people's sense of who black people are, I'm sad to say. Whether it's in the perceptions of black people who drive fancy cars -- Miles Davis complained about being pulled over every five minutes for driving a Maserati -- or whether it's in the hardly updated version of Jim Crow and something like the welfare mother. I think there are still the lenses white people put on when they look at black Americans, and it's sad but it's kind of desperately indicative of the way in which this country still hasn't surmounted the kinds of feelings that gave rise to minstrelsy in the first place.

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