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Modern Voices
David Blight on minstrelsy
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Q: What were some events of the 1820s and 1830s that affected how white Americans viewed black slavery and freedom?
David Blight

A: Black-faced minstrelsy became a popular theatrical art form in the 1820s, largely in Northern cities. What minstrelsy seemed to be all about in its early years was a kind of a racialization of humor in American, a use of blackness as a form of entertainment.. It was a degradation of blackness as a subject of humor.

Americans were still living in a time when the idea of race is caught up in this notion of the chain of being, that races had certain special characteristics and traits and capacities. And, in some ways, minstrelsy probably fed off that set of ideas and fed into it. By lampooning black people, by using black dialect, by using black faces now to produce this very popular form of American humor, it was, at least on a subliminal level, saying that perhaps black people are not really fit for freedom in the normal sense.

...At the same time minstrelsy explodes as this popular art form across the North, it is the very time that free black communities begin to form in Northern cities, on a large scale. And these free black communities are concerned with creating their own sense of dignity, their own sense of place, their own sense of belonging. They're trying to say in the institutions that they build that they're people like everybody else, who need to build schools, who need real jobs, who need to live normal lives like anyone else, and not the lives in which they're being depicted on minstrelsy stages.
David W. Blight
Professor of History and Black Studies
Amherst College

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