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.
Why did it spread in the 1830s?
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.
These elements of culture, songs, stories, jokes, toasts, all of these kind of things which once before had only really been very localized, through transportation and through new kinds of printing technologies and new methods of diffusing all kinds of cultural products, come to be portable. So this industry grows during the nineteenth century and eventually becomes the entertainment industry that we know today, which is very complex. It's at the very earliest moments where Americans are beginning to define who they are distinctively apart from the rest of the world, particularly apart from western Europe, where many American ancestors had come from.
I think that as an industrial order arises and then clamps down in the 1830s and 1840s in America, it is not countenanced anymore that when you're in the shop, one person reads to the other workers from the newspaper while they work. Rather, it's more and more standardized, it's more and more routinized. You can't drink at work anymore. There's a general, sort of clamped-down cleanup going on. [The blackface minstrel show] was a place of incredible release from all that.
What was a blackface minstrel show?
Stephen Foster, when he heard a minstrel show, would have heard something that sounded altogether different from what his sisters or other polite society were playing at home. The difference was not so much a structural one because the musical style, the musical structure, the form of the melody and so forth, followed certain European patterns that were derived from the same kinds of music that genteel society were playing and singing. The differences were much more in the style of the performance itself and in the kinds of words that were being put to it. And to some extent rhythm, but we tend to overemphasize those differences, I think, in retrospect, because many of the songs that we see that were published by the minstrel troupes, performed by the minstrel troupes, were essentially the same, out of the same stock as what was being performed in the home. So what was the difference? Style, manner. It was much cruder. It was exaggerated. It was even -- foreign. Out of the culture, in a sense. They were trying to exaggerate and make [something] exotic.
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 extent.
Who went to the shows?
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.
Much more so than today, audiences controlled what went on the stage. And they felt that they had a right to have someone do the dance again if they particularly liked it or the song. If they didn't like the song, they would cut it off. And so an audience, a common-class audience in New York City felt a direct alliance with what was going on in that stage, much more so than we can even begin to imagine today in a real way.
How were the minstrel shows racist?
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, that was the sense 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.
Was blackface minstrelsy only about caricaturing blacks?
Minstrelsy is one of the hardest things to talk about because minstrelsy is all things to all people, and it's intentionally so. And it's one of the reasons that it's such a popular phenomenon. It need hardly be said that minstrelsy is about racial derision. You can hardly look at the mimicking of African-American manners, mores, maybe music, maybe dance, and see that these people are being cast as somehow less than the people who are portraying them. And that needs always to be forefront in any consideration of this. But at the same time, there's an embrace of that culture that's happening on the stage at the same time. People are having great fun, entertainment. They're embracing a culture that they're seeming to deride at precisely the same time. It's a kind of love and loathing that's happening simultaneously.
What's fascinating about minstrelsy is really just how strange it is, how weird it is at bottom. Here you have a stage form that depends on caricature, yes, but a real desire on the part of white actors and performers to act like, to inhabit the bodies of black people, to act like them, to be like them, to impersonate them. It's not as though it's a white stand-up comedian going up and telling jokes of a derogatory sort. It's actually getting inside the persons of slaves and free blacks in the North, and there are whole sets of complications and contradictions that arise from that simple fact. On the one hand, [there's] the desire to take a kind of racial ridicule to the stage and to make fun, indulge in sport at the expense of black people and made a lot of money at the same time. At one and the same moment, though, you have a real interest, cross-racial interest in what it feels like to be a black person.
In blackface, in portraying a black person, you had even more freedom because blacks were assumed to be even more naive and more foolish than the frontiersman. So that you had these two different things going on. There was a release. It was a sense of attraction to this uninhibited state of being that these characters were depicting. And it was also the ability to laugh at them and feel superior to them because that was considered negative. That was considered -- too wild, too uninhibited basically for what America thought of itself as at that time.
It spoke to the problems of living in a multi-ethnic society, of living in the society that was a slave society at that time. African Americans live both enslaved and free within that society, but everybody else is living in the society, too. It doesn't just affect them. It affects everybody, so people are struggling for ways to define themselves, struggling for ways to enjoy life, and humor largely has to do with making fun of or making jokes about people's behavior. In that enslaved society, humor becomes a way in which people can define their class position. There's a way in which they can mark who is included and who is not. African Americans come to be excluded from certain aspects of American society. And blackface minstrelsy, in a very interesting way, moves back and forth over these lines. It's not just on one side or the other. It's not just done by whites to parody blacks. That is part of it, but it's also done by people of African descent. It's done in ways in which people say, "This is authentic. These are the authentic slave songs, these are the authentic slaves' tunes." It's a way for people to negotiate or to think about or to find humor in an extremely problematic aspect of American society, which they are arguing about in their politics and in government and in other ways. The issue of what to do about having slavery in the society is a key issue in the years in which blackface minstrelsy comes to be important.
In some ways, African-American life and the Southern life has always functioned as a fantasy for Americans in popular culture. Think of Creedence Clearwater Revival, four white boys from El Cerrito, California. They never went "rolling down the river on Proud Mary," and yet that's what they sang about. The South and black life in particular has an appeal to Americans of all races that is fantastical, that is unquestionably on some levels deeply racist, but it also speaks to a longing that we all feel, I believe, for a pre-technological, pre-urban, primal, more essential life, as it were.
How did class frictions relate to blackface minstrelsy?
The question of the moment was, what was America going to be? And Jacksonian Democrats, common people, wanted to cast it in their own image. Minstrelsy continues that development. The large opposition is a rising American middle-class that wants to cast what it is to be American in a middle-class image. And so the conflict that minstrelsy is playing out is between America as a common-class culture or America as a middle-class culture. Music is socially defined. People who control the dictionaries say, "This is music," and "That isn't music," that that is noise out there. By 1840, 1842 or so, there is a contest going on between minstrelsy as noise and the music of the parlor tradition, representative of a middle-class tradition. Minstrelsy had clanging banjoes, it had clanking bones. It was filled with things that a middle-class culture considered beneath it and amusical. Whereas the parlor classes had pianos. They had proper instruments playing proper music. This aural environment, very much in the minds of Jacksonian Americans, was very much central to the way that they heard the world.
Middle-class culture is one that has worshipped the mind and has largely tried to divorce the body from the expression of what they are. To give expression to life energy through the body is a disruption of that middle-class value system. Minstrelsy, through the body, expressed wildness, expressed abandon, it expressed joy, it expressed sex, it expressed all of these things that the middle-class was trying to repress through a worship of the mind.
How did class issues relate to the race issues?
If you are a working-class American in New York City at the time, you're feeling yourself squeezed politically, economically and socially from the top, but also to some extent from the bottom. And minstrelsy was one of those special kind of inventions that enable you to speak to the oppression that you are feeling from the top and to give yourself a niche in society that was different from those that you hoped to be below you, African-Americans. So simultaneously you can give expression to your identity, and you can also criticize the policies of those that you feel are oppressing you.
The mask of blackface enabled you to have voice and to speak without fear of repression. I mean, masks do that. We put on masks at Halloween, and it gives us a kind of anonymity to go and to do things and to say things that we normally wouldn't. The same thing happens at Mardi Gras. Minstrelsy effectively did that.
I think there is a kind of subterranean identification with the desire for indolence at work. There's a real identification with the plantation style of labor which white Northern working men actually come to transform into protest rhetoric of their own. They say, "We're wage slaves. We don't want to be wage slaves." A rhetoric that itself is double in the sense that they'll do anything not to be considered slaves. There is a kind of admonitory kick to the word slavery. On the other hand, they feel like they've been reduced to slavery and so that they are not all that different from slaves on the plantation and there is a kind of, I think, a kind of felt identification of, based on oppression, given these two labor systems: a really kind of booming capitalist industrialism in the North and a slave economy, plantation economy in the South.
Although blackface minstrelsy was racist, did it have any benefit for African Americans?
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 them -- it was necessary for them to do that to be on stage. 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?
I began my career as a rock journalist and critic. And from the beginning of my interest in rock and roll, I was fascinated by the question of, "When did it first become cool for white teenagers to pretend they were black?" Obviously, from Elvis Presley to Beck that has been one of the primary impulses behind rock and roll. But it goes back a lot further than Beck's imitating a rap star, saying, "I got two turntables and a microphone," or Elvis Presley singing, "That's All Right, Mama" in emulation of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup. It goes back beyond the jazz performers, musicians such as Benny Goodman and the nice Jewish boys from the housing projects of Austin Hill 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. And so in a way rock and roll led me to a long, tortuous path to Stephen Foster because that's where really this interplay and intermix of black and white culture that so defines American music to this day really began.
Think of, for instance, and this is not restricted to America any more since rock and roll is an international language, but think of Mick Jagger performing almost as if he were a minstrel performer, the sort of extravagant mimicking and caricaturing of black mannerisms that many people do in rock and roll. Think for instance of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," when Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight and the Pips sang the original versions of the song. They sang "I heard it through the grapevine." Then when a white boy did it, John Fogerty in Creedence Clearwater, he sang, "I hoid it through the grapevine," almost as if he was going to exaggerate the black characteristics. That's pure minstrelsy right there. And of course that was the minstrelsy, that's what was happening and the sort of the exaggerated caricatured stereotypical black dialect of minstrel songs in the 1830s and 1840s.
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.
What legacy did blackface minstrelsy create for American culture today?
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.
Should we change Foster's songs to remove their racist aspects, or not perform them?
The songs of Stephen Foster are, especially the minstrel songs, are problematic today. And perhaps quite rightly they are. In 1996 I know members of the Yale Glee Club decided not to sing "My Old Kentucky Home" because they considered it to be racially derisive. I think that that's somewhat unfortunate because it's a song that grew out of a minstrel tradition but was critical of the minstrel tradition. And in many ways it's a song that enabled us to begin to undo racial bigotry and prejudices that exist in this country. But I also understand at the same time -- it's the old thing, minstrelsy is many things to many people. But I understand, too, that it's so embedded in the tradition of derision that people want nothing to do with even the association of it. Minstrelsy is certainly something that should not enjoy any kind of resurrection at all today. The associations are certainly too strong there.
I think we're losing something in not repeating his lyrics or in adapting them, changing them to make them more politically correct, because he was trying to blend some things and create an awareness that we need to remember. It's part of black history and it's part of American history and you can't change history. It's good to reflect on it. I think it's more important to study history as it is, lest we ever repeat ourselves.
Stephen Foster's music today is deeply embarrassing for two reasons. First of all, because of the obvious racial epithets and caricatures and stereotypes that he uses, which were typical of the time and unfortunately are still typical of our time today. Secondly, and perhaps even more embarrassing, is his extreme sentimentality in an age that prides itself on being ironic and cool.
It's important to come to terms with Stephen Foster because we have to understand the racial complexity of American culture. It won't do any good, I believe, simply to sweep Stephen Foster under the rug of political correctness and ignore both the racism that is endemic in his music and the many instances in which his music transcends that racism. How can we understand our past, which created what we are today, without looking this in the eye -- and hearing it in the ear? To this day Stephen Foster's music touches on what unites us as Americans and also on what divides us.
I think we must find a way to learn and grow from people and respect their context. It's too easy and too unfair to just simply write someone off until we've actually looked through their eyes at their world. That Stephen Foster wrote songs in an idiom that is just simply an anathema to me as an American, to me as a human being in the 1990s, and that I would never possibly think in any form of either wanting to hear or sing -- that's true. The fact that we can see it from both sides and have to see it from both sides is infinitely more important in a questioning process than the right answer.
It would be historically inaccurate for me, as a musicologist, to suggest that we abandon a repertory of music which is so historical because of the racial insensitivity of some of the text. I believe as a teacher, and as a historian, that they should be placed in the historical context and people should understand where these songs fit and why. Personally I would not be singing them as a part of my musical entertainment today, but I have great respect for them and I would introduce them to my students because it's a part of the American culture and American heritage.
The relevance of studying Foster is not unlike the relevance of studying Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn. What you have, in both cases, are works that reach very deeply into major American paradoxes, historical contradictions around race, racism and slavery, and the nature of artistic production. Huckleberry Finn is, I think -- this is hotly debated now -- but it's ambiguous to this day in ways that I think still one could make a fairly defensible argument for withholding [it] from school students until a certain age, 13 and 14, when they're able to deal with certain of the racial implications. Foster is no less ambiguous. When I got Foster's songs in grade school, they're such terrific melodies that it's almost a crime not to parlay the melodies into the classroom setting but if I got the racist lyrics, I don't remember it. And that may just be the condition of being white in America, but I think that there's a kind of evasion of the full implications of Foster.
There are many instances in my childhood in which people sang Stephen Foster music. At summer camps, there was lots of singing around the campfire. And what do you sing around the campfire? Well, religious songs drop out because everybody at the camp isn't necessarily of one religion. So these classic American songs came to be the music that you would learn at camp or at school or someplace like that. So I learned many of these songs, usually with changed lyrics. That's one of the reasons why I emphasize that the lyrics have changed over the years. The most offensive of the lyrics used words like "nigger" which would have been common in the 1840s or 1850s [but] the lyrics that I was taught didn't have that in them. So actually I loved Stephen Foster songs as a child and basically in a sense, still do. I think that they are catchy, wonderful, popular tunes that really reflect something interesting about the United States. But I think it is necessary to adapt them, maybe by just learning the instrumental, just learning the melody or by changing the lyrics, learning the changed lyrics because to sing them in their original form would be, I think, just perpetuating a stereotype that is no longer useful or no longer helpful or no longer functions in the same way in American society as it did in the 1840s and 1850s.