Minstrel Shows: Praising Blackface

Minstrel Shows began in the 19th century, which were shows that opened doors for white performers to mock black slaves in the plantation in order to entertain their crowd with over exaggerated clothing, movements, and facial expressions. Often, these white performers used “blackface,” to add the magic touch to a black person’s persona. Of course, these white performers did not have the last laugh after all. Soon after the birth of Minstrel Shows, black performers began to showcase their talents with shows of their own, turning this negative into a positive!

A Fan Favorite: Jim Crow

One of the most famous characters in the Minstrel Show was Jim Crow, created by Thomas “Daddy” Rice, which ultimately led to the popularity of these shows in 1830. This character was started after Thomas discovered a black stablehand dancing and singing in a way no one has seen before and jumping at the same time. Thomas then added on to this song which made the Jim Crow character so popular in the theaters that whites demanded more of. 

Using Black Culture for White Entertainment

If whites back in the 19th century hated black people so much, assuming that they were lazy, irresponsible, and stupid, why did these white performers use most of their time to look, dress, and act like black people? Well, the simple reason was to make money off their performance. These performers knew that they had to entertain the crowd, and the only way was to use those characteristics of black people in such a silly manner, which made the crowd roar in excitement. Often, there were instances where there would be a variety performance. This would include performers playing the banjo that mocked black people, and danced with dogs or monkeys, that were commonly associated with the stereotypical black person during this time. 

Poster for AL.G. Field Greater Minstrels in 1907 used to advertise for white performers in blackface.

Breaking Stereotypes: Opening Doors for Black Performers

The aftermath of the Civil War meant newly freed slaves seeking a new identity, to break stereotypes of how they were viewed, and forming a new life for themselves. After all, former slaves weren’t just meant to be slaves. Many of these newly freed slaves sought the entertainment route, where they outsmarted the white performers and their “blackface” Minstrel Shows, by taking the spotlight away from these shows and turning it onto themselves. Black performers such as, Brooke and Clayton’s Georgia Minstrels were the first successful black troupe that took former Minstrel Shows and made it a show that tells stories of former slaves, using their natural talents to express themselves freely, instead of using tactics to mock like the whites did in these performances. Fast forward to the 1870s, which is when black performers were recognized among many. Though these performers were not getting paid enough to make ends meet, they were getting paid far more than before. Black performers began to showcase their singing skills, acting skills, and dancing skills with stories from their past and overcoming this torment. Even though the first Minstrel Shows were made to belittle black people on the plantation, this opened doors for black performers in what we call, “Show Business.”

Black Performers Taking the World by Storm Today

In today’s society, we see black performers around the globe. We see black men, women, and children taking on lead roles in movies, music videos, and theatre performances. We were able to pave the way for ourselves in the entertainment industry starting in the 20th century, which no one expected us to do. Now, most roles you see on movies consist of black actors and actresses. We as black people broke those stereotypes used in Minstrel Shows, and used our talents to our advantage in order to earn our spots as well-known performers, and that is what you call a comeback. 

Vanessa Van Dyke

Vanessa Van Dyke

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