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The twelfth-century term minstrelsy designated a form of local entertainment originally performed by professionals paid by European lords. Later, these professionals became traveling entertainers, and the male roving minstrel connoted either a local or an itinerant performer. Minstrels often were hounded by church officials and town authorities during minstrelsy’s heyday in Europe during the eleventh to fifteenth centuries. Walking from town to town with a harp or viol on their backs, the minstrels’ brightly colored clothes, dance slippers, nonbearded faces, and close-shorn hair are said to be vestiges of the Teutonic bard and the mime of the Roman theater. An integral part of many gatherings, including those occurring in noblemen’s halls, marketplaces, and along pilgrim pathways, minstrels sang stories about the Christian saints, the scriptures, and heroes. They accompanied themselves instrumentally and also danced and performed acrobatic stunts to further the entertainment value.
Some scholars believe medieval minstrels transmuted Roman theatrical practice into liturgical drama. This transfer of form and aesthetic occurred primarily in France. High-born minstrels (trouvères and troubadours) were said to practice a “gay science,” and their poetry was considered the product of nobility. With this heightened social status, minstrels in Paris incorporated themselves, building their own church and hospital. However, as soon as the minstrels were economically successful and accepted by society, they came to be imitated by a lower class of performers. The low-culture minstrels in the medieval period imitated the high-culture minstrels through exaggeration. In the lower-culture version of European minstrelsy, the traditional bright costumes became garish, clever lyrics became bawdy, and the music was less lyrical.
Minstrelsy experienced a renaissance in the United States when, in a northern city around 1828, the white actor Thomas Dartmouth Rice (1808–1860) imitated an African American slave whom he had seen dancing to a song known as “Jumpin’ Jim Crow.” Rice either bought or stole the black man’s clothes. He performed the song and dance as an entr’acte, and legend has it that Rice became an overnight sensation. Rice performed the Jim Crow character for the rest of his career. His costume—a tattered coat and too-short pants, oversized shoes, and a felt hat, along with blackface makeup—became the look of the early American minstrel until 1840. At that time, the Virginia Minstrels formed in New York City. Made up of Dan Emmett, Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower, the Virginia Minstrels’ costumes and songs, accompanied by fiddle, tambourine, bones, and banjo, were more refined than those of Rice. The Virginia Minstrels began composing songs still familiar to this day, including “Old Dan Tucker” and “Jimmy Crack Corn.” Blackface minstrelsy was extremely popular in the Bowery and the Five Points districts of New York City, particularly among young, recently urbanized men, and minstrel troupes began performing primarily in northern cities, eventually traveling to the West to mining camps and then into Australia and New Zealand. American blackface minstrels also traveled east to England, Scotland, Ireland, and even to parts of Africa.
Blackface minstrelsy in America became embroiled in local and national politics during the 1850s after performers found fault with the women’s suffrage and antislavery movements. It was at this time that the well-known stereotypes of African Americans were cultivated and refined: the loud-mouthed plantation mammy, the overdressed male dandy, the sexually promiscuous lightskinned woman, and the compliant Uncle Tom. In the years after the Civil War (1861–1865), African Americans flooded the minstrel stage, creating a rivalry between white men who claimed authenticity as minstrel performers and black men who stated they were the more “legitimately” black and therefore better performers than the imitative blacks. Women, both black and white, also began performing in the 1870s, and they too had rivals from the ranks of female impersonators who had performed as part of the minstrel shows since the 1840s. By 1890 American minstrelsy became a primarily amateur activity on the popular stage, though vestiges of minstrelsy can be easily identified in vaudeville, musical revues, and American musical theater.
Minstrelsy did continue professionally in the United States on radio and in early television. The radio show Amos ’n’ Andy, performed by two white men, Freeman Gosden (1899–1982) and Charles Correll (1890–1972), premiered in 1928. Gosden and Correll created two African American characters that based much of their situational humor on sketches born in the minstrel shows. In 1951 CBS introduced a television version of Amos ’n’ Andy featuring African American actors—the first of its kind on American television. Though popular with white and black audiences, Amos ’n’ Andy’s dependency on minstrelsy stereotypes and the NAACP’s campaign against their perpetuation on television led to the canceling of the show in 1953, though it ran in reruns until 1966.
- Bates, Alfred, 1906. The Drama: Its History, Literature, and Influence on Civilization. Vol. 7. London: Historical Publishing Company.
- Bean, Annemarie, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara, 1996. Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth Century Blackface Minstrelsy. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press and University Press of New England.
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