Minstrelsy: How Oppressed Whites Created Blackface As An American Stereotype

Minstrelsy - How Oppressed Whites Created Blackface As An American Stereotype
Minstrelsy – How Oppressed Whites Created Blackface As An American Stereotype

The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, was an American form of racist entertainment developed in the early part of the 19th century. Each show consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music performances that depicted people specifically of African descent in a negative light.

The poor and working-class whites whose feelings revolved around being politically squeezed, economically and socially from the top and not leaving the bottom behind also, invented minstrelsy according to the historian Dale Cockrell. This specifically shows a way of expressing the exact oppression that marked being members of the majority but outside the white norm.

The difference in racial derision can be seen in minstrelsy as comedic performances of “blackness” by whites in costumes and make-up as stereotyping at its core. The major aim of this movement is to distort the features or traits of “African American” which includes looks, languages, dance, characters, etc.

Minstrelsy: How Oppressed Whites Created Blackface As An American Stereotype

What was a Minstrelsy show?

The year 1830 houses the first minstrel shows in New York by white performers with black faces and torn rags as clothes to amplify the imitation of slaves on the southern plantation from Africa. Blacks were seen in the light of these minstrel shows as being lazy, ignorant, hypersexual, thieves, and rogues. The father of minstrelsy Thomas Dortmouth Rice, developed Jim Crow, the first popularly known blackface character in 1830. By 1845, the popularity of the minstrel had spawned an entertainment sub-industry that manufactures songs, makeup, costumes, and a ready set of stereotypes upon which new performances are built.

Thomas Dortmouth Rice
Thomas Dortmouth Rice – Father of minstrelsy

With an in-depth dance move, an exaggerated African American vernacular and buffoonish behavior was used as one of the black face outlets towards the African Americans. Rice started a genre of racialized song and dance. Black minstrel shows became predominantly in the American entertainment sector. The major portrait of blackface is encoded around people who demeaned and dehumanized African Americans. Faces darken with shoe polish, grease paint or burnt cork and paint on enlarged lips and other exaggerated featured were the major seen attributes.

It’s a tool for power assertion and control said David Leonard a professor of comparative ethnic studies and American studies at Washington state university. “A society will imagine African Americans as not full humans as it tends to rationalize violence and join Jim Crow segregation.

Minstrelsy: How Oppressed Whites Created Blackface As An American Stereotype

Towards the end of the civil war and the immense turn of things in the northern and midwestern the blackface performance grew. Racism took to the streets as African Americans demanded rights to vote and citizenship also. Minstrelsy and racial stereotyping on American society can’t be overlooked. New media offered and ushered minstrel performances from its stage, on television, across the radio, and the theatres at home.

However, the negative stereotypes of African Americans and mocking of dark skin have persisted in recent decades, blackface appeared in the Oscars ceremony in 2012, on televisions skits, and wearing blackface to dress up as famous African Americans during Halloween remains an issue to date.

As Leonard says, “Blackface is part of the toxic culture of racism”.

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