[Trigger/content warnings: Blackface minstrelsy, racist imagery, racist language, and racist depictions of African-Americans in the linked audio of minstrel songs.]
In 1768, English playwright Isaac Bickerstaffe and Charles Dibdin — librettist and composer, respectively — presented their comic opera The Padlock at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. Dibdin portrayed the role of Mungo, a black slave from the West Indies, and his aria “Dear Heart! What a Terrible Life I am Led” became a popular hit. The song, though a lament, was an up-tempo, marked allegro.
In the late eighteenth century, “Dear Heart” and a number of other “Negro songs” were published in American song collections. These songs were meant to be sung by white singers “in character” — i.e., in blackface makeup and tattered clothing — but their texts were in general sympathetic to the plight of the enslaved. For instance, “The Desponding Negro” tells the story of an African caught and transported in the Middle Passage:
And “Poor Black Boy (I Sold a Guiltless Negro Boy),” from another English comic opera called The Prize (libretto by Prince Hoare, music by Stephen Storace, whose sister Nancy was the celebrated soprano who created the role of Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozzle di Figaro), is sung from the perspective of a repentant white slave-dealer.
In the early nineteenth century, however, white entertainers in the United States began to produce comic songs for the concert and stage, in which blacks were treated as figures of ridicule and contempt. The so-called “Father of American Minstrelsy,” Thomas Dartmouth Rice, apparently was inspired to create the genre when he came upon a disabled black stable-hand who, as he worked,
Rice as “Jim Crow.”
When Childish Gambino’s “This is America” dropped last year, some critics saw the pose he struck in the video when he shot the guitar player as a reference to minstrelsy.
Minstrel shows, or “Ethiopian minstrelsy,” as the genre was called, became wildly popular in the big cities of the new nation. The white dancers and singers in blackface accompanied themselves with “Ethiopian instruments” — the fiddle, the banjo, the tambourine, and the “bones.” The typical minstrel show
offered up a random selection of songs interspersed with what passed for black wit . . . the second part (or “olio”) featured a group of novelty performances . . . and the third part was a narrative skit, usually set in the South, containing dancing, music, and burlesque.
In spite of the fact that such entertainments were flagrantly racist, some scholars of minstrelsy have theorized that white audiences might also have been attracted to minstrelsy’s connection to black culture, however degraded the minstrels’ version of black culture may have been. In his book Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Eric Lott suggests that
It was cross-racial desire that coupled a nearly insupportable fascination and a self-protective derision with respect to black people and their cultural practices, and that made blackface minstrelsy less a sign of absolute white power and control than of panic, anxiety, terror, and pleasure.
Or, as Julius Lester noted in Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!:
The minstrel shows were a pathetic attempt by whites to try to get some of the vitality of blacks into their own strait-jacketed lives. (Whites would still be dancing the minuet if blacks weren’t around to invent every dance from the Charleston to the Boogaloo.) They had to masquerade as blacks to get outside the strict mores of their society.
Recall, too, that W.E.B. Du Bois, in his essay “The Sorrow Songs,” which you read earlier in the semester, included two minstrel songs — “Swanee River” and “Old Black Joe,” both by white composer Stephen Foster — in his historiography of black American music, which suggests that the cross-racial encounters of the minstrel show were more complex than they may appear.
There were even all-black minstrel troops, who nevertheless still “blacked up” for their performances. Interestingly, black minstrel shows were very popular among black audiences in the northern cities. Why might this have been?
In any event, in the mid-nineteenth century,
The Ethiopian vogue . . . swept over the United States . . . the public clamored for Ethiopian melodies, and songwriters gave it such songs as Old Dan Tucker, Dandy Jim from Caroline, Zip Coon, Jim Along Josey, Coal-Black Rosie [and others].
Old Dan Tucker:
Zip Coon (a “zip coon” was a derogatory slang term for an urban black man, the citified counterpart of the rural “Jim Crow,” who liked to dress in flashy clothes and get into razor fights with his cohort):
Jim Along Josie:
Which later, with some changes, made its way into the children’s song repertoire:
Coal Black Rose — here sung as a sea shanty (Remember “Go Down, You Blood-Red Roses”?):
Boatman’s Dance, attributed, like “Dixie,” to Dan Emmett:
The twentieth-century composer Aaron Copland made a popular arrangement of “Boatman’s Dance” for baritone and orchestra. American baritone Thomas Hampson sings it here, with a hint of an AAVE accent:
Rhiannon Giddens reclaims the song:
Giddens with her old band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops:
The taste for blackface minstrelsy persisted well into the twentieth century.
In 1992, the white alt-folk singer Michelle Shocked released an album called Arkansas Traveler. According to a review at the time:
[Shocked] is using the album to argue that blacks and whites who performed in blackface in the 1800s, imitating what they believed to be authentic black culture, are the founders of today’s popular music. Musicians who do not acknowledge this tradition are exploiting it, she says.
In particular, Shocked focuses on bluegrass, a style commonly believed to have been invented by Bill Monroe . . . she says Monroe learned the basis for bluegrass from a black fiddle player named Arnold Schultz.
”There is a very common misconception about this music that, say, it comes from Celtic influences-say, Irish music-and that it was brought over to this country and maybe it went through the Appalachians and Kentucky and became Americanized, and now let’s call it bluegrass or mountain music,” Shocked says.
‘‘But you can tell a story a hundred different ways. The way I`m trying to tell the story is that this music was as much a black invention as a white one, but that the black part of the history has been written out.”
Jump Jim Crow. Jump Jim Crow
How do you, do you walk so slow
Like a little red rooster with one trick leg
Looks like you the one laying the egg
I don’t know when but it’ll be real soon
Going down the road by the light of the moon
Going to the city to see Zip Coon
Hip Zip Coon you sure look slick
How do you do that walking trick
You got a woman on your left
A woman on your right
You all dressed up like a Saturday night
Strolling down the street, feeling fine
Tipping your hat, saying “Howdy, Shine”
If I knew your secret I would make it mine
Tarbaby, Tarbaby, tell me true
Who is really the jigaboo?
Is it the white man, the white talking that jive
Or the black man, the black, trying to stay alive?
You can’t touch a tarbaby, everybody knows
Smiling all the while wit de bone in de nose
That’s the way the story goes
Perhaps Shocked’s efforts are an example of love and theft, like Joni Mitchell’s forays into blackface:
I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard, in search of a costume for a Halloween party when I saw this black guy with a beautiful spirit walking with a bop… As he went by me he turned around and said, “Ummmm, mmm… looking good sister, lookin’ good!” Well I just felt so good after he said that. It was as if this spirit went into me. So I started walking like him. I bought a black wig, I bought sideburns, a moustache. I bought some pancake makeup. It was like ‘I’m goin’ as him!’
Blackface has been in the news lately. The governor of Virginia (the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War) has faced pressure to step down when it was revealed that he appeared in blackface in his medical school yearbook from the 1980s, along with a classmate dressed as a klansman.
The design brand Gucci became the subject of controversy for introducing a black sweater/ski mask that mimics the exaggerated makeup of blackface.
White Instagram models have been slammed for striving to appear black.
You may also recall Rachel Dolezal, the head of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, who stepped down after it was revealed she was white.
Two black critics on the New York Times staff, Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, have termed these kinds of gestures as “performative blackness.”
What do you think? is blackface, in all of its manifestations, love and theft?