For my final project, I am writing a children’s book on blackface minstrelsy. To better understand what minstrel shows actually looked like, so that I can more accurately discuss them, I found a book called Minstrel Breezes by Arthur Kaser, a “collection of up-to-the-minute first-parts, sketches, skits, monologues and afterpieces.” The book was published in 1937 and was essentially a collection of scripts meant for amateur minstrels to use in their own minstrel shows. Reading through the scripts, I found that most of the humor comes from highlighting the dim-wittedness of the “black” characters, especially through pun and complicated faulty logic. For example, here is a selection from a conventional minstrel first-part, with an interlocutor and an Endman named Sideswipe:
INTERLOCUTOR: …you bragged to me the other day that you were the smartest pupil in school.
SIDESWIPE: I was de smartes’.
INTERLOCUTOR: Your sister told me this morning that you couldn’t even get out of the fourth grade.
SIDESWIPE: Dat was account of mah report card. Everything on dat report card was “A” except one.
INTERLOCUTOR: And that?
SIDESWIPE: Just one “B” on dat card, an’ dat’s what stung me.
I also found some videos on Youtube from a 1951 film, “Yes Sir, Mr. Bones,” in which popular minstrel performances are reproduced. This clip (Content Warning: Blackface) was a popular comedy routine called “28.”
The comedy routines in their contexts are quite disturbing; the blackface, the gross caricatures, the belittling of black folk all culminate into a disappointing picture. However, I raise a question: could these sort of routines be funny today if the blackface and racism was removed? Many of the jokes are puns and general silliness. Perhaps this is a controversial question, and by no means am I arguing in favor of minstrelsy, but it does make me wonder what are the limits of humor? When is a joke going too far? Is there any comedy from minstrel shows that can have any value, or do the implications mean too much? I suppose I am also thinking along the lines of the old minstrel tunes and that we know from childhood, that we know are from that tradition, but still hold onto. What do you think?