What Minstrelsy Means For American Identity

In my research of black minstrel troupes, it has become obvious that American pop culture is infused with references to minstrelsy. Although this influence becomes obvious when it is pointed out, I would like to propose a claim that might not be as readily accepted. Not only is minstrelsy heavily involved in American media, the influence of the minstrel show is a pillar of American art and media. In other words, elements of minstrelsy actually contribute to what it means for a piece of media to be “American”.

The American-ness of the minstrel show and minstrel influences can be seen in the perception of the minstrel show from audiences abroad. In my own mapping of black minstrel shows, I noticed very quickly that these shows were mostly plotted in the U.S. Perhaps this article posted in the Freeman newspaper might give more insight into why that is.

This article posted in the the Freeman in Indianapolis, Indiana on February 8, 1902 titled “The Negro Performer Abroad” explains how the minstrel show was not well received abroad. The article writes: “The English and Australians, by the way, are very austere and reserved as regards the manner of entertainment of histrons, therefore that which we here consider clever, they, over there regard indifferent and treat with almost heartless disdain. Little wonder then that early Negro minstrels met a cold reception and proved a ‘frost’”. 1

This indifferent reception shows us the extent to which American media and humor differentiated from that of Europeans and Australians. In other words, this humor is strictly American. 

We can see this inclusion of minstrel influences as well in other forms of media such as animation in more sinister, more blatant ways. For example, in Ammond’s book “Birth of an industry: blackface minstrelsy and the rise of American animation” he argues that certain characters, such as Mickey Mouse, carried “all (or many) of the markers of minstrelsy while rarely referring directly to the tradition itself”. 2 For example, in this video of the first Disney animation “Steamboat Willie”, we see that Mickey is whistling a minstrel tune and also wears the distinctive white gloves worn by minstrel performers.



These examples of the influence of minstrelsy on American media show how truly interlaced it is with American identity. The inclusion of minstrelsy can really be seen as a staple of American identity. Although this fact is incredibly troubling, by understanding its implications, we can begin to uncover and become critical about the nature of American identity itself.

Sylvester Russell and his commentary on the CYCB

Although not perfect, we have come to an era in which the voices of people of color, women, and other marginalized voices have started to become more commonly represented within musical communities. It is easy to attribute this progress to the overall trend of people becoming more open minded. However, we have to remember that this progress rode on the backs of certain individuals with radical ideas. One of these ideas is that of Sylvester Russell, who writes of creating an organization that supports black musicians.

Today, I am examining an article written in the Chicago Defender in 1907 by theater and music critic Sylvester Russell. In this article, he discusses the changes that he would make to the existing association “The Colored Vaudeville Benevolent Association” (or the CYCB).

https://www.proquest.com/hnpchicagodefender/docview/493197358/4C46D4B62E3944D4PQ/46?accountid=351  1

He first argues that the name of the organization is “not wisely chosen”, as the thinks the inclusion of “vaudeville” gives white people more access to the group, as it would gain attention from white vaudeville managers. He also thinks that the initiation fee of $5 should be reduced to $2 so that the association erases class issues and can include all types of black musicians and actors. He believes the only criterion should be that each member includes “all actors who are making a living as professional entertainers”. He also wants to include women in the association. He believes that by having an association that supports black actors and musicians in Chicago, it is possible that Chicago could become the center of arts for Black Americans.

The idea of creating a union of sorts among a group of people is not shocking. However, I think this column by Russell raises an interesting point about the ways in which black performers and managers were well aware of white influence and sabotage. Russell talks about the importance of how the members of this association present themselves. He argues that “The white man is ever on the bright side of natural instinct, and if actors who belong to this organization are not very careful of what they do and say along certain lines, their individual errors will tend to make the body weaker”. In other words, he thinks that the members of the organization must be savvy in order to keep the power of this organization between people of color.

Russell gives us a good reminder that progress has only happened because of individuals who have thought meticulously about how to keep power in the hand of POCs, careful to not let white people take it away.


1 SYLVESTER, RUSSELL Sylvester Russell. 1910. “MUSICAL AND DRAMATIC: FOREMOST DRAMATIC CRITIC THIRD SUBJECT THE DEVELOPMENT OF ACTORS. MANAGERS, PLAYWRIGHTS AND COMPOSERS MUSICAL AND DRAMATIC FOURTH AND LAST SUBJECT “THE DUTY OF COLORED ACTOR ORGANIZATIONS.”.” The Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1905-1966), Sep 17, 2. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/musical-dramatic/docview/493197358/se-2?accountid=351.

What can maps tell us about how colonialists thought?

Before this course, I had not thought in depth about how something usually perceived as “neutral” by the viewer (i.e. maps) can actually contain many clues as to the motivations and thoughts of the creator. I always saw maps as an unbiased source of information, which of course, I have come to learn is completely false. With this new found enlightenment, I decided to take a look a a map I found in the American Indian Histories and Cultures database. This map is titled “A map of the British and French settlements in North America”. It is dated to be created between the years 1745 and 1749. I could not find a single cartographer or artist name, but we can assume the creator came from a British perspective because the language of the map is English.


The first thing I noticed is that this map is extremely chaotic. Certainly not up to Maeve’s standards. The colors do not correspond to any particular legend or key and too many things are labeled so that the viewer doesn’t know what to focus on.

So besides the fact that this is just a poorly designed map, what does this tell us about the perspectives of colonialists?

The first thing that I noticed is the way the territories are color coded in completely straight lines or rarely with landmarks such as lakes or rivers. This reveals a couple of things. Firstly, this gives us insight to the way in which colonialists either negotiated with each other to create such clear and arbitrary boundaries or that the British (creating this map) are simplifying the ever changing territories with these completely perfect barriers. Nonetheless, we can recognize that these boundaries are indications that the colonialists had very little regard to the Native Americans that were living on these lands in the context of dividing up land.

Speaking of Native Americans, we can also notice from this map that although the land division among the colonialists does not regard them at all, their presence was almost certainly known among colonialists, as the rivers are labeled after them. For example, we can see, a “Chickasaw” river and a “Cherokee” river. There is even an area labeled “Chactaws” where I assume that the Choctaw people inhabited.

This dissonance between the recognition of Native American presences in labeled landmarks and the absence of them in territory borders gives us lots to grapple with. For one, we have to realize that Native Americans were obviously a notable part of life for colonialists in the 16th century. The map shows us this. However, the map also shows us how the lack of inclusion of them in drawing boundaries, at least in the perspective of the British, illustrates how colonialists saw Native Americans as “uncivilized” or “savages” not worthy of owning land.


What do we do with minstrel show texts?

I’m sure many of us have read about the influence that minstrel shows have in our daily lives. We’ve heard about how all of our favorite Disney movies are filled with racist minstrel songs, how our favorite folk songs stem from minstrel shows, and how many of the racist stereotypes people still hold about black folks originate from minstrel shows. I personally experienced a run in with material from a minstrel song that made me think twice about the ways in which we engage with this material.

When looking for music in the Sheet Music Consortium, I looked for music by the famous American (and minstrel song) composer Stephen Foster. The first search result that came up was a piece titled “Under the Willow She’s Sleeping”.


My breath caught in my throat when I saw the title. One of my all time favorite choral songs is an arrangement of this text titled “Under the Willow” by Susan LaBarr. I was introduced to this piece as a sophomore in high school in my state choir. It’s a beautiful song, here’s a recording of the choir singing this piece:

This is a time when my mind was far detached about the realities of minstrel shows, in fact, I had never heard of them. All I knew is that the text discussed a mother burying her daughter. The conductor never acknowledged the origins of the text, which, when looking back, is troubling. Here are the lyrics:

Under the willow she’s laid with care
(Sang a lone mother while weeping,)
Under the willow, with golden hair,
My little one’s quietly sleeping.

Fair, fair, with golden hair,
(Sang a lone mother while weeping,)
Fair, fair, with golden hair,
Under the willow she’s sleeping.


Under the willow no songs are heard,
Near where my darling lies dreaming;
Nought but the voice of some far-off bird
Where life and its pleasures are beaming.


Under the willow by night and day
Sorrowing ever I ponder;
Free from its shadowy, gloomy ray
Ah! never again can she wander.


Under the willow I breathe a prayer
Longing to linger forever
Near to my angel with golden hair
In a land where there’s sorrowing never.

A beautiful text is it not? Not a text you would assume to be involved in a minstrel show no?

But unfortunately this text has origins as a minstrel song. Stephen Foster composed it for the Christy Minstrels. 1

So besides the shock of learning that one of my favorite choral pieces and texts has its origins in a minstrel song, there is also the responsibility of how to handle this information. Firstly, there is the fact that this text is not inherently racist. This gives a nuanced view of the minstrel show as having both racist and non racist text. This paradoxical nature of the minstrel show gives us the challenge of figuring out what to do with a beautiful text such as “Under the Willow”. Do we do away with it because of its minstrel origins? Or do we continue using this text with a disclaimer? Personally, I think it is better to grapple with the duality of these texts than to get rid of them completely.

1 https://historicpittsburgh.org/islandora/object/pitt:31735061838995

Sylvester Russell Claps Back at a Racist White Lady.

A big question that I have been grappling with and something we have discussed in class has been the origin of American music, and more specifically, the role of slave songs in American music. We’ve touched on two opinions already in class surrounding this question at the beginning and middle of the 20th century; those of Henry Krehbiel and George Pullen Jackson. Krehbiel argues that enslaved people were the only people in America that were capable of producing true folk music because of their circumstances1 and Jackson argues that music from enslaved people in America was all taken from European music 2. After reading these opinions, I was interested in learning some other opinions surrounding this topic.

Luckily for me, I encountered a newspaper article that discussed this exact topic. Check out the full newspaper here. This newspaper article was written in “the Freeman”, an Indianapolis newspaper for people of color published on July 30, 1904. This article is titled “Music of the Slaves: America’s Original Music” and is written by Sylvester Russell who was a music critic of this era. In this piece, he is commenting on another article written by a woman named Emma Bell Miles in Harper Magazine. This essentially, is the 1900s equivalent of “clapping back”. Even the tone of this article left me laughing to myself. Russell is a savage and uses the most hilarious tone to trash Emma Miles. One of my favorite insults is: “Miss Miles, poor thing, like many lucky women, got a chance to write for a great magazine without knowing anything much to write about…”.

Russell states that Miles argues in her article: “It is generally believed that America has no folk music, nothing distinctly native out of which a national school of advanced composition may arise”. Russell does not like this at all, and argues that there is plenty of research being done on the folk music of American slaves, and in fact, the “advanced composition” that has come from this tradition did very much exist and that it is referred to as “ragtime”.

As much as I love this “clap back” article, I’m not exactly sure that Russell has fantastic evidence for his argument. And to be fair, it doesn’t sound like Miles had much evidence for her argument either. Russell at least gives a name to the music genre that has come from American slave songs, and that’s good evidence. However, as much as I love his condescending tone against this racist white lady, I think he might need some more concrete evidence to support his argument.

1 Krehbiel, Henry Edward. Afro-American Folksongs. (New York, NY: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962.), 22.

2 Jackson, George Pullen. White and Negro Spirituals: Tracing 200 Years of Untrammeld Song Making and Singing among Our Country Folk. (Locust Valley, NY: J.J Augustin Publisher, 1975.), 293.

Music: giving us insight into the disgusting ideas held about black Americans.

As someone who is currently studying musicology, one of the main tasks required of me is to use music as a clue to make larger claims about society at that time. In other words, I sleuth around in musical documents to figure out how people thought. Just like any primary source, music leaves us a trail that can bring us to bigger discoveries about human nature. So this week, I decided to embark on the task of using musical documents to bring light popular sentiments about black Americans.

I decided to take a closer look at this document:


(It’s a little blurry here, so take a look here for a clearer picture: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b35698/)

This is a sheet music cover for a piece titled “the Contraband Schottische” written by Septimus Winner in 1861 (the beginning of the Civil War). Winner dedicated this piece of music to Union General Benjamin F. Butler. Butler was in charge of implementing the “Contraband Decision” in which escaped slaves who retreated to the North during the Civil War were considered “contraband” or illegally stolen goods. This allowed Slaves to live in a state not being owned but also not being free in the North. This was decided in retaliation to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in which slaves were to be returned to their masters if caught after escaping.1 On the cover of “the Contraband Schottische” there is a cartoon depicting a slave owner chasing his four black slaves rolling down the hill as if they are merely goods. Although the Contraband Decision ended up being a helpful decision for slaves as a side effect, we can’t sit here and celebrate Butler, he wasn’t even an abolitionist after all.

The depiction of slaves in this cartoon gives us an inside look into some of the attitudes held by society at the time. In this cartoon, slaves are illustrated to be synonymous with products or goods, as they are rolling down the hill like a sack of potatoes falling out of an 18-wheeler.

This sentiment of black Americans being treated as “property” or “goods” seems to infiltrate and inform other assumptions about their intellectual ability or identity as functioning humans. If we fast forward to 1943, this idea develops into another held by author George Pullen Jackson in his book White and Negro Spirituals. He holds the belief that black Americans are not capable of producing sophisticated spirituals, and therefore, must have developed all of their music from the influence of Europeans.

“We know that our fathers (Europeans) brought to this land a rich and hoary heritage of folk melody. We know that the negro slave entered into this heritage eventually by adopting it to the extent of his ABILITIES and desires”.2

This quote infers that black Americans would not have the ability to create music as sophisticated as Europeans. By looking at these documents surrounding music, we can see that the sick attitudes of black Americans as “goods” or “property” and the conclusion that they therefore can not produce sophisticated music are rampant for over a hundred years. That’s pretty disgusting.

Is generalizing all white people at the time of slavery as monsters a way for us to separate ourselves?


As I was doing my class reading in Eileen Southern’s book “The Music of Black Americans” something she mentioned caused me to pause, mainly, the way that she describes the relationship between white and black settlers. She makes multiple mentions of the almost nurturing nature of certain relationships between slave and master, as she mentions:

“Throughout the region, slavery a assumed a milder form than in the southern colonies, although in some places the harsh and severe treatment of black slaves provoked more than one rebellious uprising. Generally, slavery tended to be paternalistic, slaves being regarded as part of the family” (Southern 35).

She also mentioned the encouragement by members of the clergy to convert black Americans to Christianity (Southern 36). These views completely shook up my view of slavery and how it occurred in the Americas. In school, we were fed the narrative that slave masters and owners, treated all slaves as subhuman. Slave owners whipped their slaves, beat them, and treated them as livestock. Although these things were common, Southern for the first time made it seem as if this were not always the case.

To be clear, I am not looking to diminish the horrors of slavery. Even “milder forms” of slavery (as Southern puts) are disgustingly immoral. However, Southern challenged my assumptions and brought me to ask the question: Was the degree of severity and inhumane treatment of slaves something that was dependent upon region? Was it dependent upon religion? How did the ideologies of the time shape the treatment of American slaves? And what were some of the different ideologies surrounding the treatment of slaves around at the time? These are some the questions that I grappled with after reading through Southern’s book.

Which brings me to the primary source that I want to highlight today.



I decided to explore some letters written in 1835 and 1836 by clergy member brother Jacob Zorn. The letters are addressed to someone known as “Brother” referring to another member of the clergy. Zorn seems to imply that the state of life for American slaves seemed to be improving by means of the Church. He quotes:

“When we call to mind the very different state of things thirty years ago, we bless the Lord for the special interest taken in these poor outcasts by the Christian of our day. By means of schools much good has been effected, perhaps as much indirectly to the parents as directly to the children. A few years ago the idea of schools for Negro children was ridiculed; now instruction is gradually spreading and many have already learned to read those precious pages on which are inscribed the truths of salvation”.

He also seems to imply that his church is particularly invested in including slaves in their congregation. Jacob Zorn makes this enthusiasm clear stating:

“Not a word, I am confident, need to be added to press the value of early religious education upon the friends of the negro race; they will not leave their work half done, by suffering the children to grow up in ignorance”.

Although Zorn makes it seem as if the church is bettering their treatment of slaves and encouraging their involvement in the church, this does not always seem to be the case. Southern argues that many slave owners were resistant to the baptism and conversion of their slaves to Christianity. And, to be clear, the conversion of Slaves to Christianity does not always reflect their treatment, as Christianity was also used to justify slavery.

By looking at these letters, it gives us a more accurate and nuanced look of the sentiments surrounding slavery and the treatment of slaves. Instead of generalizing that every white person treated slaves as subhuman, this letter gives us a small amount of insight into other ideologies surrounding this topic that were present in society around the time of slavery. The generalization of all white people as monsters during the era of slavery makes the current day population too quick to separate themselves from them. By making known a more nuanced version of the ideas surrounding slavery, we are reminded that we are just as likely to commit similar atrocities.