The truth behind Minstrel shows

Before we dive into Minstrel shows and what they exactly are, we should take a look at the history of the word “Minstrel” and its multiple meanings. I think it is important that we educate ourselves and others and learn the true history behind these shows and their meaning. In Hebrew, a minstrel is a player of a stringed instrument. There are references in the Book of Samuel of David as a minstrel playing for Saul.1

A little bit later, we find that a minstrel is a medieval poet and musician who sang or recited while accompanying himself on a stringed instrument, either as a member of a noble household or as an itinerant troubadour. As you can see, there are many different definitions of minstrel and how it truly hasn’t changed very much over many centuries. 2

Then we reach the early 1830’s and we find that there are performances called Minstrel shows. “The first minstrel shows were performed in 1830s New York by white performers with blackened faces (most used burnt cork or shoe polish) and tattered clothing who imitated and mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations. These performances characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice.” 3 It is important to note that when the word “Minstrel” originated, that person or persons were not being used to humiliate an entire race. We also need to be educated that the word “Minstrel” had not become popular with the definition of blackface until the 1800’s.

Continuing with blackface in the 1800’s, this small clip from a newspaper article in 1856 is quite the shocker. The parts that stood out to me were how “cheap” the entries to the shows were and that they essentially happened daily. The specific group that was performing that night were called the Campbell Minstrels and a few songs from their set lists include: “Darkies on the levee,” “Old Dan Tucker,” “Gold versus postage stamps,” and plantation scenes.



Conceptions about Minstrel Shows

Minstrel shows are most commonly known as a performance in which black culture is represented with an extreme amount of negative stereotyping. Blackface, the practice of having a white man imitate the skin tone of an African American through the use of burned cork makeup, is presented as one of the greatest demonstrations of bad taste and racist portrayals, and often as a defining feature of these performances. However, it is easy to forget that the reality was far more nuanced.

A snippet from the New York Globe newspaper, December 22 in 1883.

As this snippet from a prominent newspaper of the time shows, it was quite often that African Americans performed in minstrel shows. Gustav Frohman was a prominent theater manager, specializing in minstrel shows, and operated one of the most successful black performance troupes of the 19th century. In his remarks to the newspaper, it can be seen that he identifies that few opportunities for African Americans exist, and that his sentiment is to give as many opportunities out as possible.

Of course, it is difficult to know if this is what he truly believes or if he is doing a variation of virtue signaling by saying that providing opportunities is important despite what he truly believes. However, the presence of such a statement in a significant newspaper indicates that such things were important to at least a not insignificant amount of people. Otherwise, why would it be in such a large publication?

Statements like these perhaps contain the notion that these shows are a good thing, as they provide opportunities that would not otherwise exist and allow for the chance to demonstrate skills. Either way, in looking back on a practice that is considered to be very distasteful today, it is valuable to consider such statements, especially those in public view, and imagine what the public perception of the event must have been, unbiased by our modern assertions.


“Mr. Gustav Frohman.” New York Globe (New York, New York), December 22, 1883: 4. Readex: African American Newspapers.

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.