The use of minstrelsy to enforce racist stereotypes

The first minstrel shows performed in the 1830s by white performers donning blackface and tattered clothing imitated and mimicked enslaved African Americans in the south. These performances would characterize African Americans as lazy, ignorant, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice. Historians have said that the reason these racist stereotypes and caricatures became so popular was to help make poorer and working-class whites feel better about themselves by putting down African Americans.

Possibly the most popular blackface caricature, Jim Crow, was created in the 1830s by Thomas Dartmouth Rice, who was known as the “Father of Minstrelsy”. The Jim Crow caricature was created to mock African slaves and to enforce the idea that they are uncultured, happy-go-lucky, and wore tattered clothing. Another popular caricature was Zip Coon, an urban African American that was frequently presented as an overdressed, slow-talking, and mischievous person. Although they lived in different environments and had different backgrounds, Jim Crow and Zip Coon were both used to depict African Americans as lazy, dim-witted people and enforce racial stereotypes.

In their performances, minstrel performers would often exaggerate these stereotypes, which were already blown out of proportion, for comedic purposes. One such performer was Billy Golden, a blackface minstrel who was very active during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Golden specialized in blackface dialect comedy with some of his most famous works being “Turkey in de straw” and “Rabbit hash”. In the recordings, it’s evident that Golden is trying to imitate and exaggerate the way that African Americans would talk to enforce the idea that African Americans were uncultured and dim-witted.

Caricatures and performances that mocked African Americans might have been popular among whites, however, it is not surprising that African Americans were not happy with how blackface minstrel performers were depicting them. Frederick Douglass wrote a response to blackface imitators in the North Star that called these performers filthy scum that stole African culture and used it to make a profit. Moreover, although blackface and minstrelsy don’t seem to be a big problem in modern society (short of a few exceptions every so often), the stereotypes that were ingrained in our society still seem to be very prevalent today.

 

References:

“Blackface: The Birth of an American Stereotype.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, 22 Nov. 2017, https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/blackface-birth-american-stereotype.

Endicott & Swett, Lithographer. Zip Coon. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/00650780/>.

Golden, Billy, and Billy Golden. Rabbit Hash. 1908. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-223095/>.

Golden, Billy. Turkey in De Straw. 1903. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-243662/>.

Jim Crow. [London, new york & philadelphia: pub. by hodgson, 111 fleet street & turner & fisher ; between 1835 and 1845?] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2004669584/>.

“The Political Quadrille”: The Subversion of Social Roles Through Dance

In the Prints and Photographs collection of the Library of Congress, I found a political cartoon connecting the 1857 Dred Scott case to the 1860 presidential race, portraying presidential candidates as dancers in a quadrille led by Dred Scott himself, shown playing the violin.1 By centering Dred Scott as a performer, the artist seems to give him power but ultimately consigns him to anonymity in the same way that blackface minstrelsy confined black performers to stereotypical roles while denying them individual celebrity.

The quadrille was a dance form popular among the upper class in the first half of the nineteenth century where four couples would dance together in a set choreography to a piece with either four or six movements.2 Although some composers like Francis Johnson experimented with the genre, quadrilles were almost always instrumental and had the same structure, although the actual melody and dance steps varied piece to piece.3 For audiences in 1860, the quadrille represented an upper-class and perhaps outdated tradition of adhering to a fixed program with a partner, as well as following the music itself.

The social context surrounding quadrilles allows the cartoonist to poke fun at the figures portrayed dancing in couples. In the upper left, Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge is shown arm in arm with his political ally and the incumbent president, James Buchanan.1 Nicknamed “Buck”, Buchanan is depicted with horns, adding a touch of fantasy to the image, perhaps to remind readers that the cartoon is not quite serious. The artist pairs the other three presidential candidates with more generic figures: Abraham Lincoln is shown dancing with a black woman as a jab at the Republican party’s abolitionist leanings, while Constitutional Union party candidate John Bell is shown with a Native American man as a reference to his brief flirtation with Native rights, and Democratic candidate Stephen A. Douglas is shown with an Irishman, reflecting the makeup of his own supporter base. In contrast to Buchanan’s fantastical horns, the exaggerated features and clothing of these three anonymous figures are based in very real stereotypes, denying them any individuality. Having the Native man and the Irishman serve as dance partners for Bell and Douglas serves to emasculate them, showing that the interests of these groups were in the hands of male American politicians. It is not clear exactly why the artist chose to portray Lincoln’s partner as a woman while the others are portrayed as men (although fears of black masculinity experienced by whites are probably involved), but the overall message is that all three groups are placed at the whim of white male politicians.

However, by far the most interesting figure is Dred Scott himself, shown in the center playing violin for the dancers. Scott was the plaintiff in the landmark 1857 Supreme Court decision which ruled that black people, enslaved or free, were not considered citizens of the United States and therefore did not have the rights accorded to citizens.4 This decision divided the country and eventually contributed to its descent into the Civil War, and as the artist points out it also overshadowed the 1860 presidential election. Scott is placed in a position of power, both through his role as the musician and by being visually centered in the cartoon. In an era when black musicians were allowed to perform only in limited contexts, giving an enslaved man a position of prestige over presidential candidates who dance along to his music might have been a powerful statement. However, the artist reminds us not to take this power too seriously. Blackface shows were primarily performed by white actors, but it also included black actors, as they were not allowed on the stage in other contexts, and were only allowed to take part in minstrel shows by assuming the stereotyped identities of characters. Scott undergoes a similar process to black blackface actors, who had their individual identities assimilated into white conceptions of blackness.5 The image of Scott has a grotesquely large head and features that, while not strongly exaggerated, do not resemble Scott himself at all, and an expression of happiness or delight at odds with his situation. These features combine to take the audience’s attention away from the actual man and the suffering that led him to sue several times for his freedom, allowing them to focus on the idea that the Dred Scott case had the attention of the presidential candidates and had become a central issue of the presidential race. In appearing to give Scott agency through a musical metaphor, the artist actually erases his individual identity and ultimately thrusts upon him the same stereotyped identities that black performers were forced to adopt in minstrel shows, and and which then applied to all black people by extension.

Citations:

1 “The Political Quadrille. Music by Dred Scott.” Library of Congress. Accessed October 27, 2022. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2008661605/.

2 Skiba, Bob. “Here, Everybody Dances: Social Dancing in Early Minnesota.” MN History Magazine. Accessed October 18, 2022. https://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/55/v55i05p217-227.pdf.

3 Kramer, Hayden James. 2022. “Six Works by Francis Johnson (1792–1844): A Snapshot of Early American Social Life.” Order No. 29162008, University of Maryland, College Park. https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/six-works-francis-johnson-1792-1844-snapshot/docview/2688578944/se-2.

4 Urofsky, M. I.. “Dred Scott decision.” Encyclopedia Britannica, August 25, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/event/Dred-Scott-decision.

5 Sullivan, John Jeremiah. “’Shuffle Along’ and the Lost History of Black Performance in America.” New York Times, March 24, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/27/magazine/shuffle-along-and-the-painful-history-of-black-performance-in-america.html;Lott, Eric. Essay. In Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, 15–37. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Race, Identity and Representation, but in Music Departments

I have often thought my music education is racist. There is a clear cut canon from which undergraduate students gain their foundational knowledge, and to deviate concerns what we conceive as entirely other genres. Most students at my liberal arts school utter disdain for the white male dominance of music theory and musicological course materials. And while it is true that the ability to recognize such power structures is necessary, the simple knowledge of them often soothes white discomfort into complacency. Overturning this form of dominance has its valid challenges, as we have seen in our musicology class, Race Identity and Representation in American Music. Adequate representation, however, is attainable. 

Philip Ewell, African American cellist, scholar, writer and music theorist articulates just how limited our music theory and musicology courses is his blog, Confronting Racism and Sexism in Music Theory. First, I think it bears repeating that 98.3% of the examples in the seven most common music theory textbooks are written by white composers, and only two pieces out of 2930 total were written by Asian composers. What music theory textbooks do include, however, are songs written for blackface minstrel shows such as “Oh Susanna!” by Steven Foster as examples for music theory concepts. (Indeed, you can find it on a webpage about binary form on Hello Music Theory). Ewell writes, “The inclusion of a white supremacist composer like Foster in our music theory textbooks represents the extraordinary insensitivity of music theory’s white frame—and of the textbook publishers I hasten to add—with respect to racial matters. It also points to our utter inability to recognize how whiteness has shaped the field.” 1 

Original sheet music for “Oh Susanna!” from the Christy minstrel troupe. See Edwin Christy

Trigger warning: The last page of “Oh Susanna!” with racist alternate verse text. 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whiteness has also shaped the design of music departments by compartmentalizing course topics and genres. For example, at St. Olaf we have multiple levels of music theory and musicology, but any other courses seem to fit into separate topics courses like history of jazz or world music. When considering that the core of our required courses is limited to mainly white theorists and composers, and supplemental courses consist of music mainly by person of color (POC) artists, I think it sends a clear message to students that music by white people is more worth studying, even if none of the individuals in the music department hold that belief themselves. It’s not just a subliminal message either, because our knowledge of music after graduation likewise privileges white people. Graduates enter school classrooms, higher education institutions or the workforce with their highly educated yet biased definition of music. 

As I’m sure you’ve gathered, the existence of jazz courses and world music courses and their content is not the problem. In fact, I think these musics should be integrated into our entry level music theory and musicology courses. Ewell has a wonderful section on the future of music education in his blog which I intend to highlight in my next blog post. Stay tuned…

[1] Ewell, Phillip By Philip. “Music Theory’s Quantitative and Qualitative Whiteness.” Music Theory’s White Racial Frame. June 26, 2020. Accessed December 14, 2021. https://musictheoryswhiteracialframe.wordpress.com/2020/04/17/music-theorys-quantitative-and-qualitative-whiteness/.

[2 ]Oh! Susanna. C. Holt, Jr., New York, monographic, 1848. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/sm1848.441780/.

 

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.