Williams and Walker: From Minstrelsy and Beyond

American audiences at the turn of the twentieth century loved watching performances that had a sense of authenticity. White Americans viewed blackness as the most authentic form of cultural expression, while the nation was still whirling with the lasting effects of minstrelsy. Black performers and musicians used America’s fascination with the “other,” authenticity, and minstrelsy to their advantage. Among these black performers, are the duo of Bert Williams and George Walker that used their race and talent as a marketing tactic to increase their cultural value, further their careers, and deliver the authenticity Americans craved while paving the way for other black musicians.

When Bert Williams met George Walker in 1893, they were very amused with watching white actors in blackface try to act natural on stage and dub themselves as “coons.” Walker remarks “We thought that as there seems to be a great demand for for black faces on stage, we would do all we could do to get what we felt belonged to us by the laws of nature.” 1 Billing themselves as “the two real coons,” the duo headed to New York surrounding themselves with talented members of their race, such as H.T. Burleigh among other recognizable names. With a show behind their name, Williams and Walker were able to put a premium on cakewalk. In 1903, the duo debuted their show Dahomey, at the New York Theater and the first black, comedy musical on Broadway. Below is a poster for the show’s most famous song.

An advertisement of the song “I’m a Jonah Man” From Dahomey.

The show was widely successful, making a tour in Europe for the future King of England, Edward the VIII. William and Walker did not emphasize the ragtime rhythms and coon song stereotypes that dominated their field, nor the exaggerated, high kneed cakewalk. Instead, they demonstrated how smooth, beautiful, and sensational it could be. Additionally, jokes the pair made were not targeted at race differences as seen by the white minstrels, but by universal situations or characters like a “downtrodden” everyone could laugh at.2 They pitched their “real blackness” at audiences to draw crowds to an authentic “black style.” The duo danced a middle ground between thunderous applause and being thrown off the stage solely for being black by their audiences. Below, is a review by the New York Times after one of their shows.

New York Times, Feb 19, 1903.

3

Even though both actors were black, Williams wore blackface to make his skin even darker. Perhaps by putting on blackface, he was, in a way controlling minstrelsy and taking ownership of its racial representations. Through their performances, the pair crafted their own claims to racial identity and black culture while also creating quality content that would circulate Tin Pan Alley at a wide audience. Through their efforts, the pair helped audiences recognize negro talent that carved pathways with lasting effects. In 1940 for example, Duke Ellington recorded “A Portrait of Bert Williams” as a tribute. With minstrelsy’s dark beginnings, William and Walker saw an opportunity to change the way audiences thought about race and entertainment that has had lasting effects, making them a couple well deserved to have a blogpost written about.

Minstrelsy and the Impermeable Permeable Color Line

In the first chapter of his book, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Eric Lott argues that although “cultural appropriation was the minstrel show’s central fact”, there may be more to the story than first meets the eye. Despite being blatantly racist and demeaning towards African Americans, Lott argues that minstrelsy potentially served more positive roles that are often overlooked.1

The first page of The Anti-Slavery Bugle, February 18, 1980.

One example of Lott’s argument comes from a little article that appeared in a New-Lisbon, Ohio abolitionist paper, The Anti-Slavery Bugle, on February 18, 1860. The newspaper’s self-proclaimed role was to “sound the bugle-note of Freedom over the hills and through the valleys” and it therefore contained a mixture of news about the anti-slavery movement, opinion pieces, essays, and stories like this one.2 Perhaps unsurprisingly, the article bears the dramatic title “A Negro Minstrel Sold into Slavery” and recounts a trial that took place in Galveston, Texas.3 Both the events that unfold in the story and they way that they are described suggest that perhaps minstrelsy and its music could provide a means by which a black man might gain better opportunities in the Antebellum South.

Ultimately the story tells of an affidavit and the subsequent rulings pertaining to “a free negro” who came to town, “calling himself Joseph Vincent Suarez, and passing himself for a white man”. This plays into another point of Lott’s, the idea that many Americans did not really know whether the minstrels entertaining them were black or white. In fact, the article describes that for the trial to commence, multiple doctors were called upon verify that Suarez was, indeed, a person of color. Suarez was therefore able to effectively blur the color line because his race was not immediately apparent.

Additionally, it is probably a fair assumption to say that Suarez’s minstrel act afforded him a better opportunity than would have otherwise been available. Suarez was able to capitalize on a popular form of music at the time and therefore advance himself economically and potentially socially.4

A caricature of a blackface minstrel performer around 1850-1860. 

Furthermore, it is important to discuss Suarez’s punishment. While it is undoubtedly strict to modern readers, it is not as dramatic as the article’s headline makes it out to be and not as severe as what punishments could be for black men in the slave-holding South. Suarez was sentenced to be hired out for labor for six months, the profits from which were to go to his expenses during the time and then to his departure from Texas at the end of the term. What also bears consideration is the last line of the article: “It is proper to remark that this Suarez came to this city as a negro minstrel, and he has, therefore, the merit of passing himself off in his professional character for precisely what he is”. Again, Suarez’s minstrel profession furnishes him with benefits he might not otherwise gain. In this case, an excuse for a lower sentence.

Minstrelsy is certainly one of American history’s more embarrassing artifacts. But, as Lott discusses, perhaps even this very negative aspect of the popular culture provided some individuals with positive opportunities. If nothing else, like other forms of American music, minstrelsy helped in some places to blur the color line and throw into question the notion of separate racial cultures.

1Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Introduction and Chapter 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

2Harris, Glen Anthony. “Anti-Slavery Bugle.” In Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World, by Junius Rodriguez. Routledge, 2007. Accessed March 7, 2018. https://ezproxy.stolaf.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/sharpeeman/anti_slavery_bugle/0?institutionId=4959.

3From the Galveston (Texas) News. “A NEGRO MINSTREL SOLD INTO SLAVERY.” The Anti-Slavery Bugle, Issue 27 (1860). Accessed March 7, 2018.
<http://find.galegroup.com/sas/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=SAS&userGroupName=mnastolaf&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=&docId=GB2500047906&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0&relevancePageBatch=&docLevel=FASCIMILE>.

4Henderson, Clayton W. “Minstrelsy, American.” Grove Music Online. Accessed March 7, 2018. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000018749.

Minstrelsy: Connecting Blackness to the Body and Whiteness to the Mind

White people putting on blackface and dressing up as black people for entertainment and comedic purposes is disturbing and upsetting on many levels. To me, an aspect of this that is particularly horrific is the effect it had on the body, particularly the black body, that is so often deemed invisible, expendable, dangerous, or hypersexual. Minstrelsy contributed to these stereotypes and beliefs about the black body by controlling how others perceived it. Minstrelsy allowed white people to take ownership over the black body by literally putting it on as a costume through blackface. They were then able to “prove” an amount of stereotypes through this, especially on account that many of the audience members did not know whether the people on stage were actually black or not.

Tying blackness to the body is something that has been done to justify colonialism as well as slavery. Much of this ties back to ideas that began to form during the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment marked the mind, reason, and individualism as core values; values that were used to distinguish between the “savage man” and “civilized man”. This was then used as reason to justify that the “savage” individual’s ideal role is physical labor, thus justifying slavery. The savage man was also believed to lack the intellect that the civilized man had. This idea was used justify the belief that people of differing races were of different species, and was also used to prove the need for savages to be “civilized” by Western/white society. These ideas reduced black people to merely a body, and deemed whites to be better because of their supposedly superior intellectual capabilities. It must be noted that this idea of connecting blackness to the body is deeply rooted in the belief that the body is sinful and dirty, as opposed to the purity of the mind. This is an idea which certainly can, and should, be questioned. But for the purpose of this blog post, it will be assumed that association with the body is going to be perceived by people as a negative thing.

Minstrelsy further emphasized this association of blackness with the body. This is particularly evident in this advertisement for a Minstrel Show in 1899. This ad depicts black women as hyper-sexualized and alludes to the “Jezebel” stereotype, an idea rooted in slavery which labels black women as promiscuous and sexually aggressive. Referring to a black woman as a jezebel has often been used to blame the infidelity of white men on the black women they had relations with. This hyper-sexualization further associates black people to the body, and implies an inability to control bodily instincts. The men depicted in the advertisement also emphasizes the association of blackness with the body as opposed to the mind. This is done through their childlike reaction to the woman in the advertisement. Their facial expressions mimic childlike amusement with the female body, while simultaneously depicting black men as out of control of their sexual desires. By connecting blackness with sexualization and desire, it again implies that black people are not capable of putting mind over matter, thus emphasizing the dichotomy of whiteness as associated with the mind, and blackness with the body.

Between the use of blackface, contributing to stereotypes, mockery, and misrepresentation of black culture, minstrel performances clearly have a a lot of racist elements within them. That being said, there are nuances to it. After all, it did allow black performers to have their first opportunity to perform in front of a white audience, and it could be argued that it helped popularize a variety of black music including spirituals. However even with these nuances, most aspects within minstrelsy perpetuated racism, sometimes in ways that are not as explicit as blackface, specifically strengthening the association of blackness with the body. Through this, minstrelsy reasserted this underlying justification behind treating black people as lesser that dates back to slavery and colonial times. 

Sources:

  • “Gideon’s Big Minstrel Carnival Advertisement.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Image. https://africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1612309.
  • Marisa J. Fuentes, “Jezebel.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. https://africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1750376.
  • “Minstrel Music with African American Jim Crow Caricatures.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. https://africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1612304.
  • Peter A. Schrom, “The Enlightenment and the Origins of Racism” State University of New York at Albany, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2016.

William Henry Lane “Master Juba”

William Henry Lane, know as “Master Juba” on stage, was the most renowned black stage performer prior to the 1850’s. William performed with minstrel shows (Ethiopian Serenaders) and toured not only in the U.S. but to Europe. He was the first African American to perform in England. He was a famous performer and is arguably a main attributer and constituent to what we now call tap dance.

1848 Portrait of William Lane.

From Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class we know that African Americans dressing up and putting cork on their faces was a known thing, but Lane had done this in a time that was a prequel to thus. Lane had seemingly found success in the minstrel circuit.

Lane was a huge success over in England and the rest of Europe. An English critic after seeing Lane perform said:

Juba’s whirlwind style [was] executed with ease and “natural grace.” “[Such] mobility of muscles, such flexibility of joints, such boundings, such slidings, such gyrations, such toes and heelings, such backwardings and forwardings, such posturings, such firmness of foot, such elasticity of tendon, such mutation of movement, such vigor, such variety . . . such powers of endurance, such potency of ankle. (Conway)

Lane Performing in England.

Many viewers had a difficult time describing Lane’s style of dancing. It was upbeat and followed closely to the percussion of the music. It is argued whether the inability of others to describe his dancing style was do to his African background and whether he brought pieces of African dance into his style or not. Regardless, Lane became a sensation.

Lane and his style of dancing was so renowned that he had been mentioned in the works of Charles Dickens. He lived a hectic and short life, “records indicate Master Juba lived the intense life of a touring performer, giving shows every night. He also opened a dance school in London” (Peters). Unfortunately, Lane passed away in his late 20s in England.

Works Cited:

Conway, Cecelia. “William Henry ‘Master Juba’ Lane.” The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018, africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1591808. Accessed 7 Mar. 2018. 

Lott, Eric. Love and theft: blackface minstrelsy and the American working class. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Peters, Paula. “Lane, William Henry/Master Juba (1825-c. 1852).” Lane, William Henry/Master Juba (1825-c. 1852) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed.

 

Minstrelsy and Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.”

This week I found some painfully real minstrel primary source material and just want to warn readers that I deal with some racist material in this blog post. I came across a minstrel song entitled “Isn’t it a Wonder?” which isn’t at all as innocent as the title sounds. Written in 1861 by Henry Wood, “Isn’t it a Wonder?” would have been performed at a minstrel show by Wood’s group, “Wood’s Minstrels.” It is written in a thick dialect, and is full of stereotypes. Blacks are compared to a variety of animals, and are portrayed as confused and unintelligent.

“Isn’t it a Wonder?”

The message of the song is made explicit in the last stanza. Wood encourages white audiences to adjust to the changing society and to stop trying to “kill the colored race.” It is important to note that this song was written in 1861 – marking the year Lincoln was inaugurated and the start of the Civil War. One possible interpretation of this song is that it highlights the fear and uncertainty that many whites felt about slavery coming to an end. Another interpretation is that it expresses the sick and twisted appreciation whites had for black culture, as it was useful for mockery, entertainment/minstrel shows, and to escape social norms.

Fast-forward 156 years. Jay-Z releases the music video for “The Story of O.J.” which uses many of the inaccurate techniques that minstrelsy did to portray black people. It is drawn in a black and white cartoon style, and presents the viewer with a flood of stereotypical images of black people — they are monkeys, slaves, jazz players, and football players just to name a few. The characters resemble old Disney cartoons, such as Steamboat Willie, which most likely had ties to minstrelsy. We understand this due to the white gloves, over exaggerated animalistic facial features, and caveman portrayal of a child playing the bones. So, why does Jay-Z use these stereotypes? And why now?

I believe Jay-Z’s use of these racist stereotypes found in minstrelsy highlights his message about race in America – we’re dealing with the same issues now. He also addresses the racism within the black community, and the struggle for financial freedom and responsibility. In this music video Jay-Z responds to one of the problems that minstrelsy and songs like “Isn’t it a Wonder?” pose– the comedic relief that blacks provide to white audiences. Jay-Z expresses that no matter what black people do they are still exploited for profit and treated as second class citizens.

Sources

Wood, Henry. Isn’t it a Wonder. 1961. http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/Evans/?p_product=EAIX&p_theme=eai&p_nbid=F59V55CJMTUxMDgwMTg5MC44MDEyOTQ6MToxMzoxMzAuNzEuMjI4Ljgy&p_action=doc&p_docnum=2000&p_queryname=2&p_docref=v2:10D2F64C960591AE@EAIX-10F453B3EBFA3590@925-@1

Walt Minstry: Jungle Book’s Blackface Performance

Disney’s The Jungle Book, released in 1967, was a huge box office success. The film was praised highly for its attention to voice casting as a primary identifier of character’s personality and animation. Unfortunately, it is this exact quality which creates some problematic issues.

The monkeys of the jungle are racially coded as black, a problematic choice of animal characterization, and further worsened by aural stereotypes. In their essay “The Movie You See, The Movie You Don’t,” scholars Susan Miller and Greg Rhode note that “Jungle Book frequently relies on verbal class and gender stereotyping for its “innocent” fun, displacing the visual black and white of Song of the South onto aural stereotypes.” While the animation of monkeys would clearly not be racist, specifically representing those monkeys as African American puts the innocence of intentions a little more into question.

The very lyrics and style of the song King Louis sings become quickly controversial in light of the black coded nature assigned to his character. The famous song, “I Want to Be Like You” which King Louis and the monkeys sing, is all about the desire they hold to be human. The refraining chorus states: “Ooh, ooh, oh! I wanna be like you, I wanna walk like you, talk like you, too ooh, ooh. You’ll see it’s true, ooh, ooh! An ape like me, ee, ee. Can learn to be Juoo ooh man, too ooh, ooh.” Writing an entire song about the monkeys desiring recognition as humans, and clearly coding those monkeys as black poses an incredibly racist issue in the film, highly inappropriate for a children’s animation.

Next, the issue of the black coded nature becomes further problematic by the fact that they are once again played by white actors. Just as Jim Crow in Dumbo was voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards, so King Louis is voiced by white actor Louis Prima. While it would clearly be racist to choose African American voices to present these stereotypes, it is in many ways worse to choose a white actor to play a clear racial stereotype as this is the exact premise behind blackface minstrel performances.

Even within the plot of jungle book itself, the idea of minstrelsy is promoted by the fact that Baloo dresses up in monkey attire, and proceeds to imitate and sing the same song as King Louis. Baloo, as a non-monkey, donning “monkeyface” and performing in exaggerated style, his perceived understanding of what that means, is a close parallel to blackface in which a white, dons “blackface” and proceeds to imitate a black coded performance based on offensive stereotypes.

Comparing the images of Baloo in monkey attire, with images of blackface performers, once again the similarities are disturbingly similar. The hair, large lips, cartoonish body language, Baloo is clearly putting on a blackface performance with King Louis.

jungle bookblackface

The images and parallels, promotion and reinforcement of blackface minstrel performance in today’s society is still present and alive in areas many don’t realize. Perhaps more disturbing is attempting to understand how to respond to such images in our culture. It is difficult to determine the intentionality of these types of images and stereotypes present in The Jungle Book. Are the creators deliberately placing racist material in their films, or are these simply embedded structures that people promote without realizing or understanding the implications of their meaning? Would boycotting any film which presents these stereotypes prove helpful in any regard? Ultimately, the only way that a society can change is through each individual influence on it. Becoming better educated in historical traditions, mistakes, and problems can help us become more aware of them in today’s society and prevent us from incorporating them into our own productions of art, actions, or words. By understanding the history of traditions such as blackface and minstrelsy we can become more aware of their presence in films such as The Jungle Book and make better judgments and criticisms of their problematic issues and hopefully prevent the continuation of them in future films.

Works Cited:

Miller, Susan, and Greg Rode. “The Movie You See, The Movie You Don’t.” From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture.” Ed. Bell, Elizabeth, and Lynda Haas, Laura Sells. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. 86-103. Print.

 

Walt Minstry: Dumbo’s Jim Crow

Disney’s feature film Dumbo, released in 1941, tells the tale of a loveable baby elephant born with unnaturally large ears which he is consequently able to use for flying. One of the scenes presented in the film presents some highly problematic material however. Halfway through the film, Dumbo runs into a group of crows who assist in motivating, encouraging, and teaching him to fly. By aid of the “magic feather” the crows give him, Dumbo is then able to return to the circus and perform a revolutionary new act which crazes the nation.

Unfortunately, the crows Dumbo runs into are presented as African Americans. The very fact that Disney chose the particular characterization of crows to display black-coded stereotypes is questionable, but to make matters even worse, their leader’s scripted name is Jim Crow. The blatant reference to the offensive term of Jim Crow, the stereotyped language given to the crows, the voice casting of African Americans as the crows they’re playing, the animator behind their creation, and the role they play in the film’s plot all pose large problems which can’t be overlooked.

“Jim Crow” is a term full of racial connotations most often associated with the Jim Crow laws of the early 1900’s. Historian C. Vann Woodward notes that while, “The origin of the term ‘Jim Crow’ applied to Negroes is lost in obscurity. Thomas D. Rice wrote a song and dance called ‘Jim Crow’ in 1832, and the term had become an adjective by 1838.” The origin and etymology of the term comes specifically from a minstrel performance by Thomas D. Rice from the early 19th century. Although the exact origins of Rice’s inspiration for the Jim Crow character are unknown, it quickly became a sensational performance phenomenon. In his book Jump Jim Crow, W. T. Lhamon Jr explores the history and characteristics of the Jim Crow craze. He states that “No other American cultural figure stirred a legacy that endures such widespread censure as well as continual appropriation.” Such a widespread cultural figure can’t be referred to without indicating the negative racial stereotypes associated with it. A visual comparison between the two characters confirms the similarities between T. D. Rice’s representation of Jim Crow in minstrelsy and the animation of Dumbo’s crows. Even the poses, dance, and body language of Dumbo is a direct tribute to the original minstrel tradition.jim crowjim crow dumbo

Having already established a problematic visual representation of Jim Crow, the song “When I See an Elephant Fly” next adds a disturbing linguistic stereotyping of African American language. The main line of the chorus uses speech reminiscent of early minstrel songs: “But I be don’ seen ‘bout ev’rythang, when I see an elephant fly” It’s interesting to note that the lyrics of this song in current Disney songbooks have changed the lyrics to “But I think I will have seen ev’rything when I see an elephant fly.” The removal of dialect from the printed sheet music seems to reflect a recognition of the racist implications to it.

The controversial visual and linguistic stereotypes presented in Dumbo’s crows are further complicated by the voice casting. Jim Crow is voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards, while the rest of the crows are voiced by the African American choir Hall Johnson. (The same chorus Disney used in the racially controversial film Song of the South.) Whether it’s more problematic to have African American actors voicing racist stereotypes or to have a white actor voice a caricature of Jim Crow is difficult to determine. To have a white actor giving a racially black coded performance, even if animated, is the same act as a blackface minstrel show. And if the animated character being performed is Jim Crow himself, what makes this any different than T. D. Rice’s own performance a century prior to Dumbo’s release?

Works Cited:

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. Print.

Lhamon, W. T. Jr. Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003. Print.

Disney Productions: The New Illustrated Disney Songbook. New York: Abrams, 1986. Print.