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This exhibit explores the history of minstrelsy, its significance in American history and theater, and its enduring legacy. Utilizing materials from the USF Tampa Library's Special Collections African American Sheet Music Collection, it is possible to trace the history of blackface minstrelsy from its obscure origins in the 1830s to Hollywood jazz superstardom in the 1920s.
Minstrelsy in America, for all of its frivolous humor and popularity, was an exploitative form of musical theater that exaggerated real-life black circumstances and reinforced dangerous stereotypes during the 19th and 20th centuries. The fact that blackface minstrelsy began in the antebellum period and endured throughout Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Great Migration, with performers collecting and adding cultural aspects from each era to their performances, hints at the impact, popularity, and complexity of the minstrel show.
White supremacy and the belief in black inferiority remained at minstrelsy’s base even though the structure of the performances and subjects discussed in the music varied over time. The genre shaped the nation’s views on race for over a century and reinforced white superiority well after the abolition of slavery. While some today assume that minstrelsy’s blackface has roots in the American South because of the genre’s focus on black degradation and slavery, minstrelsy was born and evolved initially in the North.
For the majority of whites living in the pre-Civil War North, slavery and black people were a distant reality, one that evoked mixed emotions. If slavery was the commodification of black labor, minstrelsy, with its focus on presenting authentically black songs and dances, was the commodification of black culture. However, the depictions of blacks in minstrel performances were exaggerated, dehumanizing and inaccurate. Instead of representing black culture on stage, blackface minstrel performers reflected and reinforced white supremacy.
After emancipation in 1865, African American performers, seeing minstrelsy as an opportunity for advancement, contributed a humanizing element to their portrayal of blacks even though they also performed in blackface. Black performers during the Jim Crow era combined blackface with the newly popular genre of vaudeville and brought a black political agenda to their stage performances. During the 1930s, minstrelsy lost its widespread popularity to jazz but could still be seen in aspects of American society such as film. The popular film The Jazz Singer (1927) was about a white man wanting to become a blackface performer and featured Al Jolson, the most well-known performer of the decade. At the time, the film was the biggest earner in Warner Bros., and its success indicated that the age of minstrelsy in American history was far from over. Even in the twenty-first century, the racial stereotypes derived from minstrel shows can still be seen in popular culture.