BLACKING UP: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America by Robert C. Toll

BLACKING UP: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America

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Ignored by cultural critics and the genteel upper class, the minstrel show was America's most popular entertainment between 1840-1890. Crude and boisterous, it reflected the rough-and-ready style of the urban lower classes: flag-waving jingoism, ethnic bigotry, strong anti-aristocratic prejudice. Toll suggests that minstrel shows did much to satisfy the curiosity and appease the anxiety of whites about America's increasing ethnic diversity and especially about blacks. Invariably the routines projected a non-threatening image of plantation life: blacks portrayed as thick-lipped buffoons, ludicrous incompetents, and vain, irresponsible children. During the Civil War minstrel shows actually managed to stage Happy Uncle Tom by completely expurgating the anguish of Harriet Beecher Stowe's book. Destitute, shiftless Northern blacks were contrasted to the happy Southern darkies crooning Massa's in the Cold Cold Ground. But this grotesque caricature meant to reassure and lull white audiences was not the whole story. One of the functions of blackface was to give the minstrel the license of the classical fool. In his comic guise he could express genuine social criticism, and after the Civil War the minstrel show increasingly left plantation life to the new black troupes (though they had to work within the framework of white stereotypes) to concentrate on corrupt politicians, high taxes, stage coaches that drove too fast, and the general depravity of urban life. Though the image of blacks which it projected was scurrilous, the minstrel show did, paradoxically, incorporate some genuine elements of Afro-American life -- i.e., black music and dance. Eventually it also gave blacks access to American show business. Toll manages to convey the complex and often ambiguous attitudes which minstrels reflected while capturing the vitality of this raw, sentimental and sometimes violent entertainment. Important social history.

Pub Date: Nov. 14th, 1974
Publisher: Oxford