Minstrel Show

Reprinted from 2013, because it is topical.

I have said I must be among the last people to have acted in blackface in a minstrel show.  I must have been about 6 or 7 years old, so make it 1959 or 1960. Looking into the matter, small communities in the northeast seem to have had minstrel shows for a few years after that; the latest I can find is 1965. I confess I have not looked into it deeply, so there may be many later ones I simply missed. But I think they lasted longest in places where there were vanishingly few black people, and that is not accidental.

I don’t think these were the bigoted travesties of racial prejudice second only to lynch mobs that they are now perceived to be. The minstrel show was but one variant of a style of entertainment that made fun of types. Just like we do today.  We just design our feelings of superiority along political and personality lines now.  We are no kinder. That particular variant brought into focus why all the other ethnic humors were wrong.  So we dumped that and turned our meanness elsewhere almost immediately.  “All In The Family” for example.
More meanness, but different targets.

My father was a community theater actor, usually but not always in comic roles.  I remember the show being performed at Chelmsford High School, but this is almost surely wrong.  I must be confusing it with “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” which he played there another time. Yet I am certain it was a raised stage, with theatrical lighting enough to darken the audience to the players but not render them invisible.  It was something of a big deal.  I was in a silent skit, of a street bum or hobo trying to eat a sandwich on a park bench, but continually interrupted.  I, a sad boy looking hungrily at the sandwich, was one of the interruptions, the others being a thief, a policeman, and an attractive, parading woman. Decades later I learned that this latter was a stock minstrel character called the Yaller Gal. Very broad comedy, with double-takes and exaggerated expressions and gestures.  The Wyman wheelhouse, I now know.

I remember only that bit, and that the entire program was something of a variety show. It was all very similar to the other community variety shows I saw as a boy:  “Hicks In The Sticks” in 1966, in which I was the MC with stage whiskers and overalls, “Kiwanis Kapers” in 1969, which included that routine with guys’ stomachs painted like a face whistling while “Colonel Bogey’s March” was played – a laff riot, as always; skit nights at camp 1960-69; “Irish Eyes,” on the Central High stage in 1963 or 64, replete with early teens pretending to be sloshing ale and staggering about. People used bad accents and rank stereotypes a lot – German, Irish, Hillbilly, Texan, English, Southern, Italian, Mexican, French (but not French-Canadian, those were told privately), New Yorker, Chinese. It was just a traditional community performance which played up its old-fashionedness quite intentionally. It takes a while before people finally go “Y’know, we really shouldn’t be making fun of Negroes this way.  Even if there aren’t any within twenty miles and none of them will ever see it, it’s just kinda low and mean.”  And the next year, it would just be a variety show, with some stray German doctors or bowing Chinese for awhile, and then those would fall out too.

Not all of it was unkind, even when stereotyped.  More importantly, not all of it was stereotyped, even when unkind.  It was necessary only that somebody be the butt of a joke because they were stupid, for any reason.  That was what eventually pushed that penguin off the ice, I think. The scripts had gotten less racist over time, making fun of a generic stupid person on stage with the same lines that had been used since early burlesque (at least), but there was no getting around it.  Once you put on blackface (or a sombrero and serape) you were pretty much including the whole group in the accusation, even if there was nothing specifically Negro about the type of stupidity.

You can see both at work here: the blackface and accents are pretty rank. But the jokes themselves could be just anyone.

Notice that when people kept the format after 1967 or so, they could find only one group to be made fun of safely – Scandinavians.  Think Laugh-In’s Arte Johnson, the Muppet Show, Prairie Home Companion.  Other ethnic groups were mocked only in the gentlest manner, and most not at all.*  Relatedly, Foster Brooks – and Frank Fontaine as Crazy Guggenheim – dropped like a stone. Though Craze was something of a subtler type, showing innocent wisdom in his damaged thinking. You couldn’t do those routines now.

The petty meanness has not fled, only changed its costume.  We do think we are morally superior now, but it isn’t so. We just like congratulating ourselves on how we’re not racist – which we prove by finding racism in others. It’s a great disguise to keep us from looking at our own new and improved bigotries.

*There was a major exception, in being able to make fun of Hillbillies, but they often participated in same (Hee Haw, Minnie Pearl at the Grand
Old Opry).  That could turn mean, though, from other whites wanting to kick someone. Still does.

14 thoughts on “Minstrel Show”

  1. Back in the era you are talking about, AVI, the BBC (yes! That BBC) had a popular nationally-televised musical variety show called “The Black & White Minstrel Show”, featuring English entertainers with half of them in blackface. Of course, there were very few actual Africans in England in those days, and TV was in black & white anyway. There was nothing racist about that program. There was racism at the time, but it was directed at Germans, Italians, Irish, Welsh, Scots — all people who today’s simplistic Far Leftists lump together with the English in a unified “White” category.

    Who would have predicted in those far-off innocent days that we were heading for an upside-down world in which an adult Democrat politician who caused a traffic accident and fled from the scene of his crime would get a pass (as Beto has done), while another Democrat politician who was photographed in blackface while a silly teenager would be facing the end of his career? There have been speculations about how many female judges in the future are going to see their chances for a Supreme Court slot crash and burn when video emerges of their teenage appearance in the “Girls Gone Wild” series. Strange days.

  2. The Chicago equivalent of Grand Ole Opry was The National Barn Dance, which was held at the 8th street theater and was on national radio.

    National Barn Dance, broadcast by WLS-AM in Chicago, Illinois starting in 1924, was one of the first American country music radio programs and a direct precursor of the Grand Ole Opry.[1]

    National Barn Dance also set the stage for other similar programs, in part because the clear-channel signal of WLS could be received throughout most of the Midwest and even beyond in the late evening and nighttime hours, making much of the United States (and Canada) a potential audience. The program was well received and thus widely imitated. National Barn Dance ended its broadcast in 1968

    I used to listen too it as a small child in the 1940s. Once as a big treat, our black nursemaid took us to the theater to watch the broadcast.

    No blackface.

  3. I worked for an Army general in the middle 1980’s who most always included an ethnic joke in his public speeches. His chosen group was the Hitites. He always told the audience that he always choose the Hitites because they weren’t around any more to be offended. This was before Muslims were a special protected class and by extension any group in the Middle East.


  4. Before Northam started lying, the Stupid Republican side of me said we should cut him some slack. The MAGA Republican started looking for a rope (metaphorically, of course). Guess which side won.

    This is more fun than watching a train wreck, since there is no chance that actual human beings will be harmed.

  5. The one group that it is open season on is suburban Americans. The attacks on the Covington boys just revealed the barely hidden true feelings of the beastly Left. Hollywood is always trying to project their bizarre fantasies on the people whose main crime in their eyes is trying to lead normal lives apart from their collective moral sickness. The fact that nobody is buying it doesn’t even matter. Tearing the country apart is its own reward I guess.

  6. I’m probably naive, but I was cheered by the tone of the reporting on the most recent “racist” incident in Chicago. Maybe the MSM is at last showing as much educability as a flat worm. They’ve finally been shocked enough times to make an impression.

    Any actual evidence will be a surprise. So far, the sum total is a video of two people in the area at the same time.

  7. @ Death6 – A favorite pastor of mine used that to begin a sermon, about another pastor who felt ashamed of all his Norwegian jokes (the ECC was strongly Swedish) and switched to Hittites instead. “So there were these two Hittites, Ole and Sven…”

  8. Amish are considered fair game.

    There’s gentle ribbing of other groups that can be even loving, but too much is mean and evil.

  9. I am an Aggie (credentialed in two states), but a great fan of Aggie jokes. My attitude was that they were so obviously caricature, but clever that they were funny to me. They were obviously intended to be poking fun at the land grant heritage of Texas A&M University and by implication boost the standing of the University of Texas (referred to as Texas University or t. u. by Aggies). While some of the endless number of Aggie jokes were obscene and intended to be vicious, most were just funny and said in jest. Best to own it than let it get under one’s skin and give it legs.

    Here is an example, “How many Aggie electrical engineers does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer, “Three, one to hold the bulb and two to turn the ladder.” Special Aggie retort, “How many tea sips (Aggie slang for t. u. student or graduate) does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer, “No one knows since they don’t know how.”

    Many Aggies of my generation had the same attitude as I did and the bookstores around the A&M campus sold many, many Aggie joke books. Moral: Don’t take yourself (or your group identity) too seriously.


  10. A further point about the A&M-UT or Aggie/T-sip rivalry is that many Texas families are of mixed loyalty, with one child going to UT and another going to A&M. In that situation, lack of respect is hard to maintain. But humor remains.

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