Blackface minstrelsy was America’s most popular form of live entertainment in the 1840s and 1850s. It was the first uniquely American theatrical form and one of its first industries of culture. Featuring music and comedy skits performed primarily by white men made up with burnt cork to appear black, it was marketed as an authentic representation of African American culture. Blackface characters generally portrayed African Americans in comic exaggerations, leading past historians to determine that the form was little more than an example of the prevailing racist attitudes in antebellum America. Today, scholars seem to agree that minstrelsy was much more complex and nuanced than that. Along with expressions of race, minstrelsy embodied ideas of class struggle and misogyny. And, while often reducing African Americans to cruel stereotypes, the success of minstrelsy was an indication of the genuine interest of working-class white men in the music and culture of blacks.
Songs with this Tag
PBS American Experience: Stephen Foster
Learn more about the history and legacy of the blackface minstrel show in these excerpts of interviews with historians Dale Cockrell, Eric Lott, Deane Root, Fath Ruffins, and Josephine Wright, writers Ken Emerson and Mel Watkins, and performers Nanci Griffith and Thomas Hampson.