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Burnt Cork

Burnt Cork: Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Burnt Cork
    Book Description:

    Beginning in the 1830s and continuing for more than a century, blackface minstrelsy—stage performances that claimed to represent the culture of black Americans—remained arguably the most popular entertainment in North America. A renewed scholarly interest in this contentious form of entertainment has produced studies treating a range of issues: its contradictory depictions of class, race, and gender; its role in the development of racial stereotyping; and its legacy in humor, dance, and music, and in live performance, film, and television. The style and substance of minstrelsy persist in popular music, tap and hiphop dance, the language of the standup comic, and everyday rituals of contemporary culture. The blackface makeup all but disappeared for a time, though its influence never diminished—and recently, even the makeup has been making a comeback. This collection of original essays brings together a group of prominent scholars of blackface performance to reflect on this complex and troublesome tradition. Essays consider the early relationship of the blackface performer with American politics and the antislavery movement; the relationship of minstrels to the commonplace compromises of the touring “show” business and to the mechanization of the industrial revolution; the exploration and exploitation of blackface in the mass media, by D. W. Griffith and Spike Lee, in early sound animation, and in reality television; and the recent reappropriation of the form at home and abroad. In addition to the editor, contributors include Dale Cockrell, Catherine Cole, Louis ChudeSokei, W. T. Lhamon, Alice Maurice, Nicholas Sammond, and Linda Williams.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-210-3
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction: The Persistence of Blackface and the Minstrel Tradition
    (pp. 1-17)

    Not long ago I was approached by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, where I teach, to be interviewed on a radio talk show regarding the question “Why has there been a resurgence in the use of blackface in contemporary society?” The interview did not take place—more newsworthy events took precedence—but the question remains. Although I cannot anticipate the experience of the reader of this volume, in my own experience, in just the past few years (as of this writing), I have been repeatedly confronted by blackface in almost every “walk” of my life as a spectator.¹ In...

  6. 1 Turning around Jim Crow
    (pp. 18-50)
    W. T. LHAMON JR.

    “If you pass Hepzibah’s cent-shop,” wrote Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne after readingThe House of the Seven Gables, “buy me a Jim Crow (fresh) and send it to me by Ned Higgins.”¹ In 1851, when Melville asked his friend Hawthorne for a Jim Crow cookie, the phrase, figure, and behavior had a different sense than they do today. My subject is that difference, how it came about, and its implications. I begin with Melville’s enthusiasm for Jim Crow tokens not because they return us to an origin for Jim Crow. That origin is a process begun long ago in...

  7. 2 Of Soundscapes and Blackface: From Fools to Foster
    (pp. 51-72)

    The song “Jim Crow,” first made famous by Thomas D. Rice in 1830, was a lot of theater and dance, and not much music. One critic observed that it “has a feature that belongs to few songs—it is mostly made up of dancing.”¹ Another said of “Jim Crow” that it was “a dramatic song, depending for its success, perhaps more than any play ever written for the stage, upon the action and mimetic powers of the performer.”² Tom Rice himself came from the theater and always remained a part of it, never laying claim to being a musician.³ All...

  8. 3 Death and the Minstrel: Race, Madness, and Art in the Last (W)Rites of Three Early Blackface Performers
    (pp. 73-103)

    The work of historians of popular culture demands that we make much of little, the more so the further back in time we wish to travel, and the further down we descend in the hierarchy of personal celebrity and generic respectability. For those of us who make this journey, our research is measured in lines of text, not pages, and in partial itineraries, not scrapbooks of press clippings. And yet there is a virtue to studying such nearly invisible brute events, in part (counterintuitively) because there is so little intervening and interfering historical record. Significant personalities who are acknowledged as...

  9. 4 The Uncanny History of Minstrels and Machines, 1835–1923
    (pp. 104-132)

    On or about December 1835, sometime early in the month, though the details remain appropriately mythical and therefore necessarily fuzzy, American popular culture officially began. It may seem obvious that this is merely a restating of Virginia Woolf’s famous declaration of the change in sensibilities that signals the formal birth of what we call literary or cultural modernism, but in truth it comes from Judith Wilt’s paraphrasing of Woolf in a well-known essay that begins, “In or around December, 1897[,] … Victorian Gothic changed—into Victorian Science Fiction.”¹ Wilt’s exploration of the birth of science fiction “in the light of...

  10. 5 Surprised by Blackface: D. W. Griffith and One Exciting Night
    (pp. 133-163)

    According to current critical wisdom, D. W. Griffith’s 1922 filmOne Exciting Nightfails to deliver the excitement of its title. Indeed, many critics consider it the legendary filmmaker’s very worst film, playing to all his weaknesses, both racial and aesthetic.¹ Not equipped for the tight plotting of mystery or for the light comedy required by the kind of clever modern stage play he was attempting to imitate, Griffith is deemed to have fallen flat. In a note on the film for the 2007Giornate del Cinema Mutoprogram, Steven Higgins concludes that the proof that Griffith lacked the ability...

  11. 6 “Gentlemen, Please Be Seated”: Racial Masquerade and Sadomasochism in 1930s Animation
    (pp. 164-190)

    In 1932 Walt Disney Productions releasedTrader Mickey, a new cartoon short featuring its rapidly rising star, Mickey Mouse. This cartoon followed a fairly standard format for the early sound era: a minimal plot and a centerpiece musical production number highlighted the wonders of the still relatively new technology of sync sound, and its use of popular melodies and dance numbers played on the trends of the day. The story, in this case, is that Mickey and his dog, Pluto, become shipwrecked on a distant shore, are captured by cannibals, and dance their way to freedom by playing on the...

  12. 7 From New Deal to No Deal: Blackface Minstrelsy, Bamboozled, and Reality Television
    (pp. 191-222)

    Spike Lee’sBamboozled(2000) defines itself for viewers from its very first word, spoken in voice-over narration by protagonist Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans): “Satire.” The film goes on to feature a full-blown minstrel show in which the performers—and ultimately the members of the studio audience—black up. In its goals and methods, you might say thatBamboozledtakes Lee’s typical “in your face” treatment of race relations and puts it “on your face.” But while the film does attempt to catalogue the history of blackface performance (and other stereotypical representations of African Americans), it aims its sharpest satire elsewhere,...

  13. 8 American Ghetto Parties and Ghanaian Concert Parties: A Transnational Perspective on Blackface
    (pp. 223-258)

    Ralph Ellison identified the minstrel mask as “an inseparable part of the national iconography,” and he is certainly not alone in seeing minstrelsy as a quintessentially American form.¹ How deeply embedded blackface is in our national psyche is perhaps nowhere more evident than the transformation of Jim Crow from a fictional nineteenth-century stage character to the rubric for legislation that enforced racial segregation in schools, public places, and public transportation for eighty-nine years. No other single performance tradition in U.S. history has had the same scope, popularity, volatility, and problematic endurance. The genre’s characteristic blackened face makeup, whitened lips, exaggerated...

  14. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 259-260)
  15. Index
    (pp. 261-266)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 267-267)