It is no coincidence that the immense success of the minstrel shows and the growing consciousness of the American public over the issue of slavery happened at the same time. The problem of the treatment of blacks in American society persisted in peoples minds; it was something they had to deal with sooner or later, whether they wanted to or not. But the people living in the North had no real idea what blacks were like. There are reports that in the early days of minstrelsy minstrels were sometimes mistaken for real blacks(1). So the minstrels in a certain way satisfied the curiosity of the Americans concerning the slaves. But they did not provide the audience with an authentic image of blacks, rather with an image that was shaped for the needs of the people. "From the outset, minstrelsy unequivocally branded Negroes as inferiors."(2) By portraying blacks on the stage either as childlike, stupid, happy and always singing fools, or as good old slaves loving their master and being content with their fate, they kept them at a non-threatening distance.
The Northern whites and the minstrels had an ambivalent position concerning slavery. On one hand they wanted to abolish slavery and were furious about the cruelties they had heard from the South, but on the other hand they feared the changes that a new social position of the blacks would bring for them. At the same time as they attacked the South for the injustice of slavery the minstrels created an idealized and romantic world for the Negroes on the Southern plantations. They created the character of the wandering darkie, who couldnt find his place in the free world and longed to be back on his plantation, where an idyllic and carefree life waited for him. This nostalgic tale, that was most frequently used in the sentimental songs of Stephen Foster, assured the people that the Negro had his place in the South and not in the North. So laughing at and with the minstrel clown served as a vehicle for the mixed feelings of the audience towards this question.
The continuous stressing of the ideal world on the plantation had a side-effect. "These sentimental songs sharply contrasted the stable, loving families of an idyllic rural life to the harsh realities and social chaos of [Northern] cities."(3) Maybe not knowingly the minstrels emphasized family values that were threatened by progress and urbanization and offered the audience symbols of escape from their own world.
But the minstrels not only used the blackface mask to give the audience an idealized image of how the blacks were supposed to be, they also used it in the way of the classical fool. In the tradition of the commedia dell arte the blackface served just as a mask that freed the artist from all conventions and allowed him to poke fun at everything. "Through the antics and opinions of these characters, audiences could laugh at some of their own difficulties and anxieties while being assured that someone was more ignorant and worse off than they."(4) Through this mask they could also express serious criticism without being taken seriously. Social criticism became more and more prevalent in the 1860s, when the Civil War radically changed Americans and their consciousness. Minstrels could not escape the topic of the war and they did not want to. As a result they gradually shifted away from Negro topics and added a lot of social commentary. In the end this widened range of themes and the constant addition of new elements added to the decline of the minstrel shows. The blackface mask had lost its original sense. But it was also the radically shifting American society, turning to other entertainment products like the vaudeville, that led to the disappearance of the minstrel show.
(1) Toll, Robert, p. 38.
(2) Ibid., p. 167.
(3) Ibid., p. 86.
(4) Ibid., p. 161.
© 2022 by Jochen Scheytt