Representing African Americans in Transatlantic Abolitionism and Blackface Minstrelsy

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Over time, the presence of black women in these shows ushered in a new platform to showcase their talent and tell their own stories of struggle, success, relationships, and womanhood. Women, such as Ma Rainey, who got her start singing and performing as the "coon shouter" with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels is recognized as one of the innovators of the "Blues" sound.

Rainey's songs spoke to the often difficult experience of black women in the South. These songs were [83] "filled with emotion and the sad, hard truths about life". Rainey's raw talent for singing the Blues landed her a record deal in with Paramount Records. With her success as a performer and businesswoman she is named "The Mother of Blues. Ma Rainey was one of the first successful Black women to emerge from Minstrel shows, but the recording of "Crazy Blues" by Bessie Smith created a huge audience and following and [84] "essentially created an industry for blues songs recorded by women.

With her success and super stardom she is named "The Empress of Blues. The Christy Minstrels established the basic structure of the minstrel show in the s.


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During the first, the entire troupe danced onto stage singing a popular song. Various stock characters always took the same positions: The interlocutor acted as a master of ceremonies and as a dignified, if pompous, straight man.

A (Brief) History of Blackface & Minstrelsy

He had a somewhat aristocratic demeanor, a "codfish aristocrat", [88] while the endmen exchanged jokes and performed a variety of humorous songs. One minstrel, usually a tenor , came to specialize in this part; such singers often became celebrities, especially with women. The second portion of the show, called the olio , was historically the last to evolve, as its real purpose was to allow for the setting of the stage for act three behind the curtain.

It had more of a variety show structure. Performers danced, played instruments, did acrobatics, and demonstrated other amusing talents. Troupes offered parodies of European-style entertainments, and European troupes themselves sometimes performed. The highlight was when one actor, typically one of the endmen, delivered a faux-black-dialect stump speech , a long oration about anything from nonsense to science, society, or politics, during which the dim-witted character tried to speak eloquently, only to deliver countless malapropisms, jokes, and unintentional puns.

All the while, the speaker moved about like a clown, standing on his head and almost always falling off his stump at some point. With blackface makeup serving as fool's mask, these stump speakers could deliver biting social criticism without offending the audience, [92] although the focus was usually on sending up unpopular issues and making fun of blacks' ability to make sense of them. The afterpiece rounded out the production. In the early days of the minstrel show, this was often a skit set on a Southern plantation that usually included song-and-dance numbers and featured Sambo- and Mammy-type characters in slapstick situations.

The emphasis lay on an idealized plantation life and the happy slaves who lived there. Nevertheless, antislavery viewpoints sometimes surfaced in the guise of family members separated by slavery, runaways, or even slave uprisings. The humor of these came from the inept black characters trying to perform some element of high white culture.

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Slapstick humor pervaded the afterpiece, including cream pies to the face, inflated bladders, and on-stage fireworks. The afterpiece allowed the minstrels to introduce new characters, some of whom became quite popular and spread from troupe to troupe. The earliest minstrel characters took as their base popular white stage archetypes—frontiersmen, fishermen, hunters, and riverboatsmen whose depictions drew heavily from the tall tale —and added exaggerated blackface speech and makeup. These Jim Crows and Gumbo Chaffs fought and boasted that they could "wip [their] weight in wildcats" or "eat an alligator".

Minstrel show - Wikipedia

Eventually, several stock characters emerged. Chief among these were the slave, who often maintained the earlier name Jim Crow, and the dandy, known frequently as Zip Coon, from the song Zip Coon. An arrogant, ostentatious figure, he dressed in high style and spoke in a series of malaprops and puns that undermined his attempts to appear dignified.

The blackface makeup and illustrations on programs and sheet music depicted them with huge eyeballs, very wide noses, and thick-lipped mouths that hung open or grinned foolishly; one character expressed his love for a woman with "lips so large a lover could not kiss them all at once". Minstrel characters were often described in animalistic terms, with "wool" instead of hair, "bleating" like sheep, and having "darky cubs" instead of children. Other claims were that blacks had to drink ink when they got sick "to restore their color" and that they had to file their hair rather than cut it.

They were inherently musical, dancing and frolicking through the night with no need for sleep. Thomas "Daddy" Rice introduced the earliest slave archetype with his song " Jump Jim Crow " and its accompanying dance. Slave characters in general came to be low-comedy types with names that matched the instruments they played: Brudder Tambo or simply Tambo for the tambourine and Brudder Bones or Bones for the bone castanets or bones.

These endmen for their position in the minstrel semicircle were ignorant and poorly spoken, being conned, electrocuted, or run over in various sketches. They happily shared their stupidity; one slave character said that to get to China, one had only to go up in a balloon and wait for the world to rotate below. Tambo and Bones's simple-mindedness and lack of sophistication were highlighted by pairing them with a straight man master of ceremonies called the interlocutor.

This character, although usually in blackface, [] spoke in aristocratic English and used a much larger vocabulary. The humor of these exchanges came from the misunderstandings on the part of the endmen when talking to the interlocutor:.


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Tambo and Bones were favorites of the audience, and their repartee with the interlocutor was for many the best part of the show. There was an element of laughing with them for the audience, as they frequently made light of the interlocutor's grandiose ways. The interlocutor was responsible for beginning and ending each segment of the show. To this end, he had to be able to gauge the mood of the audience and know when it was time to move on. Accordingly, the actor who played the role was paid very well in comparison to other non-featured performers.

There were many variants on the slave archetype. The old darky or old uncle formed the head of the idyllic black family. Like other slave characters, he was highly musical and none-too-bright, but he had favorable aspects like his loving nature and the sentiments he raised regarding love for the aged, ideas of old friendships, and the cohesiveness of the family. His death and the pain it caused his master was a common theme in sentimental songs.

Alternatively, the master could die, leaving the old darky to mourn. Stephen Foster's "Old Uncle Ned" was the most popular song on this subject. After the Civil War, this character became the most common figure in plantation sketches.

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He frequently cried about the loss of his home during the war, only to meet up with someone from the past such as the child of his former master. The counterpart to the slave was the dandy , a common character in the afterpiece. He was a northern urban black man trying to live above his station by mimicking white, upper-class speech and dress—usually to no good effect. Their clothing was a ludicrous parody of upper-class dress: They spent their time primping and preening, going to parties, dancing and strutting, and wooing women.

The black soldier became another stock type during the Civil War and merged qualities of the slave and the dandy. He was acknowledged for playing some role in the war, but he was more frequently lampooned for bumbling through his drills or for thinking his uniform made him the equal of his white counterparts.

He was usually better at retreating than fighting, and, like the dandy, he preferred partying to serious pursuits. Still, his introduction allowed for some return to themes of the breakup of the plantation family. Non-black stereotypes played a significant role in minstrelsy, and although still performed in blackface, were distinguished by their lack of black dialect. American Indians before the Civil War were usually depicted as innocent symbols of the pre-industrial world or as pitiable victims whose peaceful existence had been shattered by the encroachment of the white man.

However, as the United States turned its attentions West, American Indians became savage, pagan obstacles to progress. These characters were formidable scalpers to be feared, not ridiculed; any humor in such scenarios usually derived from a black character trying to act like one of the frightful savages. One sketch began with white men and American Indians enjoying a communal meal in a frontier setting.

As the American Indians became intoxicated, they grew more and more antagonistic, and the army ultimately had to intervene to prevent the massacre of the whites. Even favorably presented American Indian characters usually died tragically. Minstrels caricatured them by their strange language "ching chang chung" , odd eating habits dogs and cats , and propensity for wearing pigtails. Parodies of Japanese became popular when a Japanese acrobat troupe toured the U.

A run of Gilbert and Sullivan 's The Mikado in the mids inspired another wave of Asian characterizations. The few white characters in minstrelsy were stereotypes of immigrant groups like the Irish and Germans. Irish characters first appeared in the s, portrayed as hotheaded, odious drunkards who spoke in a thick brogue.

However, beginning in the s, many Irishmen joined minstrelsy, and Irish theatergoers probably came to represent a significant part of the audience, so this negative image was muted. Germans, on the other hand, were portrayed favorably from their introduction to minstrelsy in the s. They were responsible and sensible, though still portrayed as humorous for their large size, hearty appetites, and heavy "Dutch" accents. Around the time of the s there was a lot of national conflict as to how people viewed African Americans. Because of that interest in the Negro people, these songs granted the listener new knowledge about African Americans, who were different from themselves, even if the information was prejudiced.

Troupes took advantage of this interest and marketed sheet music of the songs they featured so that viewers could enjoy them at home and other minstrels could adopt them for their act. How much influence black music had on minstrel performance remains a debated topic. Minstrel music certainly contained some element of black culture, added onto a base of European tradition with distinct Irish and Scottish folk music influences.

Musicologist Dale Cockrell argues that early minstrel music mixed both African and European traditions and that distinguishing black and white urban music during the s is impossible. The inauthenticity of the music and the Irish and Scottish elements in it are explained by the fact that slaves were rarely allowed to play native African music and therefore had to adopt and adapt elements of European folk music. Early blackface songs often consisted of unrelated verses strung together by a common chorus.

In this pre-Emmett minstrelsy, the music "jangled the nerves of those who believed in music that was proper, respectable, polished, and harmonic, with recognizable melodies. The minstrel show texts sometimes even mixed black lore, such as stories about talking animals or slave tricksters, with humor from the region southwest of the Appalachians, itself a mixture of traditions from different races and cultures. African banjo and tambourine with European fiddle and bones [] In short, early minstrel music and dance was not true black culture; it was a white reaction to it.

In the late s, a decidedly European structure and high-brow style became popular in minstrel music. The banjo , played with "scientific touches of perfection" [] and popularized by Joel Sweeney , became the heart of the minstrel band. Songs like the Virginia Minstrels' hit " Old Dan Tucker " have a catchy tune and energetic rhythm, melody and harmony; [] minstrel music was now for singing as well as dancing.

The Spirit of the Times even described the music as vulgar because it was "entirely too elegant" and that the "excellence" of the singing "[was] an objection to it. Despite the elements of ridicule contained in blackface performance, midth century white audiences, by and large, believed the songs and dances to be authentically black.

Representing African Americans In Transatlantic Abolitionism and Blackface Minstrelsy

For their part, the minstrels always billed themselves and their music as such. The songs were called "plantation melodies" or "Ethiopian choruses", among other names. By using the black caricatures and so-called black music, the minstrels added a touch of the unknown to the evening's entertainment, which was enough to fool audiences into accepting the whole performance as authentic. The minstrels' dance styles, on the other hand, were much truer to their alleged source. The success of "Jump Jim Crow" is indicative: It was an old English tune with fairly standard lyrics, which leaves only Rice's dance—wild upper-body movements with little movement below the waist—to explain its popularity.

One performance by Lane in was described as consisting of "sliding steps, like a shuffle , and not the high steps of an Irish jig. The walk around, a common feature of the minstrel show's first act, was ultimately of West African origin and featured a competition between individuals hemmed in by the other minstrels. Elements of white tradition remained, of course, such as the fast-paced breakdown that formed part of the repertoire beginning with Rice.

Minstrel dance was generally not held to the same mockery as other parts, although contemporaries such as Fanny Kemble argued that minstrel dances were merely a "faint, feeble, impotent—in a word, pale Northern reproductions of that ineffable black conception. These songs remained relatively authentic in nature, antiphonal with a repetitive structure that relied heavily on call and response. The black troupes sang the most authentic jubilees, while white companies inserted humorous verses and replaced religious themes with plantation imagery, often starring the old darky.

Jubilee eventually became synonymous with plantation. The minstrel show played a powerful role in shaping assumptions about blacks. However, unlike vehemently anti-black propaganda from the time, minstrelsy made this attitude palatable to a wide audience by couching it in the guise of well-intentioned paternalism. Popular entertainment perpetuated the racist stereotype of the uneducated, ever-cheerful, and highly musical black well into the s.

Even as the minstrel show was dying out in all but amateur theater, blackface performers became common acts on vaudeville stages and in legitimate drama. These entertainers kept the familiar songs, dances, and pseudo-black dialect, often in nostalgic looks back at the old minstrel show. The most famous of these performers is probably Al Jolson , who took blackface to the big screen in the s in films such as The Jazz Singer Minstrel shows -- Social aspects -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century. Minstrel shows -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.

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