Minstrel shows and minstrelsy appeared to be a phenomenon of America’s distant past. Not so, you don’t have to look too far to find examples of this disgraceful period in history. The modern-day minstrel show is seen in our daily lives.
The incarnation of this shameful episode in American history is repeated over and over in fried chicken commercials, debt programs and a host of other commercials that portray African-Americans in a negative light.
The latest examples of this is the woman in the Popeye’s fried chicken commercial who is heavy and sassy. And of course she speaks with a thick southern accent, with a touch of Ebonics. The chicken mammy is a disgraceful reminder of minstrelsy that was so prevalent in our country in the not-too-distant past.
The only thing missing is that she is not doing the commercial in black face. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, flava a flav is announcing the grand opening of his fried chicken restaurants. This is the guy who had his own reality show and rose to stardom with the rap group “Public Enemy.”
These are examples that make middle-class black America cringe with disgust and embarrassment. Sadly, this image gives comfort to a lot of Americans who want to believe in the ideal of white supremacy.
These buffoonish caricatures of African-Americans help support the notion of black inferiority. Herein lies the rub. It’s hard for people who are close minded to reconcile the existence of a Barack Obama. Compared against the minstrelsy that we see in TV commercials and sadly,on the evening news and Fox news. You can’t reconcile the two; It makes people’s computers crash.
In discussions with many progressive minded people the consensus is that the polished, Ivy League educated and here’s my favorite word, “articulate” Barack Obama flies in the face of anything even closely related to minstrelsy. Thank God for change!
To younger members of our reading audience you may be wondering what exactly is a minstrel show. Minstrel shows lampooning black people as ignorant, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, joyous, and musical.
The first minstrel shows started before the Civil War. In the beginning it was a form of American entertainment consisted of comic skits, variety acts dancing, and music. Originally, it was performed by white people in black face and after the Civil War the shows are performed by black people in black face.
In the late 1840s black face minstrel shows were the national art of the time translating formal art such as Opera into popular terms for a general audience. By the turn-of-the-century, the minstrel show enjoyed but a shadow of its former popularity, having been replaced for the most part by vaudeville.
The typical minstrel performance followed a three act structure. The troupe first danced on the stage then exchanged wisecracks and sang songs. The second part featured a variety of entertainment including the pun filled stop speech. The final act consisted of a slapstick musical plantation skit.
The most popular characters of minstrel shows were the slave and the dandy. These are further divided into sub archetypes such as the mammy her counterpart the old darkie, the provocative mulatto wench, and the black soldier. Let’s examine the psychology of the “dandy” Or “Jim Dandy” or “Zip Dandy” as he was called. This was a male Negro who would be attired in formal wear such as a tuxedo with top hat and cane. The punchline was, why would a black man ever have an occasion to be dressed in such fashion given his low station in life? White audiences found this hilarious!
Spirituals known as jubilees entered the repertoire in the 1870s, marking the first undeniably black music to be used in minstrelsy. Black face minstrelsy was the first distinctly American theatrical form.
In the 1830s and 1840s, it was at the core of the rise of American music industry, and for several decades provided the lens through which white America saw black America. On one hand it had strong racist aspects; on the other hand, it afforded white Americans a singular and broad awareness of significant aspects of black American culture. Which were totally not true and only supported racist stereotypes of African-Americans.
It seems that buffoonish images, caricatures and minstrelsy gives comfort to those who lament the passing of a bygone era. On the other hand, to those of us who welcome the change that has occurred, it gives us strength and hope for a better America.