Minstrelsy began in the 1830’s (EL/05) and its greatest popularity was in the period 1846-54 (EL/09)
“While it was organised around the quite explicit ‘borrowing’ of black cultural materials for white dissemination, a borrowing that ultimately depended on the material relations of slavery, the minstrel show obscured these relations by pretending that slavery was amusing, right, and natural. Although it arose from a white obsession with black (male) bodies which underlies racial dread to our own day, it ruthlessly disavowed its fleshly investments through ridicule and racist lampoon.”
EL thinks there more to it than this, though: “blackface performance [was] the first formal public acknowledgement by whites of black culture [and] was based on small but significant crimes against settled ideas of racial demarcation, which indeed appear to be inevitable when white Americans enter the haunted realm of racial fantasy.”
EL, following remarks by Stuart Hall to the effect that popular culture, reflecting popular life, is full of “the ambiguities or contradictions that may characterise the pleasures of the masses” wants to argue “that in blackface minstrelsy’s audiences there were in fact contradictory racial impulses at work, impulses based in everyday lives and racial negotiations of the minstrel show’s working-class partisans. Indeed, there are reasons for thinking of blackface in the years prior to the Civil War as a far more unsettled phenomenon than has been supposed; critics of minstrelsy have too often dismissed working-class racial feeling as uncomplicated and monolithic, and historians of working-class culture have usually concurred – or made apologies.”
Moreover, says, EL, examination of the minstrel show phenomenon will help clarify issues surrounding the failure of antebellum labour abolitionist movements.
Ralph Ellison depicts the minstrels as the white man’s girding himself “by way of rituals that mirror rather than distance the Other, in which whites are touched by the blacks they would lampoon and are in the process told on, revealed.”
“From ‘Oh! Susanna’ to Elvis Presley, from circus clowns to Saturday morning cartoons, blackface acts
and words have figured significantly in the white Imaginary of the United States.”
Leslie Fiedler sees the white American male writer as “obsessed with white male-dark male dyads (Huck and Jim, Ishmael and Queequeg)” and the blackface minstrel is similarly orientated.
EL then examines the early history of the motion picture and sees blackface as of great importance. [There’s a Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson reference, here.]
Minstrelsy is “an index of popular white racial feeling”.
The blackface minstrels of Antebellum America were ‘ambivalent’ – drawn to black culture yet repressing it (through ridicule). That’s why he called his book ‘Love and Theft’.
Minstrelsy acts as “a shape-shifting middle term in racial conflict which began to disappear (in the 1920’s) once its historical function had been performed.” Yet it continued in the movies after that period.
The minstrel show succeeded “in introducing the cultures to each other.”
Via the mechanism of blackface, says John Szwed, black culture was able to ‘contaminate’ the dominant culture. He cites Mick Jagger’s being able to perform as he does without blackface as indicative of the fact that black culture has been absorbed by white.
The reactionary nostalgia for a “strumming Sambo” needs to be debunked, says EL, but so, too, does Constance Rourke’s celebration of minstrelsy as being about ‘blackness’, about the minstrelsy phenomenon being “a public forum for slave culture which might have liberating effects.”
EL says Rourke took up a ‘people’s culture’ position and EL says its sources “can be found in the writings of Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman and others.”
This, says EL, is a revival of an “impulse that had everything to do with a 1930’s reclamation of the ‘folk’, if not, as Warren Susman has suggested, with a new definition of ‘culture’ itself. … Rourke’s genial view is a relatively benign, and to that extent unhistorical one, though it has the virtue of acknowledging both the extensive effect of black cultural practices on blackface performance and the public effects of blackface itself. This position, in fact, was partially defended in Robert Toll’s Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (1974), and some have ventured it in refurbished form, but it has not been a position to which scholars regularly recur.”
The “tradition of minstrel-show criticism … began with Frederick Douglass’s articles in the North Star … ” but not until Ralph Ellison’s ‘Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke’ in 1958 was that tradition of regarding “minstrelsy as racial domination” revised to become the reigning view.
This ‘reigning view’ is “rather narrowly functionalist”, says EL, and is liable to degenELate into one whELe poststructuralist discourses reduce the whole debate about ‘race’ to meaninglessness. The debate needs be more subtle “we must now think of, say, the blackface mask as less a repetition of power relations than a signifier for them – a distorted mirror, reflecting displacements and condensations and discontinuities between which and the social field there exist lags, unevenness, multiple determinations. It will take a good deal of decoding to get at the meanings of blackface minstrelsy.”
EL situates his pov between the populist (Rourke) and revisionist (Douglass) extremes. These positions “see minstrelsy’s politics as univocal” whereas EL’s “study documents precisely the historical contradictions and social conflicts the minstrel show opened up.”
He goes about it this way:
In Part I he “reconstructs the antebellum cultural formation in which minstrelsy did its work.” Then, in Part II
he has a series of “readings of blackface minstrel forms.”
As “one of our earliest culture industries, minstrelsy not only affords a look at the emergent historical break between high and low cultures but also reveals popular culture to be a place where cultures of the dispossessed are routinely commodified – and contested.”
The more socially and politically aware contemporaries understood that minstrelsy was nothing less than cultural robbery, what Marx described as ‘expropriation’, and yet they were “so attracted to the culture they plundered. Indeed, for a time in the late 1840s minstrelsy came to seem the most representative national art. In this way minstrelsy became a site of conflictual intensity for the politics of race, class, and nation.”
“Reading minstrel music, lyrics, jokes, dances, burlesque skits and illustrations in conjunction with working-class racial ideologies and the sex/gender system, I show how blackface minstrelsy embodies and intervened in Jacksonian racial politics. Underwritten by envy as well as repulsion, sympathetic identification as well as fear, the minstrel show continually transgressed the colour line even as it made possible the formation of a self-consciously white working class.”
Taking this into a quasi-Freudian analysis of the American working-class male, EL suggests that “the power of the black penis in white American psychic life, the pleasure minstrelsy’s largely white and male audiences derived from their investment in ‘blackness’ always carried a threat of castration – a threat obsessively reversed in white lynching rituals.”
The threat of castration was part of the fascination and the structure of the minstrel show was a defence against that threat.
Minstrelsy’s greatest popularity was in the period 1846-54, i.e., when extremely sensitive political issues were prominent. “The conflictual character of minstrelsy only deepened with the approach of the pre-Civil War threat to the social order of the Union, the debates over slavery that led to the Compromise of 1850. Stephen Foster’s ‘Plantation Melodies’ unwittingly conjured up the hydra-headed conflicts; these melodies, and the vast dissemination of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in various politically divergent blackface theatrical productions – a kind of prelude to civil war on the stage – offer a lens through which to read a political crisis Michael Rogin has called ‘the American 1848’, a revolution on American soil.”
The minstrel show was “a negotiated and rowdy spectacle of performer and audience”.
EL’s book is informed by various debates:
(i) “the political status and effectivity as public performance” of blackface minstrelsy;
(ii) “theoretical questions regarding the (post-Freudian) study of humour”;
(iii) “the political interpretation of commercial popular music”
(iv) “the uses of folklore”;
(v) “the cultural exhibition of the body”;
(vi) “the political efficacy of melodrama”;
(vii) “the usefulness of film theory in the study of theatre”;
(viii) “Recent theoretical and political investigations of race, especially those oriented by psychoanalysis”;
(ix) “the place of race in working-class culture and in the development of American nationhood.”
(x) “American studies as a field in (perhaps perennial) crisis and its relationship to cultural studies.”
Blackface minstrelsy was “a peculiarly unstable form [of culture industry and] the social realities to which it in part contributed demand careful sorting out. The left has too often construed black Americans as saboteurs of class-based politics, their presence acting as an impediment to ‘real’ social change. … The story has usually taken the form of an imagined conspiracy of white liberals and black ‘extremists’ who have foisted civil rights demands on to left
initiatives and in the process affronted working-class whites. … The source of post-World War II conflicts in those of white workers versus black slaves and their abolitionist allies indicates the need to study carefully a moment when a possible interracial labour alliance went awry. … And if it is culture rather than shared work experience that primarily creates the conditions for social movements, one critical task is to achieve a renovated public culture through inquiries into popular forms such as the minstrel show.”
W. E. B. Du Bois believed “that Stephen Foster compositions such as ‘Old Black Joe’ and ‘Old Folks at Home’ were based on African-American themes.”
Du Bois was wrong, says, EL, but it’s worth asking how such positive assessments of minstrelsy were able to be sustained. Constance Rourke believed, in American Humor, that minstrelsy was evidence of “the public emergence of slave culture … ”
Jim Crow as trickster: it’d be a mistake, says EL, to accept Rourke’s assessment of minstrelsy “as continuous outgrowths of slave tales”; rather, despite similarities with slave tale figures, the minstrel characters should “be placed at the intersection of slave culture and earlier blackface stage characters such as the harlequin of the commedia dell’arte, the clown of English pantomime and the clown of the American circus, the burlesque tramp … ”, etc. “Clowns and harlequins are as often lovable butts of humor as devious producers of it; slave-tale tricksters are frequently(though not always) champions, heroes, backdoor victors for the weak over the strong. Early minstrel figures overlapped with each tradition, tending more or less toward self-mockery on the one hand and subversion on the other.”
From the 1830’s there was a trend to append the name ‘Jim Crow’ to British clowns and punch-and-judy figures as well as to the animal tales blackface performers set to music. So we have in the earliest minstrel types “the stage trickster overdetermined by the slave trickster.”
Trickster victories such as the blackman’s triumph over the sinister jay bird and black crows over bullfrogs; in slave lore foxes flee fromroosters, goats terrorize lions, Brer Rabbit taunts Wolf.
Jim Crow is a plantation rustic; Zip Coon is an urban dandy; unlike slave tricksters’ underhanded manipulations and deceits, these figures had “exaggerated strength and overwhelming power.” Southwestern bluster – Mike Fink & Davy Crockett – was also in the mix of influences.
It should not be made too much of but it’s neverthless true that the Nat Turner insurrection and Jackson’s 1832-3 nullification fight with Calhoun over states’ rights made its presence felt on the early minstrel stage.
Many blackface minstrels began their careers as clowns in the circus.
Ralph Ellison: “When the white man steps behind the mask of the [blackfaced] trickster his freedom is circumscribed by the fear that he is not simply miming a personification of his disorder and chaos but that he will become in fact that which he intends only to symbolize; that he will be trapped somewhere in the mystery of hell … and thus lose that freedom which, in the fluid, ‘traditionless’, ‘classless’ and rapidly changing society, he would recognize as the white man’s alone.”
EL regards this as explaining the “combined fear and fascination with the black male”.
The “effete but potent black ‘dandy’ figure [ZipCoon] incarnated these threats, as in ‘Long Tail Blue’ 
[Note: September 3rd, 1813,according to Radio National’s Breakfast at about 6.29 am, was the origin of Uncle Sam when a man named Sam who was loading bags marked U. S. for the war with Britain was asked what the letters stood for. “It’s me, he said, “Uncle Sam.” The long-tailed blue came increasingly to be associated with Uncle Sam; Uncle Sam reached his height in WWI recruitment posters.]
Huckleberry Finn’s Tom “bears so much resemblance to the many sentimental slaves of Stephen Foster’s complacent ‘Plantation Melodies’: Old Uncle Ned, Old Black Joe, and so on. Very little distinguishes the types in such minstrel songs from those in Stowe or Twain.”
“T D Rice, who began his career in the 1830s playing Jim Crow, ended it in the 1850s playing Uncle Tom on the stage. And Huckleberry Finn … seems nowhere closer to the sentimental ethos of Foster’s songs than during Huck’s many fictional tales of disunited families, or his returns to the raft and an emotional Jim. If Foster’s ‘Old Folks at Home’or ‘Oh! Susanna’ – somewhat better versions of staple minstrel themes in the 1840s – depend for their effect on the pathos culled from black families forced to split up or attempting to reunite, Twain’s novel relies on similar ‘familial’ reunions whose resonance derives from the stereotyped emotionality of the black slave.”
EL/34: see for more on Twain and Huck Finn.
From the 1750’s Pinkster, Election Day and John Canoe were black festivals and pageants wherein blacks played at inverting the power norms, setting themselves up as kings, lampooning masters, and so on; some whites were unnerved by these festivals, and the licence associated with them whilst others joined in; [trickster phenomenon in America from the beginning].
Well before emancipation, there was elbow-rubbing amongst blacks and lower-class subcultures (apprentices, servants, slaves, journeymen, sailors and labourers) in the both the northeast and southwestern frontier towns. In the frontier towns (such as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Louisville) blacks would gather with milk pails and other noise-making objects and create a lively scene or ‘disorder’ and it’s here that minstrelsy developed; T D Rice first performed in a town where such a situation existed; Dan Emmett’s musical education was from such origins and Stephen Foster’s first attempts at composition took place under such circumstances. Minstrelsy was exported from the frontier to the city of New York.
The “men who first began to ‘black up’ in the years around 1830 were in some cases close to the center of Jacksonian political power. … Many of the major innovators were northerners of urban origin (none from New England) who were raised in families with intimations of upward
mobility. All of them rejected the Protestant ethic and escaped into the latitudes of the entertainment world.” In doing so they came into contact with the music and dance of slaves and free blacks. Despite rejecting the idea of office jobs, and so on, they followed their parents aspirations and political ties to the anti-monopoly, expansionist, white-supremacist Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson. Stephen Foster’s family, for example, were ardent Democrats related by marriage to James Buchanan. But, says EL, many of the minstrel songs were pro-Whig, especially pro-Henry Clay and there’s much other evidence to blunt the minstrelsy == Jacksonian Democrat equation; many blackface performers were not racist or white supremacist at all but delighted in black company and cultural exchange;
EL/51 through them, American “bohemianism first emerged, and there was a utopian or emancipatory moment in their often clumsy courtship of black men.”
T D Rice, Dan Emmett and Stephen Foster all had close contact with blacks. EL believes that minstrelsy afforded these artists the opportunity to become American bohemians, “brothers for the time being” with blackmen.
Dan Tucker is the personification of minstrel music; he seduced those with whom he came in contact. EL quotes a writer, sympathetic to minstrelsy, as hearing in it “the hum of the plantation”.
The probably fanciful account of Rice’s encounter with the Negro, Cuff, is curiously reminiscent of Melville’s description in The Confidence Man of the Negro opening his mouth to catch pennies; i.e., Melville is presenting us with another of the confidence man’s disguises, blackface performance.
T D Rice’s Bowery performances of ‘Jim Crow’ “routinely brought crowds onto the stage”, so much so that sometimes there was no room for him to turn about and jump, the dance accompanying this song.
In an 1833 Bowery stage performance the crowd demanded that instead of whatever was being played, they must hear ‘Yankee Doodle.’ [Rourke’s ‘Yankee’ character]
EL says that theatre audiences had been rowdy even in the early 1800s; what was different in the 1830s, he argues, was that the working class was making itself noticed and making known its preferred stage entertainment; i.e., it was differentiating itself as a class.
New York’s blackface performers sought to convince that they’d acquired their knowledge of the Blackman through ‘fieldwork’; EL says that this merely meant a visit to the East River waterfront. Minstrelsy belnded back and white culture: “black lore interspersed with southwestern humor(itself often an interracial creation); black banjo techniques and rhythms interrupting folk dance music of the British Isles (as it had been taken up by whites in the United States); the vigorous earth-slapping footwork of black dances warring with the Irish lineaments of blackface jigs and reels. The very instrumentation of minstrel bands followed this pattern: the banjo and jawbones were black, while the fiddle, bones, and tambourine (derived perhaps from an instrument called the bodhran) were Irish.”
The lyrics, though, were not a racial mix but a racial burlesque negotiating “interethnic tensions among working-class Irish and blacks, the history of which could in part be written from the history of minstrelsy.” This all came to a head with the 1863draft riots “when Irish draftees, angry at a conscription lawthat allowed men of means to buy their way out of military service, unleashed their frustrations on New York City’s blacks.”
Evidence exists, however, “that in these years blackface provided a means of displaced immigrant self-expression; another strain of white ventriloquism through black art forms begins to make sense here.”
The vast waves of immigration (one came in the late 1820’s and another in the mid-1840’s) meant Irish and Negro rubbed shoulders together and inter-married. Negroes were referred to as smoked Irishmen and in the public mind the two groups were both of the same low class. “Frederick Douglass once remarked that the only songs which came close to the pathos of slave songs were those he had heard in Ireland in 1845-46, during the famine. Some of these strains may have infected the work of the many Irish-American minstrel composers and performers – Stephen Foster, Dan Emmett … George Christy, and others – who were also on intimate terms with local black cultural forms. (To take but one example, Foster’s family’s consciousness of its heritage kept alive the poems and songs of Thomas Moore, whose sentiments would inform Foster’s songs such as ‘Old Folks At Home’.”
EL goes on further to discuss the fact that behind the mask of blackface, Irish immigrants gained a means of cultural representation; “blackface, bizarrely enough, was actually used to represent all ethnicities on the antebellum stage prior to the development of ethnic types.” Paddy and Jim Crow were in more of an embrace than first meets the eye. But, as the actress Fanny Kemble noted, the closer the affinity between the Irish and the Negro, the greater was the hostility between Irish and black. When Fanny Kemble stayed on a Georgia plantation, she noted the “remarkable resemblance between the ‘low Irish’ and southern slaves. The Irish in Boston were more anti-black than the native whites.
[CR/85 The “rise of the Negro minstrel coincided with a marked change in his place within the nation. Little Jim Crow appeared at almost the precise moment when The Liberator was founded; and CR/86 minstrelsy spread over the land and grew in popularity as the struggle for emancipation gained power through the 40’s and 50’s. The Negro minstrel joined with the Yankee and the backwoodsman to make a comic trio, appearing in the same era, with the same timely intensity.”]
The [abolitionist] Liberator was founded in Boston, January 1831, by William Lloyd Garrison; 24-year-old T D Rice toured the northeastern seaboard with his celebrated ‘Jim Crow’ act, landing in New York in November, 1832.
The 1830s was a decade of working-class militancy (including anti-abolitionist rioting ER/112) which was muted and redirected after the depression of the 1840s. Minstrelsy had an “oft-remarked capacity to ridicule upward in class as well as downward in racial direction.”
“The quarrel between two black men … was a staple of many early minstrel songs and playlets; often the quarrel was over a woman, as in ‘Coal Black Rose’ (1827) … Mark Twain’s chief pleasure in minstrel productions as he remembered them was indeed the ‘happy and accurate imitation of the usual and familiar Negro quarrel’.”
“The minstrel show was a form that at some ‘imaginary’ level negotiated and attempted to resolve such contradictions [eg., the ease with which individual white men had social intercourse with blacks yet disavowed them ideologically, being anti-abolitionist, etc.] in antebellum American culture, contradictions that stalled organized interracial labor radicalism in the 1830s and early 1840s.” The “extreme competition for work in the earliest stage of ‘initial proletarianization’ in America” accounted in part for the racial hostility “ though it is now clear that the myth of black competition was a cover story for white workers’ precipitous descent in the class structure.” White workers sought to protect their dignity by keeping the degrading presence of blacks from the workplace. The 1834 New York antiabolitionist riots were symptomatic of the problem. The phrase ‘wage-slavery’ came into ‘political discourse’ in the 1830s.
“Sometime in the winter of 1842-3 four irregularly employed circus and minstrel men, in one of the numberless small hotels [the North American] that lines the Bowery, hit upon the idea of a blackface minstrel band. The band would soon be called the Virginia Minstrels, and it was the first group of its kind to form in New York City.”
Dan Emmett, Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower went down to the Bowery Circus with fiddle, banjo, tambourine, and bones and performed ‘Old Dan Tucker’; they returned to the North American and performed in the reading room of that hotel – to an increasingly satisfied group of onlookers. This was commonly enough done – to entertain crowds in the reading room of an 1840’s New York hotel.
The four ‘minstrels’ were, like thousands of others in NYC, anxious for employment and taking any opportunity which presented itself. The 1837 [economic?] panic had been followed by a depression and left many theatrical performers and tradesmen unemployed. The march of capital was undermining traditional employment prospects [later, make reference to Abraham Lincoln and the expanse of capital in the context of the transition of the Whigs into the Republican Party of the Civil War; see Kennealy’s ‘Lincoln.’] and fostering a “profound sense of unease among the popular classes. Their response was a much muted sense of class resistance, an attempt to shore up ‘white’ class identities by targeting new enemies such as immigrants, blacks, and tipplers.” Jim Crow was the common enemy.
“[U]sing the plantation to gloss northern home and workplace relations, the minstrel show witlessly though constantly and uniquely focused attention on the great conflicts of national life at mid-century. If by the late 1840s minstrelsy had assumed a cultural centrality one would scarcely have predicted for it, its popularity seems in retrospect a token of its curious, polysemous insistence on matters that much contemporaneous discourse evaded. And if history gave it moment, Stephen Foster’s emergence as a composer of popular ‘Plantation Melodies’ gave blackface performance an aesthetic charge potent in its historical consequences. The national self-fashioning that took place with the aid of songs such as ‘Oh! Susanna’  revealed not only the significance of racial and sectional questions for the nation’s future but also the fact that precisely that future was at stake.”
Blackface minstrelsy increased in popularity from 1846; it was good business. So [like the modern pop star] Rice, Christy and others made a lot of money. Songbook and sheet-music publishers such as Firth and Pond (Stephen Foster’s New York publisher) churned out minstrel show music so that it entered the middle-class parlour.
Oh! Susanna bears a remarkable resemblance to the old slave song ‘I’m Gwine to Alabamy’ about the forced separation of families under slavery.
‘De Blue Tail Fly’ (1844) is a good example of the non-European tendency in later minstrelsy toward repetition of brief phrases [like blues songs].
Once one moves from the dance and humour of minstrel show performances to the “social imagery of plantation slavery [one] is struck immediately by an unremitting and largely unremarked emphasis on death, nostalgia and doom.” Gaiety covered much of this up – “darkies perennially ready to sing, Massa to be pleased, heels to be kicked up, lovers to be pursued. … But there was a gaping sore at the heart of all this cheer. The early work of Stephen Foster (a sort of one-man research and development team) alone contained the main elements of sentimentalised plantation distress on which most minstrel companies capitalized forthwith.”
Foster’s ‘Massa’s In de Cold Ground’ (1852) “mourned good times on the plantation now gone” “brushed against the grain of proslavery ideology.”
Foster’s ‘Plantation Melodies’ “feature sweethearts or whole families who are separated by the slave trade and long to reunite, yearning for the glad days past and never to return, as in ‘Old Folks at Home’ (1851) or ‘Farewell My Lilly Dear’ (1851). Young men do backbreaking work and wait for death to carry them home, as in ‘My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight!’ (1853), or breathe their last after years of toil, as in ‘Old Uncle Ned’ (1848). “Sentimental plantation songs [projected] … death and sorrow onto female … black victims, which coincided with the encroachment in the late 1840s of a larger female spectatorship on the minstrel show’s generalized masculinism, pushed all the right buttons for the mid-century culture of
Even Foster’s ‘Old Kentucky Home … ’ carries the sentiment felt by Stowe and Lincoln alike that if only there were no blacks then that would be so much the better.
Nostalgia, rife in 1840s blackface songs indicates “a rather widespread preoccupation with traumatic parting, distance, temporal and geographic breaks. This is also, perhaps, minstrelsy’s strongest connection with Irish-American audiences and performers, whose displaced self-masking in minstrelsy … involved, further, a lament for home and circumstance that depended and expended the minstrel show’s sentimentalism.”
Foster, born near Pittsburgh, moved, aged four, “with his family amid regrets and fears from the house in which he was born; at thirteen he left home to go to school under the protection of his brother William. He left again in his late teens, this time to work in Cincinnati with his brother Dunning, and soon after, at twenty-four, now with a young wife, Jane, he parted from his parents to go to New York and write songs. He separated temporarily from Jane three years later, and within a few more years his parents were dead. Foster was still only thirty-one.” He wasn’t alone: “for working class as for middle class … turnover rates in nineteenth-century cities were so high that the city was less a place than a process.”
Stephen Foster’s ‘Angelina Baker’ (1850) and his ‘Ring, Ring de Banjo’ (1851) indicate the ‘pestering’ by slaves of their ‘massas’ for freedom was not all plantation jocularity; it had some bite.
The most bite in the master’s demise was in the very popular ‘De Blue Tail Fly’ (1844).
Minstrelsy pricked at the labor-capital relationship of Northern workers via the Southern massa. The “plantation mythology, for all its contentment, was the most elaborated version of the industrial imagery housed in the phrase ‘wage slavery,’ and took its (unconscious) lead from struggles at work. Once again, that is to say, the minstrel show in these its most popular years figured as a racialized mediator of northern conflicts in southern guise, willy-nilly joining national satisfactions about northern and southern work.”
“By the late 1840s agitation around the issue of western lands was such that every invocation of westward movement brought with it the bitter question of whether newly acquired territory would be slave or free, a rather ominous fact given the importance of ‘Manifest Destiny’ … to northern social aspiration. It is in every respect striking, therefore, that blackface minstrelsy should have moved to the cultural center at precisely this moment, and, as we shall see, by means of the matter of the West. The emphasis and outline of blackface acts revealed the political unconscious of Manifest destiny. However ironically, the minstrel show became the badge of northern sectional formation and its developing struggles over slavery. One might even say that the backhanded antislavery politics of these years, which avoided civil rights in favor of land and other matters only to see issues of race return to startling centrality, were best represented in minstrelsy’s mapping of white men’s move west. Blackface tune, especially those of Stephen Foster, became the very theme songs of the popular republic and California gold. The story of ‘Oh! Susanna’s’ recruitment into the politics of America’s 1848 is very simple, but the song’s repercussions were as large as the crisis that a legislative compromise could only temporarily stall.
In many ways ‘Oh! Susanna’ is the summation of blackface song craft. For one thing, it contains most of the elements I have identified as central to plantation mythology – lost love, separated families, death, home, nostalgia – themselves, of course, signifying a wide variety of contemporary social facts and facts of feeling …”
‘Oh! Susanna’ (1847) caught the mood of 1848; a polka, the sound of the new generation (as distinct from the previous generation’s waltz) 21-year-old Foster no sooner wrote it and saw it performed than it became the theme song of the westward movement because on November 26, 1848, the Baltimore Sun announced that gold had been discovered in California.
The westward movement brought the sectional conflict between North and South on the question of slavery to a head from the late 1840s and minstrelsy changed from being “a vehicle of racist alignment between the sections” to being “a mask for the North”; i.e., instead of alignment it began to mark out the difference between the sectional interests. The minstrel show narrative had been that of “joining city to country, North to South” [make reference to Stiles city-country thing as already in the essay] but in the light of recent developments (Mexican War, etc.) it now highlighted the fact “that Zip Coon the northern dandy and Jim Crow the southern slave” were representative of increasingly sectional interests. “Things were falling apart, for reasons of race, and the foremost racialist entertainment of its time was taking – if not serving – notice.”
The “minstrel show may be said to have intensified the North’s racially equivocal agenda, pressing an implicitly antislavery point even as it lampooned and wished away the blacks who would be its prime beneficiaries.”
The Free-soil movement (Martin Van Buren was their candidate for President in the 1848 election) was the political equivalent of the cultural phenomenon of minstrelsy: slavery was something to oppose but civil rights weren’t the logical next step; rather, it would be best were the blacks to go conveniently away.
“At one stroke [minstrelsy] revealed the sectional divide that lay behind the ‘national’ veil and tried to close it up. In doing so, the minstrel show provided the soundtrack for the American 1848.”
January, 1854: T D Rice on stage in Bowery Theatre as Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery work was performed often in the 1850s, not in any small measure due to minstrelsy itself. It was, says EL, “in one sense minstrelsy’s logical antebellum conclusion [and] … confirms the equivocal character of racial representation – of blackface minstrelsy and Uncle Tom’s Cabin both – just prior to the Civil War.”
The Compromise of 1850 was significant in all of this. Party politics having been swallowed up by sectional feeling, Congress
sought to legislate around the sectional division. Henry Clay, [the tireless compromise exponent], did what he could: “the admission of California as a free state but no restrictions regarding slavery in other territories gained from Mexico; the prohibition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia but no abolition of slavery there. The gravest item, which threw off the balance, was a call for the more effectual capture and remittance of fugitive slaves, eventuating in the Fugitive Slave Law in 1851. Compromise fever extended Clay of Kentucky to Daniel Webster of (it seemed) all New England; Webster’s famous Seventh of March speech clinched the deal. For his acceptance of slavery in the name of Compromise and Union, Webster was excoriated far and wide (from Emerson’s disdain to Whittier’s “Ichjabod’), and Stowe composed first ‘The Freeman’s Dream’ (1850) and then Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-2) in outrage over his efforts.” Stowe’s novel and the plays of it which followed had a wide ranging effect and “made sectional conflict an inescapable cultural matter.” The plays, though, tried to achieve what the Compromise had set out to do: preserve the Union with tact.
EL regards Uncle Tom’s Cabin as caught in the same bind as minstrelsy: contradictory and ambiguous – like the 1850s itself. Uncle Tom’s Cabin “finished off what the minstrel show had unintentionally begun.” The contradictions represent America in the 1850’s competing modes of production, says EL, and this is the condition for civil war. [see Kennealy on how Lincoln and Chase were able to usher in the age of capital without the disruptive influence of the Democrats and the South]
“Stephen Foster’s ‘My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!’ (1853), with its Kentucky cabin and separating family, was directly inspired by Stowe (it’s working title was ‘Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night!’); Foster’s song became a staple of the plays, as did his ‘Old Folks at Home’ (1851).
EL discusses Herman Melville’s response to the racial conflict at the heart of American society in the 1850’s.
Note 5: “Forrest, a great fan of minstrelsy, was also certainly one of the first to ‘black up’ – as ‘Cuff’, a Kentucky negro,’ in Cincinnati in 1823.”