Jul 102011
 

Thomas Dartmouth Rice

Thomas Dartmouth Rice hustled through Cincinnati’s crowded streets, likely toward the theater where he plied his trade. Rice, a stage performer, had a show to put on. He had tread the boards for a couple of years, but hadn’t achieved extraordinary success, wasn’t a giant of the stage. Not yet, anyway.

As he rounded a corner headed for the theater, he heard a voice sing out a doggerel, a snippet of a diddy:

Come listen all you galls and boys,
I’m going to sing a little song,
My name is Jim Crow.
Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.

Rice traced the voice to a black man, a stage coach driver perched atop his coach. Rice stopped to study this performance. He filed this tune away determined to bring it to the stage. And he would that same autumn of 1830.

When Rice was engaged at Pittsburgh’s theater, he used burnt cork to darken his pale features, jammed on a beat up hat, a black wig and launched into ‘Jim Crow.’ Along with the crudest rendering of black stereotypes, Rice peppered his performance with  a little skip-hop, shuffle of a dance that may have been based on a slave he’d once observed. The audience loved it. So much so that Rice brought it to Philadelphia, Boston, New York, even to London.

The above version of events, along with several variations, was the show biz account of the seed that germinated into the Black-Face Minstrel Show, the most popular form of entertainment in 19th Century America. No one knows the exact origin of the Minstrel Show, but T.D. Rice’s account has one merit: it captures the essence of minstrel shows – whites stole black rhythms, black dance and art and subverted it to feed vile and false images about black men and women. The name ‘Jim Crow’ became the name of the act, then a racial slur, then the name for any law or regulation meant to surreptitiously oppress black people. But that’s the hundred year arc of the Minstrel Show’s history.

At the time Huck Finn was published, minstrel shows drew large audiences and remained a popular form of entertainment. Minstrel shows followed a recognized format. In New York in 1843, the first archetypal minstrel show was performed.  The performers, all white men, traipsed on to the stage and sang an opening chorus number. The performers darkened their faces with charcoal or burnt cork. In a grotesque exaggeration of African features, they painted their lips to enormous proportions – like hamburger buns, clown lips – their hair swept into ridiculous mops.

Godey's Magazine: Minstrel Performers

The performers sat in a semi-circle, facing the audience. In the middle, the ‘interlocutor’ emceed the performance, moving the troupe from short, comic sketches to singing and, sometimes, dance numbers. The interlocutor played the role of straight man. On either side of the semi-circle sat the “comic” performers; these two end men attempted to win laughs by playing to the basest stereotypes of black intelligence. The music and songs were performed with only voice, banjos, and castinets – or ‘bones.’ Thus, the two end men were usually called Bones and Tambo. Their skits punctuated the song and dance numbers.

Here is a typical gag:

INTERLOCUTOR: Gentlemen, be seated. Well, Mr. Bones, how are you feeling this evening?
BONES: Very well, Mr. Interlocutor, and how are you — how are all your folks?
INTERLOCUTOR: We’re all well, excepting my brother. You see, a team of horses ran away with him, and he’s been laid up since.
BONES: That’s a very strange coincidence, same thing happened to my brother.
INTERLOCUTOR: You don’t say.
BONES: The only difference is, it was my brother who ran away with the team of horses; he’s been laid up ever since, but they’ll let him out next month.

Today, it seems so bizarre. The history of oppression, racial animosity, and even its resulting violence are less unsettling than the strange legacy of black-face performances. The minstrel show degraded and dehumanized — as it  had to. You have to dehumanize before you can treat people inhumanely.

One grim truth of the minstrel show: it did often capture real art, music and dance that black men and women had created. These art forms sometimes even transcended their setting. Black performers also played in minstrel shows. William Lane, a black minstrel show performer, danced under the stage name Master Juba. He’s the creator of tap dance. His outrageous abilities grabbed him top billing over fellow white performers. He even stopped smearing a black mask of burnt cork over his face, performing as himself for audiences world-wide.

These shows were enormously popular. Mark Twain, himself, greatly enjoyed the minstrel shows he saw in San Francisco. That fact pains. It also raises the question: to what extent is Jim a caricature, a collection of minstrel-show stereotypes, as opposed to a flesh and blood man. Consider two of Jim’s scenes: his conversation about his investment schemes, investing in ‘stock’ which comically turns out to be livestock in Episode 003 Huck Reborn; and, his reflections on King Solomon and speaking French in Episode 005 Through the Fog. Or, to the extent that these portions of the book evoke minstrel show skits, is it Mark Twain at his most ironic, slyly staring at his audience from behind their own blinding stereotypes? Does Twain purposely contrast these scenes against Jim’s humanity elsewhere in the book?

 

Sources:

  • The Monarchs of Minstrelsy by Edward Le Roy Rice
  • The Minstrel Guide and Joke Book, edited by Paul E. Lowe
  • Blackface! – this site includes an absolutely horrifying black-face routine by Chick Watts and Cotton from 1954. It is a good example of how degrading minstrelsy was, if you have the stomach to watch it. It’s also a good indication that it was often not funny, not funny at all, not even in a pernicious-wrong-but-funny way.
  • Museum of Racist Memorabilia
  • Godey’s Magazine, Volume CXXXIV (1897)
  • Amateur Circus Life by Ernest Berkeley Balch
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