Were the performers in a black-face minstrel show African American?

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Answered by: Vickey, An Expert in the Culture in America Category
Not at first, but minstrel shows have a very long history.

When minstrel shows became popular during the late 1830s and 1840s, they featured white men who wore black makeup, exclusively. Everyone in the audience knew that white men were behind the makeup and the costumes, and that's one of the reasons the shows were so popular. A few rare instances of African Americans appearing in early minstrel shows are recorded, but they are the exception.

In those days, slavery was still legal throughout the south. African Americans, even free African Americans, had no real power. In the north, where slavery was illegal, the position of most people of color was not equal to whites.

When white men staged black-face minstrel shows, they could mock African Americans as a group, without fear of reprisal. Through that mockery, they could diffuse the tension and fear that many whites, and maybe many blacks, felt over the slavery issue. By portraying blacks as clumsy, dumb, and lazy, these minstrel performers were assuring their white audiences that whites were superior. In this way, the minstrel show reinforced the social order: Whites were in control, and blacks could not talk back. Even children understood that message and laughed at the men onstage, who looked black and talked funny.

The minstrel show almost disappeared during the Civil War, but it showed up again in the late 1860s and remained popular well into the 20th century. The post-Civil War minstrel shows, though, often featured African Americans. Ironically, the black makeup remained. The performers in the later black-face minstrel show might be white or black, but they all wore the same makeup, usually made of burnt cork and grease. They wore wigs and silly costumes, talked with an exaggerated drawl, and portrayed blacks as shiftless and slow, just like the earlier minstrel shows.

Why would African American join shows that mocked them, and why would they participate in the mockery?

After the Civil War ended, slavery was abolished. African Americans began to move into areas like show business--areas that had previously been closed to them. They were not always welcomed. Even though slavery had ended, the races were not considered equal.

Black performers often had a hard time finding work, and so they would take jobs in black-face minstrel shows as a way to make a living and be on stage.

The black-face minstrel shows had developed a very set structure over the years. All the performers came onstage together at the beginning of the show and did a comedy routine. After that, each performer got to do solo pieces. Dancers could show off their steps; musicians and vocalists got their moment in the spotlight as well. Acrobats would take their turn entertaining the audience. Then more musical numbers followed. The entire cast of the show came back to present a funny skit at the end.

So even though the black-face minstrel show mocked African Americans, it gave them a chance to show their talents and make money. Many famous performers of the twentieth century, like W. C. Handy and Ethel Waters, got their starts in a minstrel show.

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