In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Blackface Minstrelsy

  • Introduction

African American Studies Blackface Minstrelsy
Eric Jackson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0093


According to most scholars whose primary focus is on this topic, minstrel shows were one of the most disgraceful yet complex chapters in the history of American musicals. Popularized during the early to mid-19th century, minstrelsy incorporated and emphasized the prevailing racism, racial stereotypes, and white supremacy mentality that had permeated almost every aspect of American society since the mid-1600s. More specifically, minstrel shows transferred and translated concepts of race and racism into a form of leisure activity in which ridiculous and obscene Black American images, such as “Sambo” or “Zip Coon,” who were slow witted “plantation darky” and ignorant free Black Americans, were used to justify racial segregation, political oppression, and at times, uncontrolled racial violence. Despite the ongoing debate within the academy, most scholars contend that the first series of minstrel shows emerged during the 1820s, reached their zenith soon after the Civil War ended, and remained relatively popular well into the early 1900s. As America’s first form of popular entertainment, during its origins minstrel shows were performed by white men, mostly of Irish descent, who blackened their faces with burnt cork, cooled ashes, or dirt and began to ridicule and depict a distorted view of African American life on southern plantations through both songs and dances. Additionally, Black Americans were normally shown as naive buffoons or uncontrollable children who danced their way through and expressed a fondness for the system of slavery. At the same, this musical genre also helped to launch the careers of many well-known entertainers of the era, both African Americans and non-African Americans, such as James Bland, Stephen Foster, Al Jolson, and Bert Williams. In the end, the culture that embraced this type of “popular entertainment” was either wholly enchanted by such racially charged images or took these images as the truth about the history and experience of all African Americans. Additional scholars such as Eric Lott and Robert Toll contend that the origins, development, and legacy of minstrelsy, especially after the mid-1840s, in some ways, was a response to the economic depression of the 1830s and early 1840s, as an attempt to reassure the dominate white society that their societal status and political dominance would continue for decades to come. In some ways, these notions are still alive today. Finally, many studies on the topic of minstrelsy can be divided into historical periods such as: (1) early writings (1930s–1950s); (2) the revisionist era (1960s and 1970s); and the contemporary era (1980s to the present).

Early Minstrelsy

Early minstrelsy as a form of theatrical popular entertainment in the United States began to take root during the 1820s and reached its height from the 1840s to the 1880s. The first part of this period was dominated by non-African American groups (or troupes) that darkened their faces with burnt cork or dirt and took the stage to impersonate rural, enslaved African Americans and free Black Americans, who mostly resided in northern states. The first permanent all-African American minstrel group was organized and appeared in public in 1867. From this date forward, Black American minstrel groups became just as common as non-African American groups. African American minstrel groups maintained the same traditions as non-African American groups, dressing in blackface and portraying racially-offensive and overly-stereotypical mannerisms and images. Such performances ranged from two to ten individuals on stage at one time. Regardless of its origin and makeup, early white minstrels transcended racist curiosity. Ultimately, these early shows emerged as a form of entertainment and leisure activity for most white Americans, who saw these images of happy and content enslaved African Americans of the South, as well as uneducated free Black Americans of the North, in part, as a justification for the use of political oppression and, at times, racial violence toward all Black Americans. In addition to the general characteristics and formats of early minstrelsy, performances varied based on the location of the show. For example, a “typical” Virginian minstrel show often took place with a continuous song and a performance. More specifically, a soloist took the first part of the song, while the other musicians joined him in the second act. The singers would try to mirror how enslaved African Americans would sing and work at the same time to illustrate their happiness in captivity. In comparison, minstrelsy in New Orleans had a different flavor and rhythm based on a mixture of African, French, and English culture. More specifically, different musical rhythms and customs emerged in minstrel shows that were unique to the city, which also, at times, included burlesque show elements. Regardless of the location, however, minstrel shows sought to reinforce racial stereotypes as well as justify the use of racial prejudice and discriminatory laws and practices through the nation.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.