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Minstrel shows were traveling shows popular in the United States of America in the 19th century, particularly in the period from the 1850s to the 1870s. In these shows, white actors portrayed black people by painting their faces with grease paint or shoe polish. These performances were mocking African-Americans on the basis of common prejudices and stereotypes, such as them being, allegedly, lazy, ignorant, immoral, or cowardly.
Minstrel shows were widely accepted and popular among white audiences to the point that people got outraged if a show was canceled. Newspaper advertisements were employing characters from minstrel shows because of their widespread acclaim (“A Brief History of The Minstrel Show” 0:5:22-0:6:11). While there were a number of companies staging minstrel shows, there were several reoccurring popular characters who became archetypes; one of them was Jim Craw. In the 1830s and 1840s, a white performer Thomas Dartmouth Rice, one of the pioneers of the genre, created a character named Jim Crow. He performed a number of songs mocking African-American people, such as “Jump Jim Crow”, wearing blackface makeup. “Jim Crow” became “a collective racial epithet for blacks”, and later the name of the racial segregation system, which was in operation primarily in southern states between the 1870s and the 1960s (Pilgrim). Therefore, this minstrel show character contributed to the long-term development of racial stereotypes.
While such shows were created for white audiences by white performers, they were cultural events of such magnitude that black people could not be excluded entirely. There are photographs showing how African-American people helped with preparations for the shows, for example, setting up the tents (“A Brief History of The Minstrel Show” 0:11:01-0:11:13). After the Civil War, some African-Americans started to perform in minstrel shows since it was the only way to get into the entertainment industry. Some of the shows even had black managers and owners; others employed both white and black actors (“Blackface minstrelsy”). However, despite these tendencies which were supposed to contribute to making this genre more respectful towards black people, in essence, it remained prejudiced and insulting.
The widespread acclaim surrounding minstrel shows facilitated stereotypes concerning black people. The characteristic features of these performances, including catchy songs, jokes, and recognizable reoccurring characters, such as Jim Crow, contributed to the indoctrination of children among whom they were particularly popular. They continued to enhance racial stereotypes despite some efforts to make the genre more inclusive by involving African-American people since they remained profoundly racial and offensive.
“A Brief History of The Minstrel Show.” Youtube, 2019. Web.
“Blackface minstrelsy.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Web.
Pilgrim, David. “Who was Jim Craw.” Ferris State University. Web.