Things make it into the popular culture in the US generally for one of two reasons: popularity or profit. Often times, it is both, since there are always those that will exploit what is popular to make a profit. Minstrel shows in the US were profitable both in admission fees to the show, but also as a way to sell product. Some of the most successful products of the time were marketed through minstrel shows (Toll, 74). It was allowed to become so profitable and popular because of much different values at the time, and a lower public consciousness to racism.
Whites, had already subjected blacks to centuries of slavery. After that was abolished it did not mean that it put an end to minstrel shows. Some whites still degraded blacks and made fun of them in a way that included, “only a few stereotyped roles: as contented subordinates on the plantation, as ignorant low-comedy fools, and as ludicrous, pretentious incompetents” (Toll, 74).
There are a number of terms and figures associated with Minstrel terms. Most people seem to sense intuitively that “Jim Crow” is a derogatory word towards blacks, but many may not know the word’s history. Jim Crow laws were laws enacted in the Southern states that segregated or discriminated against blacks. This practice essentially created a caste system based on race. (Pilgrim, 12).
The term “Jim Crow” though, comes from the history of the minstrel shows. The term is believed to have originated circ. 1830. The name was from a white, minstrel performer named Thomas Rice. While in black face he would dance an absurd jug and sing “Weel about and turn about and do jis so / Eb'ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow." (Jim Crow History.org, 2013).
Some of America’s most beloved and cherished musicians and performers were participants in minstrel shows. Indeed many of them made there fame within minstrel shows. Stephen Collins Foster, even if one does not recognize the name, knows his tunes. Of the over 200 songs he wrote, he is known for songs like “Oh! Susanna” and “My Old Kentucky Home” He who was popular enough to have been called the father of American music was known in part for his parlour and minstrel music. (Emerson, 79).
If Foster was the father of American music, than Dan Emmet was the father of minstrel troupes. He was one of the pioneers to bringing minstrel shows to the level of popularity they enjoyed during their peak. He took minstrel performances to a new level and was an accessory to them becoming as mainstream as they did. He is said to be the first troupe where an entire band wore black face instead of just a few performers (Lott, 66).
Bert Williams was another American icon, and one of the most popular comedians in American history. He however, as a black man, used his fame to fight against black oppression rather than perpetuate it. He took a lead role on a Broadway stage and gave oppressed blacks a successful role model to look up to (Hector).
Others took up William’s cause and today it would be unheard to have minstrel performances today. During their prim, they were a pillar of the American entertainment industry. Things have changed greatly since than and thankfully, time and progress have now made them a thing of history.
Emerson, Ken (1998). Doo-dah! Steven Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture. Da Capo Press. p. 79.
Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press. Pg 66.
Manring, M.M. Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998. 61.
Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. London/Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. 179.
Hector, Tim, "In Salute to Ambrose – Bert Williams," The Outlet(Antigua), September 15, 2000.