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Blackface Minstrelsy

How were the minstrel shows racist?

Mel Watkins:
Mel WatkinsMinstrelsy is much under-rated historically in terms of its influence on American society. [Consider] the stereotype of Uncle Tom, for instance, the black man who is without backbone and who is really the white man's black man. That characterization of Uncle Tom did not come from the book by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin. It came from the images portrayed in minstrelsy. In the book Uncle Tom was relatively intelligent, although not educated, and an example of Christian morality, in one sense. On stage in the minstrel show he became the shuffling toady. He became the sniveling black man who was really a coward and was ignorant and somewhat comical in his connection to the slave masters. So that image came totally from minstrelsy, and if we could go down the line and point out other ways in which those images pervaded the society at that time, those were the images, that was the sense of what black people were like. I think it becomes much clearer when one looks at black minstrelsy again because when black minstrels started to take to the stage, they were advertised as the real thing. In fact, one group was called "The Real Nigs." And this was -- they were advertised as "Come to the theatre and get a real look into what plantation life was like." So this was not advertised as a stage show. It was advertised as a peephole view of what black people were really like. To that extent, it affected all of society because those people who didn't know blacks, and there were many places where there were very few blacks, assumed that those characterizations, those depictions, those foolish characters on stage, were real black people. And so it had an immense effect on the way mainstream society thought about blacks.

Certainly it had a [lasting] effect on the entertainment industry in the sense that most producers in Hollywood, most producers on the radio demanded that black people speak the same way they spoke during the 1800s, even when we get to the 20th century and we get to film, we get to radio. In fact, many actors and actresses were taught by whites to speak as if they were black because that was demanded. It was the way the world was. Blacks were presumed to be this way, the stereotype was this and therefore the media had to reflect it in that way. And most of that came from minstrelsy. You can trace it all the way up to the "Amos 'n Andy" show in the 1950s, to the maids that appeared in "Beulah" and other shows on radio and on television in the 1950s.

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