Exploring Minstrelsy: 14 Stars and Critics

The Darkest America authors discuss the history of the genre from Stepin Fetchit to hip-hop.

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    Stepin Fetchit; Zora Neale Hurston; Image from Bamboozled (Getty Images/IMDB.com)

    As co-authors Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen explore in their exhaustively researched book, Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy From Slavery to Hip-Hop, the once hugely popular form of entertainment has a complicated history. By today’s standards, donning blackface makeup and performing an exaggerated song-and-dance number would be considered in extremely poor taste. But in the 19th century, black performers became more in demand than their white counterparts in the stagecraft. “There were a lot of blacks who criticized the minstrel shows for being racist,” Taylor told The Root. “But there were a lot of blacks who believed that minstrelsy as an art form was of black origin.”

    Through the years, the definition of minstrelsy has taken on broader meanings, and it’s often invoked to disparage any activity that seems degrading to the dignity of black people. Some have cited TV shows like Sanford and Son and hip-hop acts like Lil Wayne and Tupac Shakur as the more recent examples of the tradition. The Root caught up with Taylor and Austen, two Chicago writers, who gave us additional insight into some of the genre’s major players and most vocal critics.


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    Hans Nathan/Wikipedia

    William Henry Lane

    Yuval Taylor: “The first black performer in this tradition is William Henry Lane, who’s also called Master Juba. [P.T.] Barnum felt that apparently, a black person on a New York stage would not be accepted, that there would be riots. So he pretended Lane was white and put blackface makeup on him. Lane became a black person impersonating a white person impersonating a black person. He was a wild success, and pretty soon he dropped the whole blackface pretense. He competed on stage alongside white dancers, impressed white judges and, eventually, beat many white dancers at the time. He was proclaimed the greatest dancer of all time [in the 1840s].”

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    Bert Williams

    YT:Bert Williams is one of the last of the great blackface comedians, but his impact on the tradition is minimal. He made minstrelsy dignified. He brought a respectability that it never had before and never would have again. He was extremely famous during his lifetime, but as soon as he died [in 1922], people started to say what a sad case he was — that he was forced to wear blackface against his will, which is untrue. He occupies a really unique place in African-American entertainment history. He’s an artist who’s definitely equal to Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.”

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    Mardi Gras' Zulu Krewe

    YT:The Zulu Krewe is the only place [today] where you can see blacks wearing blackface, and they’ve been doing it for over 100 years now. As a parody of the white Mardi Gras tradition, it drew on the caricature of cannibals, which was always present in American culture in cartoons and skits, as well as minstrel traditions.”

    Jake Austen: “There were times during civil rights and the black power era when the Zulu Krewe almost ceased to exist, when they stopped wearing blackface and started incorporating black power characters. It’s one of the most visually stunning aspects of Mardi Gras, but it’s an image that’s not disseminated the way the Mardi Gras Indians, floats, balls or beads are.”


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    Amos 'n' Andy

    JA:Amos ‘n’ Andy would take an hour to totally unpack. It was the creation of two white ex-minstrels who became radio stars. The show, [which began in 1928], became the most popular radio show of all time but was also popular with African Americans. Black intellectuals were defensive about it. In the first 15 years of the show, they [generally] didn’t use minstrel comedy. It was this soap opera about these migrants who move up north. One of them is a blustery fool; the other is incredibly moral, a simple guy, and he’s courting this black middle-class princess of sorts. The TV show [1951-1953] picks up after the radio show and becomes a sitcom with black actors. If you’ve seen The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy — think of the most ridiculous episodes of those shows — it’s similar, with performers who are just incredibly good. One actor, Tim Moore, had been in black minstrel shows in the 1890s as a child.”

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    Stepin Fetchit

    JA: “Lincoln Perry, who played Stepin Fetchit, blazed a way for being a black Hollywood star … living the high life and dressing fancy. His image on the screen was a very lazy, very stupid guy. His skill in making that character so vivid, so funny to so many people and so memorable, [led to] blacks staying servants and comic relief in movies for decades. Writers and observers have noted that there’s a subversive element to the idea of the sloth: You’re pretending to be stupid or slow to get an advantage. He was a figure that was damaging but also had some important parts to him.”

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    Zora Neale Hurston

    YT:Zora Neale Hurston participated in the minstrel tradition in some of her theatrical works. There are a few chapters in Their Eyes Were Watching God. But Richard Wright went on an attack against her when he reviewed it [in 1937] and said she was writing a minstrel show and making the white folks laugh. She enjoyed doing that. It’s one of the reasons for her initial success. But the African-American reaction to her work was rather negative after the 1920s. Most of her work is set in an all-black space; minstrel shows are an all-black space. She relied not only on the minstrel tradition but the black folk tradition as well. They’re somewhat intertwined, which is important to recognize in her work.”

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    Sammy Davis Jr.

    JA: “He did revive the “Here Comes the Judge” bit [from Amos ‘n’ Andy]. The black funny judge is definitely part of black minstrelsy, from the days when it became big on Broadway. He’s not worried about presenting himself as undignified blackness to whites. [During his heyday in the ’60s and ’70s], he always presented himself as a dignified man who wasn’t afraid to do low comedy or to lower himself to the whites in the Rat Pack, so that’s why people would compare that [to minstrelsy]. To me, that’s not a great definition.”

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    Flip Wilson

    JA: “We worked him into the book because there are scholars and critics who accuse him of minstrelsy. [In his ’70s-era variety show], he had a preacher character. One of the aspects of the minstrel show is an absurd orator. That was in every minstrel show. That’s not a perfect analogy for what Wilson was doing, but his stage was a semicircle, which was very unusual on TV. It was the exact shape of the first part of a minstrel show, where people would stand in a semicircle. I wouldn’t call it a minstrel throwback in the way that people accused Jimmie Walker of doing years later.”

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    Jimmie Walker

    JA:Jimmie Walker is absolutely imitating comedy from the Stepin Fetchit era, black vaudeville era and minstrel-show era. People react more viscerally [to Walker] than they do to Flip Wilson. The two main leads on the [1974] show [Good Times] — Esther Rolle and John Amos — quit the show because he was acting like a minstrel. That’s unheard of.”

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    Redd Foxx

    JA: “We don’t emphasize enough that not all black comedy comes from minstrelsy. There are toasts — rhymes that have this broad, raw comedy — folktales, so many different things. Redd Foxx came from the black vaudeville stage … He is a genius who took things from everywhere. His delivery is so brilliant, his timing, his voice. He’d do limericks, knock-knock jokes, puns. Some critics wanted to brand [the ’70s sitcom] Sanford and Son as minstrelsy … because it was a black sitcom about a pair of black independent businessmen. There are comparisons [between] Amos ‘n’ Andy, who had a junk taxicab, [and Sanford’s] junk business … It’s easy to make the comparison, but [it’s] not a good comparison.”

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    Spike Lee and Bamboozled

    JA: “[He brings up so many] different things in 2000’s Bamboozled, [like] the audiences of reality shows; he’s incredibly critical of white racism in that film and of African Americans who are undignified. The most heart-wrenching part of that film is watching Manray put on the blackface. Tommy Davidson and Savion Glover are so painful to watch doing that. A number of things in that film that are not 100 percent historically accurate … like [the claim that] Bert Williams was tortured to wear blackface. Some people felt that way, [that blackface was degrading,] but a lot of people were happy to be part of the top entertainment in the world, just the same way a mime or clown would put on makeup.”

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    Stanley Crouch (left); Tupac Shakur (Getty Images)

    Tupac Shakur

    JA on culture critic Stanley Crouch once calling the late Tupac Shakur a “thug minstrel”: “Crouch is a guy in love with Duke Ellington; he loves jazz. He’s so concerned with the dignity of black people, even though I don’t agree with this definition. He feels it’s important to find a way to insult and correct this behavior. It’s hard to find any language that’s an insult to rappers because there’s no profanity they don’t use. This [use of “thug minstrel”] is one profanity that they don’t use. They don’t call each other coons or Sambos or minstrels. It’s a way to shock and insult, wake up artists.”

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    Flavor Flav

    JA: “When Public Enemy was at its most potent [in the early 1990s], it seemed like he was doing the gestures, flamboyancy … The way he was talking, maybe he was doing it as necessary comic relief [from] this incredibly dire music and political message. There was one scholar who called him the ‘crown prince of irony,’ as if what he was doing was not straightforward, like he was signifying somehow. But when he’s on the TV shows years later, he was doing it in a way where you could not criticize his critics for saying he was providing the coon figure or the buffoon figure. But I don’t believe he’s stupid … he knows exactly what he’s doing.”


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    Dave Chappelle

    JA: “[In this ‘Racial Pixie’ skit from 2006], Chappelle’s blackface minstrel character has every punch line. Look at Chappelle’s face in that skit. Chappelle feels himself being plagued by the pixie — and he is generally miserable; there’s no comedy in his misery. In that way, he’s kind of embarrassed that there is something funny about being a shameless, stereotype-embracing character. The whole point of the skit is signifying on the idea that black minstrelsy is a good thing, because this black minstrel character is ruining his life. Chappelle’s comedy was one of the most palpable ways that he could fight the legacy of black minstrelsy.”