Emerging as a 19th century entertainment genre grounded in racial caricature, blackface minstrelsy continues to linger in modern popular culture. Because of this, classroom discussions about minstrelsy may elicit uncomfortable, awkward, or silent refusals in reaction. Students may struggle with discussing historical blackface minstrelsy that often brings up racial issues and stereotypes in the present. Pictures, songs, makeup, or dialect from minstrelsy history in lectures sometimes echo present-day entertainment, just without the label of blackface minstrelsy. What models can be used to help stimulate productive conversations and what resources can teachers turn to for help with difficult classroom topics in modern-day diverse classroom settings?

Clip from Marlon Riggs’ documentary Ethnic Notions:

The composer, director, librettist, and actors of The Scottsboro Boys discuss how their musical adapted the minstrel format for their show’s theme and time period:

Thomas Dartmouth Rice originated his Jim Crow character on the United States stage in 1828. Blackface minstrelsy quickly became a form of popular entertainment in the United States and Great Britain. The use of blackface predated the minstrel show format; the combination of the two proved nearly unstoppable in popularity and geographical reach.  The practice of blackface refers to the applying of makeup to produce stereotypical facial features. Historically, actors applied greasepaint or burnt cork to create the façade of black skin.

From Spike Lee’s Bamboozled:

A Genealogy of Blackface Minstrelsy

Blackface minstrelsy might be closer than students initially think, even in the seemingly innocent movies of their childhoods. The main crow in this Dumbo song sequence is called Jim Crow. Notice the spats on his talons, the way he struts on the top railing, and his frayed clothes.

PBS documentary on Jim Crow segregation in the US

The Disney movie, Song of the South (1946), which was produced during Jim Crow America at the height of racial segregation, characterizes former slave Uncle Remus in a way that echoes the lyrics and songsheet from the song “Old Folks at Home.” The film takes place in Reconstruction-era Georgia. Multiple times in the film, black characters sing and dance. The main character in “Old Folks at Home” longs for the rural setting, and Remus thoroughly enjoys his rural home and retirement on the plantation. Remus also stands as one of the “Old Folks at Home.” In the movie, Uncle Remus looks after and cares for a young white boy, Johnny, whose grandmother owns a plantation. He tells animal tales to Johnny, in order to help the young boy cope with his parents separating and his new rural setting. Remus has an intimate connection to the animated portion of the film. He brings Johnny into it, and Johnny eventually masters access without needing Remus.

This characterization of Remus connects blackface minstrelsy conventions to present-day movies. Remus has a magical connection to another world, he uses dialect very similar to that used in blackface minstrelsy sketches, and he sacrifices repeatedly for Johnny’s happiness. The structure of the film places Remus in service to Johnny repeatedly; Johnny comes of age because of Remus’s wisdom and actions.

Spike Lee identified this kind of dramaturgy and characterization as the “Magical Negro.”  He defined the magical negro as a black spiritual character exists solely to help the main, white character along his or her journey in the movie. Uncle Remus did that in Song of the South, and John Coffey does it in The Green Mile (1999).

John Coffey uses dialect in The Green Mile, and though differs significantly from the way Remus speaks in Song of the South, Coffey’s character echoes Uncle Remus. In the scene above, Coffey longs to be free and to rest, which echoes the happy retirement in “Old Folks at Home” and Remus’s confined situation. Tellingly, Coffey has magical and spiritual wisdom which helps the main character, played by Tom Hanks, throughout the movie. Coffey’s performance presents a very different character than the one who sings “Old Folks at Home.” On the other hand, Coffey’s performance shows remnants of blackface minstrelsy conventions in present-day entertainment. These two genealogical examples show just two ways in which blackface minstrelsy conventions still echo within other time periods and forms of US entertainment.

So now what? Blackface minstrelsy persists. Will it disappear on its own? What can teachers do within a classroom to help students envision different futures for performance in the US? Performance, as a process, involves breaking down and analysis in order to build up and create a final piece. Musicians, dancers, and actors rehearse sections or scenes, in order to build the final piece of music, number, or play. Recognizing the trend need not end in blanket disparagement of all African American or black characters in US film, television, dance, music, and theatre. The next step involves building back up – responding to, critiquing, and creating new possibilities.

Performance, History, and the Classroom

Requiring students to break down and analyze performances will assess students’ comprehension and analysis of historical processes and classroom materials. Both E. Patrick Johnson and Ethel Young-Minor found performance useful in their African American literature courses. Johnson went so far as to assigned students to perform a character from within the texts examined. Young-Minor assigned students to perform a section of verse, and then instructed them to continue the performance with their own response in free verse.  These two options present a range of possibilities for performance in the classroom: performing directly from a script or song, responding to a script or song in performance, and some combination of the two. As a historical process, blackface minstrelsy, its practices and conventions, stand as a somewhat different case due to its incredibly sensitive nature.

A Teacher’s Guide to Teaching Blackface Minstrelsy

Dealing with minstrelsy as history and performance, as past and present, can cover multiple pedagogical objectives:

  • To contextualize, specify, and analyze historical blackface minstrelsy
  • To locate, trace, and comprehend blackface minstrelsy’s inheritance in US popular culture
  • To differentiate between a historical mode of performance, its continuing influences, and adaptations or revisions of that historical mode
  • To develop performances as responses and advocacy towards changing prevalent conventions in popular culture

The process of breaking down history, in order to build a performance can:

  • Provide students with methods to trace historical continuity and change
  • Empower students to make positive choices towards changing established trends
  • Show how culture is transmitted and adapted in performance across time, text, sound, and media
  • Encourage students to analyze popular entertainment and material culture

To prepare for a lecture or section on blackface minstrelsy, instructors should consider:

  • Familiarizing themselves with histories and historiographies of blackface minstrelsy.
  • Discover how literature of the nineteenth century, including some classics taught in high schools, drew on blackface minstrelsy conventions
  • Review Uncle Tom’s Cabin – a prime example of literature that drew on minstrelsy – and the plays, stereotypes, and material cultural artifacts inspired by Stowe’s novel

Classroom Discussions

The conventions of blackface typically refer to the dialect, characterizations, and dramaturgy of blackface sketches. If you choose to show students primary sources relating to blackface minstrelsy, have them think through these questions:

  • Dialect refers to the way in which black characters spoke on the minstrel stage.
    • What did characters say?
    • How did they say it?
    • Did their way of speaking indicate intelligence? What argument is being made through this cadence and diction?
  • Characterization refers to the qualities and actions of black characters on the minstrel stage.
    • What did characters choose to do on the minstrel stage?
    • How did they do it?
    • What did the characters look like on the minstrel stage?
  • Dramaturgy refers to the dramatic structures of blackface sketches.
    • How did the character change in the minstrel scene? Did they remain static or unchanging?
    • What did that change show about the character and the minstrel world?
    • What was the conflict of the minstrel scene?

The conventions of blackface can be far more difficult for students to recognize or identify in popular culture without the stereotypical makeup (or in the case of cartoons, exaggerated drawing style). By tracking the presence of dialect, characterization, and dramaturgy in texts, music, or film, echoes of blackface minstrelsy emerge in both expected and unexpected places in popular culture.

Janelle Monáe, in her music video for Q.U.E.E.N., uses dance, costume, music, and rap in contrast to anti-black stereotypes

Some Final Notes of Caution

Instructors should exercise great caution when dealing with pictures, songs, scripts, texts, caricatures, and language of the era blackface minstrelsy was produced—primarily in both Antebellum and Jim Crow America. Educators may not be prepared for the reactions within the classroom, or those outside of the classroom. Exposing students to historical scripts may foster tension among students, and even communicate the acceptability of using minstrelsy’s stereotypes in the present. Be clear that your classroom is a safe place to discuss these complex feelings and emotions regarding the past and present.

Classroom discussions surrounding race in historical entertainment or present-day entertainment may bring up difficult moments in the classroom. The following sources contain exercises and/or accounts of handling difficult classroom moments when dealing with racially charged topics:

  • Omi Osun Jones, Lisa L. Moore, Sharon Bridgforth,eds, Experiments in a Jazz Aesthetic: Art, Activism, Academia, and the Austin Project, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
  • Bruce McConachie, “Theatre of the Oppressed with Students of Privilege,” in Teaching Performance Studies, eds. Nathan Stucky and Cynthia Wimmer, pp. 247–260. (Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002).
  • Maris Schweitzer, Laura Levin, Cassandra Dee Ball, and Megan McDonald, “Elephants in the Classroom: A Forum on Performance Pedagogy,” in Canadian Theatre Review, 147, 74–85.
  • Eng-Beng Lim, Lisa Duggan, and José Esteban Muñoz, “The Performance and Pedagogy of Neoliberal Affect,” as a part of “Critical Stages,” ed. Patrick Anderson, in Theatre Survey, 51:1, 127–133.

In conclusion, integrating performance history in the classroom can present both risks and rewards to instructors, students, and the school community. Coaching students of these stereotype’s histories requires a great deal of trust. As with any assignment, instructors can and should evaluate the usefulness of their pedagogical objectives, the course’s focus, and time available inside and outside of the classroom to fully engage critically with texts. All suggestions here remain recommendations, not hard rules or guarantees.


My most heartfelt thanks to Kathryn Miller Haines of The Center for American Music Library in Pittsburgh

For more information:

  1. Catherine M. Cole, Ghana’s Concert Party Theatre, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001; Jill Lane, Blackface Cuba, 1840–1895, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005; Sarah J. Meer, Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy, and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005; Michael Pickering, Blackface Minstrelsy in Britain, Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2008; Chinua Thelwell, ““Nothing Now Goes Down But Burnt Cork”: Blackface Minstrelsy and Ethnic Impersonation in South Africa, 1862–1968,” PhD diss., New York University, 2007. 
  2. See “LTD Installs 2013,” YouTube, April 24, 2013, accessed August 22, 2013,http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bEz9RTsie8; “Racist Rant in Blackface Two Minnesota Students,” YouTube, November 21, 2012, accessed August 22, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bEz9RTsie8; Carmen van Kerckhove, “Riverdale Christian Academy Celebrates Graduation with a Blackface Party Mocking Slavery,” Racialicious, June 11, 2007, accessed August 22, 2013, http://www.racialicious.com/2007/06/11/riverdale-christian-academy-celebrates-graduation-with-a-blackface-party-mocking-slavery/.
  3. Susan Gonzales, “Director Spike Lee Slams ‘Same Old’ Black Stereotypes in Today’s Films,” YALE Bulletin & Calendar, March 2, 2001, accessed June 2, 2013, http://www.yale.edu/opa/arc-ybc/v29.n21/story3.html. See also The Minority Reporter, accessed June 24, 2013, http://www.minorityreporter.com/The_Minority_Reporter/The_6_Archetypes.html 
  4. See E. Patrick Johnson, Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 219–255; Ethel Young-Minor, “Performance Pedagogies for African American Literature: Teaching Shange at Ole Miss,” in The Radical Teacher, 65, 27–32.
  5. Cf Joseph Byrd, “Whitewashing Blackface Minstrelsy in American College Textbooks,” in Popular Music and Society, 32:1, 77–86)
  6. Annemarie Bean, James Vernon Hatch, and Brooks McNamara, eds., Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth Century Blackface Minstrelsy, (Hanover, New Hampshire: Wesleyan University Press, 1996); Dale Cockrell, Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997); W. T. Lhamon, Jr., Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998); Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); William J. Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999); David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, (New York: Verso, 2007), 115–132; Robert C. Toll, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth Century America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974). 
  7. Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights, (New York: New York University Press, 2011); Henry B. Wonham, Playing the Races: Ethnic Caricature and American Literary Realism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  8. Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mammies, Mulattoes, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (New York: Continuum, 2003); Jo-Ann Morgan, Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Visual Culture (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007); Stephen Railton, dir., Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture: A Multi-Media Archive, University of Virginia, http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/; Railton, “Minstrelsy in Literature,” University of Virginia, http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/minstrel/milithp.html; Patricia Turner, Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 1994). See also Jocelyn L. Buckner, “Shady Ladies: Sisters Acts, Popular Performance, and the Subversion of American Identity,” (PhD diss., University of Kansas, 2010); Susan Gubar, Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Jason Sperb, Disney’s Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence, and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012); John Strasbaugh, Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult, & Imitation in American Popular Culture, (New York: Penguin, 2006). 
  9. Janelle Monáe, Q.U.E.E.N., YouTube, accessed August 22, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tEddixS-UoU.
Esther J. Terry is a Mellon Pre-Doctoral Fellow and Doctoral Candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. Her dissertation analyzes African Diasporic performance as embodied and historiographic practices in Mediterranean, trans-Saharan, and trans-Atlantic exchanges. She also researches Swahili-language performance in Africa and the United States, and Hip Hop as an African Diasporic dramaturgy. Her field work has been funded by the University of Richmond, the University of Pittsburgh, and Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad. Her article, “Land Rights and Womb Rights: Forging Difficult Diasporic Kinships in Ruined,” will appear in A Critical Companion to Lynn Nottage, edited by Jocelyn L. Buckner. In her spare time, Esther works as a dramaturg, generates content for http://upstages.tumblr.com/ and http://effyeahintheheights.tumblr.com/, watches PBS in Spanish, and reads children's books in Swahili.

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