Performing Arts

Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop

Yuval Taylor, Jake Austen

An exploration and celebration of a controversial tradition that, contrary to popular opinion, is alive and active after more than 150 years.

The Greatest Colored Show on Earth

Female stereotypes are harder to enumerate, simply because there were far fewer female characters in the minstrel show. Many minstrel troupes were all-male, with the female parts played by men in drag. (Comic drag and musical female impersonation were common on the American stage, whether minstrel or not. However, many contemporary critics brand any black comic in drag a minstrel.) Two female stereotypes remain associated with minstrelsy. Aunt Jemima, or Mammy, is Uncle Tom’s female equivalent—harmless, happy, and sexless. Topsy, the dancing child, is the carefree “pickaninny.” Like Uncle Tom, these were familiar characters in literature, the stage, and other media, and the degree to which they figured in black minstrelsy is unclear. Minstrel shows traditionally featured a narrative play as the third act, and these caricatures would often be relegated to these melodramas, which were not unique to minstrel shows. In fact, one parallel to traditional minstrel shows were Uncle Tom’s Cabin plays (known as U.T.C.’s), performances of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel that folded a full variety show into loose skeletal interpretations of the story.

These stereotypical caricatures have appeared in pop culture continuously since minstrelsy’s heyday, sometimes intact, but more often in bits and pieces: the wide eyes and surprised mouth signified by the blackface makeup; the huge, carefree, tooth-baring grin; shabby rural rags or absurdly ostentatious urban attire; country dialect or would-be-urban malapropisms; superstitious fears of ghosts and boogeymen; comic razor fights; dice games; watermelon and chicken theft; extreme sloth.

Over the years, African Americans have usually approached these stereotypical characters and their traits in one of three ways. Some embrace them, playing them straight to make folks laugh (or to ingratiate themselves with a white audience), even to the extent of affirming them as part and parcel of their identities. From the earliest black minstrel shows to today’s hip-hop videos and “chitlin circuit” stage plays, this is a charge that keeps black minstrelsy alive as a hot-button issue. Others signify on them. This was Dave Chappelle’s usual approach, and it can be seen in performers as diverse as Ethel Waters, André 3000, and George Clinton (who funked up the minstrel refrain “Feet don’t fail me now”). Still others make war on them with such vehemence that they come alive. As seen in Richard Wright’s attack on Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Stanley Crouch calling Tupac Shakur a “thug minstrel,” and Spike Lee’s unforgettable Bamboozled, black minstrelsy rears its ugly head whenever black critics worry that black artists are reinforcing negative stereotypes.

Whichever approach is taken, the black minstrel image remains inescapable, something that every black performer, critic, and thinker has to reckon with.

Performers adopt personae when they go out on stage. They can be exuberant or cool, clumsy or smooth, shiftless or industrious, cowardly or brave, submissive or angry, embarrassed or proud, gluttonous or abstemious, stupid or smart, devious or honest. Throughout American history whites have had the freedom to choose any of these traits without being accused of anything worse than playing to the crowd. But whenever a black performer chooses a persona featuring several of the traits we’ve named first in this list of opposites, the accusation of minstrelsy tends to follow.

Many of the most popular and revered black performers of the last fifty years—Marian Anderson, Halle Berry, James Brown, Bill Cosby, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur—have mainly embodied the latter positive traits enumerated above. But are these the only ones black entertainers should adopt? Many prominent black cultural commentators—Jesse Jackson, Stanley Crouch, Wynton Marsalis, Spike Lee, Albert Murray, Oprah Winfrey, and several of those on the above list, including Brown, Cosby, and Davis—have publicly denounced black entertainers who choose to embody less positive traits, as have organizations like the NAACP. They all have good reason for doing so, for those negative traits are precisely the ones that whites have used for centuries to create demeaning stereotypes of blacks.

Yet throughout history, some black entertainers have deliberately adopted these negative traits. This is only natural, for those traits, being more subject to ridicule, are more conducive to laughter. It is easier to make your audience happy by acting devious than honest, exuberant than cool, clumsy than smooth.

“The humor of nearly all minorities reveals a tendency toward self-deprecation,” writes Mel Watkins in his definitive history of black American humor, On the Real Side. And certainly this has been a constant theme in black American writing: the self-contempt induced by minority status, by oppression. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about the “double-consciousness” of black Americans in The Souls of Black Folk: “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Ralph Ellison echoed Du Bois when he wrote of the “double vision” of black Americans. And indeed, as Jewish humor also so richly shows, oppressed people have a natural tendency to exaggerate their perceived faults.

Yet the notion of self-deprecation doesn’t necessarily include the adoption of the point of view of the oppressor. The Jewish comic, for example, rarely jokes about the money-grubbing miser or the manipulator of the world’s finances. Black minstrelsy, by contrast, is based precisely on the adoption of the most slanderous fictions that white people have used to characterize black men.

Is this a remainder of the slave mentality, as some argue? Is this simply an example of black people giving white people what they hope and expect? Or is it something more complex? These are the fundamental questions this book is trying to answer.

And perhaps this desire for laughter is at the heart of the problem. In Wright’s review of Their Eyes Were Watching God, he wrote, “Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh.” Du Bois foresaw comments like Wright’s when he wrote, “The more highly trained we become, the less we can laugh at Negro comedy.” Dave Chappelle’s horror at a white man’s laughter echoes Du Bois and Wright. The minstrel tradition was designed to provoke laughter above all, and it has thus tainted that desire in the eyes of many African Americans.

The thriving black minstrel shows of the nineteenth century were designed not only for laughs, but for comfort: their formal structure usually echoed the familiar outline of the traditional minstrel show. But in the twentieth century they took more contemporary forms. Traveling tent shows traversed the rural South; black vaudeville developed the rhythms of minstrel-show end men into a more intimate exchange; proper black revues and narrative plays were developed for small black halls and grand Broadway theaters. And with each development in technology (from cinema to sound recording to television to Internet) black artists continued to practice tried-and-true techniques that were developed under a layer of ebony paint.

One of the best examples of the tradition surviving into the twentieth century and exerting influence on all areas of American popular culture is the lengthy career of the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, a troupe Sampson declared “the best of the minstrel companies owned and managed entirely by blacks.” Pat Chappelle (no relation, to our knowledge, to Dave) opened a vaudeville theater in Tampa, Florida, in 1899 and began assembling a new ensemble to perform in a revue he commissioned entitled A Rabbit’s Foot. In 1900 the show began a monthlong tour, making it up to New York City. Despite the Indianapolis Freeman declaring that “the Foots” transcended the stigma of tent shows, Rabbit’s Foot was a tent show, albeit a high-end one, pulling in $1,000 a week (at 35¢ a ticket, a dime above its competitors’ prices) primarily in the South. The troupe often entertained mixed or all-white crowds but also frequently performed for thousands of rural blacks. They had over forty performers, five custom railway cars (valued at up to $10,000 each), a tricked-out automobile which they paraded through towns before shows, and bragging rights that they had “not one pale face among us—even our advance agents are colored” (though the company would lose that boast after Chappelle’s 1911 death when white carnival man Fred S. Wolcott purchased the troupe).

Though the Rabbit’s Foot Company still performed traditional minstrel comedy and lowbrow musical material like “Phrenologist Coon,” “Cannibal Love,” and “Dis Ain’t de Kind a Grub I Been Gittin’ Down Home,” twentieth-century tent shows combined elements of vaudeville, blues, jazz, the circus (the Rabbit’s Foot Company had an “educated goat which does seventeen tricks”), and sports (by 1905 the company had a baseball team that played a local club in each city while the concert band played classical music to accompany the contest). Several of the greatest black comics of the twentieth century passed through the Foots’ ranks, including Tim Moore (who a half-century later starred in that milestone of minstrelsy, the Amos ’n’ Andy TV show), and the raunchy duo Butterbeans and Susie. But it was the troupe’s legendary blues musicians, artists rarely associated with minstrelsy, that have kept the Rabbit’s Foot name alive despite a century of minstrel-show deniers. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (along with her husband Will “Pa” Rainey) joined in 1906, years before becoming “Mother of the Blues.” Rainey is said to have recruited and mentored a teenage Bessie Smith in 1912. Ida Cox was briefly with the show in 1913. Delta bluesman Big Joe Williams played with the company in the 1920s. And in the 1930s, Brownie McGhee, who became an international star during the blues revival of the 1960s, cut his teeth accompanying the comics and blues shouters in the show.

But the Rabbit’s Foot veteran who did the most to keep the black minstrel tradition alive was far from a traditional bluesman. As a teenager in the mid-twenties, Louis Jordan’s first important gig was joining his father in the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, where he played clarinet, sang, and danced. Jordan would take the wide-eyed clowning, raucous humor, and corny jokes (“Ain’t nobody here but us chickens...”) he learned with the Foots to stage, screen, and recording studios, where his R&B/jump blues music made him a superstar, one of the first Billboard crossover artists, and a pioneer of rock ’n’ roll.

Though the glory days of tent shows and minstrelsy were long behind it, the actual Rabbit’s Foot Company persisted in some form until at least the early 1960s. In 1957 the Chicago Defender ran a photo of a blackface comic routine that it called the Rabbit Foot Minstrels’ most popular act among both white and black southern viewers. The account books of Nashville’s famed Hatch Show Print document the Foots ordering posters until December 1959. And in 1960 photographer Henry Clay Anderson shot fourteen young members posing in front of a truck trailer painted with the circus-style declaration “GREATEST COLORED SHOW ON EARTH!” The company’s legacy lasted far longer, as Rabbit’s Foot alumni continued to perform for decades. Memphis soul legend Rufus Thomas worked as a comic in the show in the 1930s, and took that training into the recording studio, where he made clownish R&B records from the 1940s through the late 1990s, including the 1969 novelty hit “Do the Funky Chicken.” Mary Smith McLain, Bessie Smith’s half-sister, who joined the troupe in the mid-thirties, had a late-in-life revival on the blues circuit in the 1980s as Diamond Teeth Mary (her diamond-studded dentures blazing the trail for Lil Wayne’s hip-hop “grill”). She starred off-Broadway, performed for Reagan, toured internationally, released an album in 1993, and played Tampa clubs until her death in 2000. Outlasting her was Arnold “Gatemouth” Moore, the singer who billed himself as the last surviving Rabbit’s Foot minstrel (though he also spuriously claimed to have been Buckwheat in the Our Gang comedies). Best known for writing songs recorded by B.B. King and others, Moore cut excellent jump blues records in the 1940s, became a Memphis disc jockey in the 1950s, and was a successful preacher. He continued to sing gospel (and occasional blues) until his death at age ninety in 2004, which perhaps closed the century-plus history of the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels.

During the Rabbit Foot’s reign and the decades preceding and following it, instances of African Americans acting like minstrels raised the question of how these performers could enthusiastically participate in demeaning acts of self-representation. There is no definitive answer to this question, and this book does not aim to deproblematize black minstrelsy. The vast majority of viewers and listeners remain uncomfortable with it, with good reason. But reluctance to dig deeper than the usual reaction consigns the entire enterprise of black minstrelsy to the shadows of history.

The motivation for writing this book is to explore black minstrelsy’s artists, art, and audience reactions, and the ways the innovations of the minstrel stage have affected the subsequent century of African American performance—performances that have consistently defined American popular culture. There have been countless fascinating books written about white minstrel shows. There have also been a number of excellent books about African American theater and comedy history that include brilliant research on black minstrel performers. These include the work of the tireless Henry T. Sampson; the exhaustive ragtime research of Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff; the passionate explorations of black humor history and theory by Mel Watkins; Errol Hill and James V. Hatch’s definitive history of African American theater; and even an encyclopedia/partial memoir cowritten by stand-up legend Redd Foxx. However, there has never been a study fully devoted to black minstrelsy and its legacy. And there will never be a book long enough to cover the immenseness of the subject. We don’t expect Darkest America to be the last word on the black minstrel tradition, but rather hope that it will be an eye-opening conversation starter that will fuel discussion and debate among scholars, performers, and fans.

Though there are many challenges to approaching the history and legacy of this thorny subject, one refreshing aspect of this study is that it doesn’t ask the student to choose sides, identify villains, or make declarations of good and evil. Any ire that works its way into Darkest America is reserved for scholars who knowingly truncate quotes, ignore inconvenient data, and rewrite history to make black minstrels of yore fit into contemporarily acceptable molds. Everyone else’s hands are clean. Performers perpetuating stereotypes and pandering to the expectations of white audiences were also helping to keep alive and move forward important African American comic traditions. And these traditions had a purpose. Rather than simply reenacting degrading stereotypes invented by whites, blacks used these stereotypes to momentarily liberate themselves and their audiences from white oppression. While a Stepin Fetchit movie, a Jimmie Walker sitcom, or a Flavor Flav reality show may have earned charges of coonery, they also brought laughter and pride to black viewers who at some level appreciate that these artists demonstrate nuances and rhythms of African American humor that will always be out of the reach of white performers in (literal or proverbial) blackface.

Minstrelsy’s critics are similarly justified, even when their criticisms are flawed. Richard Wright may be wrong for dismissing Zora Neale Hurston’s writing as vapid, but when he called it a “minstrel show,” he was making a valid point. Critics of gangsta rap who may be well aware that their provocative charges of millennial minstrelsy are an ill fit for the noncomical, murder-themed music they abhor have invoked the names of Amos ’n’ Andy and Sambo with good reason—they sincerely thought such efforts were necessary to protect young fans of the music from negative influences.

“Blackface is a very difficult image,” Dave Chappelle told Oprah Winfrey, adding that he was disturbed by how it “got me in touch with my inner coon.” But Chappelle was right to “blacken up” for the racial pixies skit, because it perfectly served his astute, powerful, hilarious examination of the inner conflicts fueled by centuries of hurtful stereotypes. When Chappelle’s Show added tragic, tangible humanity to a minstrel chestnut like a dice-playing routine, took a watermelon skit to an extreme (murderous gunplay instead of petty theft), or histrionically exploited the worst stereotypes imaginable in their African American version of The Real World, Chappelle was appropriately, even admirably, following in the footsteps of black comics who were tweaking, updating, and making minstrel show content their own before the ink was dry on the Emancipation Proclamation.

Yet he was equally right to walk away from the show. It is impossible to find fault when Chappelle explains, “I don’t want black people to be disappointed with me for putting that out.” The black minstrel tradition is an umbilical cord that feeds contemporary performers both the genius and the frustrations of their ancestors. It allows artists and audiences to feel the shameless liberation of laughter, and it undercuts that with a shame born of bearing the weight of generations of racism and oppression. It’s a legacy in which two dissonant instincts attempt to harmonize. Audience members shouldn’t apologize for their joy, but critics shouldn’t hesitate to challenge content they deem harmful. Entertainers are not required to fret about acting a fool, and offended souls shouldn’t stifle their tone when they voice disdain. Regardless of one’s reactions to low, incautious, stereotype-flaunting comedy, everyone can benefit from knowing its history. That history is what Darkest America humbly attempts to survey.

Photo (partial) by TK.

Yuval Taylor, senior editor at Chicago Review Press, is the coauthor of Faking It and the editor of I Was Born a Slave.

Photo (partial) by TK.

Jake Austen is the editor of Roctober magazine. They are both residents of Chicago, Illinois.

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