Episode #25 – Minstrel Shows

Posted by on April 12, 2009

Episode #25 – April 12, 2009

The Minstrel Show

Minstrel shows were extremely popular, and appallingly racist.
Where did their appeal lie?
How could such an odd genre achieve such popularity?
How long did their influence last?

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Okay, I’m already being asked to explain myself. Most examinations of topics like this fall into one of two traps: (1) holding the subject up for instant ridicule and disapproval (“look how ugly and unfair everything about this was, wasn’t it awful?”) which it deserves, but you don’t learn anything that way; and (2) pretending to study it, while actually trying to excuse it, as a disingenuous mask for one’s own racism. (“Oh, it’s a tradition, it had a certain charm, we’re just having a little fun, we don’t mean anything by it.”)

I thought that such a strong subject deserved a straight-ahead clear-eyed look, honest in intent, and I learned something: audiences now are not really all that different from audiences then: we love and approve of patently ugly, biased entertainment, especially when strong issues are on the table … as long as it confirms our own biases. More on this argument later.

The “Hollywood version”, but fairly accurate

1903: Minstrel Cake Walk

Much glossier than a real minstrel show,
this Al Jolson clip isn’t a bad approximation


It’s hard to believe that annual editions of this variety show,
with no reason at all to use blackface throughout,
were broadcast on British TV until 1972

Sold in dime stores in the 1960s


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