Episode #25 – April 12, 2009
The Minstrel Show
Minstrel shows were extremely popular, and fundamentally racist.
Where did their appeal lie?
How could such an odd genre achieve such popularity?
How long did their influence last?
Okay, I’m already being asked to explain myself. Most examinations of such controversial phenomena fall into one of two traps: (1) holding the subject up for wholesale automatic ridicule and disapproval (“look how ugly and unfair everything about this was, wasn’t it awful?”) which it deserves, except 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, we’re just having a little fun, we don’t mean anything by it, it had a certain charm.”)
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 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
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Posted on April 12th, 2009 by Wayne Keyser
Filed under: Podcasts