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History of Minstrel Shows: Introduction - 1

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The Blackface Minstrel show is considered to be the first distinctly American theatrical form.  A minstrel show is the imitation and often offensive exaggeration of African-American music, culture, vernacular English, physical traits, etc for entertainment.

Al JolsonChanges in minstrel shows correlate to events in American History:

  • War of 1812: Americans attempted to separate themselves culturally from their European Counterparts, early minstrel skits started. 
  • Civil War: Minstrel shows grew in popularity and skits became full night extravaganzas during antebellum period and Civil War.
  • Reconstruction: As white actors moved to Vaudeville, black actors filled Minstrel show roles, first in painted black faces then without.
  • Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance, Jazz: Southern African-Americans moved from the south to cities in the north in search of a better life, gaining more visibility, capita, and influence.  Popular Radio with "Black" themes and characters were produced.
  • WWII: African-American veterans return home in search of equality, education, and hope to create positive images of Black people and culture.

It's easy to disown minstrelsy as a distressing and unfortunate area of American History.  However, the minstrel show is significant to popular entertainment history for a number of reasons:

  • Though through a distorted lens, it brought aspects of southern black culture and issues to white and black northerners.
  • It allowed for cross-cultural collaboration, which although has a history of misuse and abuse, lead to widespread appreciation of African-American contribution to arts and expression.
  • Minstrel shows also lead to the development of old time radio sit-coms like Amos N Andy and Our Miss Brooks, variety shows like Jack Benny and Fred Allen, duo-acts like Laurel and Hardy, and stand-up comedy.

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