The Blackface Pioneer

Matthew Rebhorn

in Pioneer Performances

Published in print January 2012 | ISBN: 9780199751303
Published online May 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199932559 | DOI:
The Blackface Pioneer

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This chapter reads the history of blackface minstrelsy, particularly T. D. Rice's successful farce, The Virginia Mummy (1837), as a part of the history of frontier performance. Rice's performance explodes the politics of Paulding's melodrama of wonder in The Lion of the West. By charting the two works' shared, if unexplored, performative histories, this chapter argues that Rice's Jim Crow character does not exploit or expropriate black culture, nor is its rebelliousness merely derived from black cultural sources, as numerous competing critics have claimed. Rather, by mapping the places where Rice performed his minstrel character across the United States, this chapter demonstrates how those performances sharpened their racial satire by lampooning the frontiersman, a character who purposely mimics Paulding's Wildfire. Restaging the frontier, the minstrel show eliminated the tidy line dividing whiteness from racial “otherness” and created in its place a zone of racial cross-pollination. The minstrel show generated some of its most acute political critiques and aesthetic innovations by manipulating a set of performative practices associated with the frontier. By mining the rich imagery associated with minstrelsy's frontier history—particularly its black and Indian bodies—this chapter reveals the key role that the frontier played in minstrelsy's attempts both to question American racial stereotypes and to imagine a theatrical zone and social space beyond prescriptive notions of race.

Keywords: blackface; minstrelsy; frontiersman; body; blackness; racial performance; race; t. d. rice; james kirke paulding

Chapter.  11000 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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