Minstrelsy and Theatrical Miscegenation

Thomas L. Riis

in The Oxford Handbook of The American Musical

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780195385946
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks

Minstrelsy and Theatrical Miscegenation


American minstrelsy or blackface minstrelsy arose in the early nineteenth century as a form of mass entertainment. American minstrelsy was the most influential and long-lived musical-theatrical development in the antebellum period with effects that can be observed in the present. Each form of popular entertainment created in the United States since the early nineteenth century has been touched by it. American minstrelsy was banned or suppressed for its virulent racial stereotyping during the second half of the twentieth century but its elements resurfaced in environments where underclass theatrical expression could come out and be expressed safely in the same venues that encouraged ragtime, jazz, rock-and-roll, and hip-hop. The minstrel show, which by 1844 began adhering to consistent formats and advertising itself as a full night's entertainment, comprised a variety of interwoven elements that include jokes, dances, patter, topical skits, eccentric instruments, sentimental and comic songs, and mimicry of familiar and prominent persons. Folk theatricals or seasonal holiday celebrations with ancient roots also employed blackface performance in unscripted but widely practiced rituals of chaos, such as Mardi Gras or Carnival, where all is topsy-turvy. Blackface minstrelsy grew and changed with a protean character that defies full explanation. It did far more than borrow surface racial features or allow it to be limited to a single signifier.

Keywords: blackface minstrelsy; American minstrelsy; hip-hop; folk theatricals; ragtime; minstrel images

Article.  6478 words. 

Subjects: Music ; Musicology and Music History

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