Blackface and Minstrel Shows. An Inspiration for Jim?. What is a Minstrel Show?.
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The Minstrel Show presents us with a strange and awful phenomenon. In the US they began in the 1830s, with working class white men dressing up as plantation slaves. These men imitated black musical and dance forms, combining savage parody of black Americans with genuine fondness for African American cultural forms. By the Civil War the minstrel show had become world famous and respectable. Late in his life Mark Twain fondly remembered the "old time nigger show" with its colorful comic darkies and its rousing songs and dances.
White performers would blacken their faces with burnt cork or greasepaint, dress in outlandish costumes, and then perform songs and skits that mocked African Americans as lazy, buffoonish, dumb, superstitious and musical. Some of the most famous songs in American history--Dixie, Camptown Races, Oh Sussanah, My Old Kentucky Home--began as minstrel songs.
These three stock characters were among several that reappeared in minstrel shows throughout the nineteenth century. "Jim Crow" was the stereotypical carefree slave, "Mr. Tambo" a joyous musician, and "Zip Coon" a free black attempting to "put on airs" or rise above his station. The parody in minstrel shows was often savage.