Saturday, July 16, 2011

Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy

From the Mississippi Quarterly, "Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture," by Frank Diller, in 1999:
THE ERA OF THE MINSTREL SHOW MIGHT BE GONE but blackface continues to pop its burnt-cork head into the popular consciousness. From 1998's New York City Labor Day parade featuring a float of blackface firefighters to the numerous supermarket incarnations of Aunt Jemima, elements of minstrelsy still appear in American popular culture and can serve as a barometer of race relations. Depictions of African Americans in popular culture demonstrate how far the nation has come and how far it still needs to go.
Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture, by William J. Mahar. Champaign: University of Illinois. Press, 1999.
But, as academic interest in minstrelsy has increased, it has become clear that an accurate reading of the barometer is rarely seen in the oversimplified terms of black and white. Two recent books on two different features of minstrelsy, antebellum American theater and the creation and dissemination of Aunt Jemima, demonstrate the importance of locating minstrelsy in larger social and historical spheres.

One of the biggest problems facing contemporary blackface scholars is the limited number of resources available on the subject. Many aspects of minstrelsy are yet to be addressed in a comprehensive manner and when these have been approached it is often with an apologetic tone and little original thought. Until recently, scholars fed off of each other with numerous cross-references to equally benign accounts concerning blackface and minimized the number of original sources they addressed themselves. William J. Mahar escapes this trap with a refreshing and far more rewarding approach in Behind the Burnt Cork Mask, a detailed look early blackface minstrelsy and antebellum American culture.

Without the benefit of first-hand accounts or visual media, Mahar offers close readings of the surviving sheet music and playbills from minstrelsy to make the claim, "It is virtually impossible to determine what individual blackface entertainers actually intended by their mimicry ... but it is clear that racial disparagement, however prominently it figured as a humorous device and as a means of social control, was not the only function of the minstrel show" (p. 40). Questions of class and gender take center stage as Mahar presents an exhaustive account of the burlesque pieces adapted from English and Italian operas. Composers for the minstrel show manipulated the European pieces by simplifying the complex musical arrangements, minimizing character relationships, and introducing American texts and topical references that their audience would easily recognize. Although the material was thematically similar to its European counterparts, Mahar argues that these burlesques played on the insecurity of Americans about their own cultural production and class structure

The author later identifies the minstrel show's Ethiopian sketches (i.e., blackface interpretations) of American life in which controversial material was eschewed for the much safer reinforcement of class structures. Burlesques, featuring stereotyped figures in humorous sketches that satirized contemporary values and concerns, borrowed from newspaper parodies and played on the sensibilities of the lower- and middle-class audiences towards class and gender relations.
In the most interesting section of his book, Mahar examines the often misogynistic portrayal of women in the minstrel show. Instead of addressing the blurred racial and gender lines of male performers dressed as women, Mahar focuses on the free-spirited, sexually independent "gals" appearing in many of the minstrel songs:

Marital fidelity might have been the preferred ideal relationship between men and women.... Nonetheless, many married and unmarried men believed that marital happiness could be achieved only after sexual dalliance.... It would be highly unlikely that sporting men, dandies, artisans, working males, and curious youth, the major audience for early minstrelsy, would have missed the references to "gals" in blackface songs.... Males, regardless of color or ethnic background, attributed to themselves the freedom to behave as they saw fit while relegating women to a subservient role in marriage, sexual relationships, and public life. (p. 309)

Comedian Bert Williams started performing in blackface with a duo act called "The Two Real Coons." In 1921 Lew Leslie directed, created, and produced Blackbirds, an all black mistrel show reached highest popularity across the United States and Europe in the late 1920s
Mahar's recognition that gender distinctions in minstrelsy reflected the dominant political and social order of the time complicates racial assumptions surrounding blackface minstrelsy and serves as a fitting conclusion to an insightful book. Although Behind the Burnt Cork Mask emphasizes the history of American music and theater, the author's detailed work also poses a number of intriguing questions that would serve future scholars of blackface minstrelsy well.

Bing Crosby in Minstrel Show Blackface. Bing Crosby dresses in stereotype costume and blackface in the 1943 movie "Dixie". The film is based on the life of Dan Emmett, the composer of the traditional song of the same title
Mahar's attention to original sources and thought would have been wise for M. M. Manring to heed while writing Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima, which does its subject an injustice as it struggles to address all of the factors leading to its creation. With its origins grounded in the minstrel show and its representation of the rise of the middle-class and the advertising industry, the Aunt Jemima figure has the potential to be a touchstone for the depiction of African Americans in American popular culture, but Manring never fully realizes such possibilities with this uninspired approach.

Manring prefaces Aunt Jemima's origins by examining the conditions in history, literature, and advertising that made the dissemination of such a recognizable and easily accepted figure possible. The parallel accounts of mammies in history and literature and American advertising in the early twentieth century both exceed the length actually spent on Aunt Jemima and fail to tie things together.
Manring's history of the mammy figure offers a solid bibliography of work but perpetuates that genre's biggest problem by simply repeating what has already been said. His account of the subsequent history of American advertising often feels like an abridged version of a far more comprehensive and useful account such as Jackson Lears's Fables of Abundance. In that sense, the first half of Slave in a Box might serve as an adequate introduction to issues of advertising and representation but it does not offer anything new.
When Manring finally addresses the figure of Aunt Jemima itself, he places too much emphasis on the successful advertising campaign of the 1920s at the expense of the rest of the twentieth century. By playing on myths of the Old South that grew out of Reconstruction and on anxieties of middle-class housewives that arose from modern ad agencies, James Young Webb and N. C. Wyeth orchestrated one of the most successful ad campaigns of the early twentieth century and endowed Aunt Jemima with a celebrity status that would last for the rest of her career, but Manring simply catalogs these print ads and compares them to Webb's other account, the Maxwell House coffee campaign.
This rather uninspired reading is also undermined by Manring's acceptance of personal recollections of James Young Webb--a man who seemed just as comfortable selling himself as the products he marketed--and who had a lack of interest in how Aunt Jemima influenced either marketing or other forms of popular culture. Manring instead glosses over the next seven decades of Aunt Jemima's career by briefly citing references to protests about the figure, its subsequent incarnations in radio, print, and television ads, and its possible influence on other fictitious mammy figures in pop culture.
Late in the book, Manring makes this claim: "Aunt Jemima means essentially the same thing she meant in 1919, but that instantly understood meaning encompasses a collection of traits no longer acceptable in the 1990s. In this sense Aunt Jemima is a guide to how the image of African Americans changed in popular culture over this century, and her own image remains politically charged today, makeovers and all" (p. 151). The Aunt Jemima figure could definitely serve as a touchstone for race relations and advertising in American popular culture, but it's going to take an effort like that of William Mahar instead of Manring's pre-packaged mix of secondary references and generalizations to sell this argument.


  1. Great site. Thank you. A minor and debatable point: U.S. Grant never owned a slave. His wife owned a slave, given to her by her slave holding parents.

  2. Sorry you quit blogging, but I'm glad you left the archives up. This blog is such a wonderful resource!



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