Distributed November 2000
Copyright ©2000 by Susan Smulyan
Op-Ed Editor: Janet Kerlin|
About 730 Words
Today’s entertainment descends from minstrel shows
The question of whether today’s audiences would enjoy Spike Lee’s fictional “New Millennium Minstrels” remains an open one. My research into a particularly shameful form of minstrelsy – shows presented by white amateurs – supports Lee’s view that the racist stereotypes of minstrel shows have been an integral part of American culture up to the present day.
Spike Lee’s new movie, Bamboozled, brilliantly exposes the racism that underlies American popular culture. The film uses history to make its points and to remind us of the importance of the minstrel show. Bamboozled tells the story of a Harvard-educated African American aesthete working for a struggling television network. Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) produces the hugely popular “New Millennium Minstrel Show” to save his employers and his career.
Lee bases his movie on minstrel show history. The most affecting scenes in Bamboozled are a portrayal of contemporary African American performers “blacking up” just as their forefathers did, and a concluding montage of familiar film stars and cartoon characters wearing black face. Lee insists that minstrel stereotypes form the basis for much of contemporary advertising, television, film and music, and affect the whites and blacks who produce and watch this culture. Yet some reviewers complain that Lee doesn’t realize America outgrew blatant racism long ago and find implausible his contention that contemporary Americans would applaud a minstrel show.
Lee draws on the work of historians who have written about both professional minstrel shows of the 19th century performed by black and white casts and the 20th century Hollywood movies that feature nostalgic portrayals of these professional minstrels. But the question of whether today’s audiences would enjoy Lee’s fictional “New Millennium Minstrels” remains an open one. My research into a particularly shameful form of minstrelsy – shows presented by white amateurs – supports Lee’s view that the racist stereotypes of minstrel shows have been an integral part of American culture up to the present day.
From about 1900 on, many white Americans participated in minstrel shows, blacking up for the amusement of their friends and to raise money for good causes. These amateur minstrels – white middle-class men, women and children across the United States – are remembered but little discussed. During the 1980s and 1990s, white college students told me that, despite what I said in my lectures, minstrel shows didn’t end with the 19th century. Their relatives remembered participating in minstrel shows in church basements, club meeting rooms and schools.
When I began to explore the world of amateur minstrels, I found an enormous collection of minstrel how-to books in the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays in the John Hay Library at Brown University. By 1900, major publishers offered books of minstrel songs, jokes and scripts for community groups who wanted to put on a minstrel show.
The publication of amateur minstrel show books peaked in the 1920s and 1930s, but it continued into the 1950s. The book titles (including The Old Maids’ Minstrel Show; Jolly Pickaninnies Minstrels: A Complete Minstrel Program for the Grades; The Burnt Cork Entertainer; Mirandy’s Minstrels: A Minstrel Entertainment for Women) show the widespread involvement of all parts of the white community. A large industry supported these amateur minstrels with the sale of costumes, wigs, “bones,” and burnt cork make-up, and sometimes the provision of professional directors to organize the amateur productions. Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, later radio and television’s “Amos ’n’ Andy,” began as directors of amateur minstrel shows. Following protests by the NAACP, amateur minstrelsy ended by the early 1960s, although accounts exist of productions in later decades.
The minstrel show books tell us little about the thoughts either of the whites who performed these racist materials or of the African Americans who must have known about the shows. But the presence of such performances bolsters Lee’s contention that minstrelsy and its stereotypes are crucial elements of American culture. Lee’s film leaves us to look for minstrel influences in television programs aimed at African Americans, the depictions of African Americans on shows aimed at whites, rap music, and current advertising. He also calls our attention to the ways in which the minstrel tradition affects both African American and white artists and how American culture treats and represents them.
Amateur minstrels form an important link in American history by connecting the 19th century professional minstrel shows with the late 20th century use of racist stereotypes in various entertainment formats. The amateurs reiterate the importance of race to American cultural forms and help us understand how racist ideology gets formed and maintained in the 20tth century. Lee’s Bamboozled forces us to remember how close in time and form we are to the hateful racism of minstrel shows and how minstrelsy has influenced our current popular culture.
Susan Smulyan is an associate professor in the Department of American Civilization at Brown University in Providence, R.I. She is currently working on a book about ideology and popular culture.