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Happy Corner: Minstrelsy and Blackface Entertainment

by Hazel Wells Tison

Looking forward to the upcoming production by The Spanish Trail Playhouse  of The Sanders Family Christmas the first week in December, I began thinking about productions I was in in High School. The two I remember were the junior class play which I have forgotten the name of and a minstrel show using mostly the high school chorus.  In both those productions I was in blackface. In the play, Troy Lee Walsingham and I were twins; he was the butler/handyman, etc. and I was the maid. His name was Pernicious and mine was Anemia.  “Our Mamy looked in the medicated book and that what she named us.”

In the minstrel, the whole cast was in blackface. I am sure if any blacks in the community were aware that we were portraying black people, they would most likely have been offended. Two numbers I remember were “Gonna Lay Down My Burdens Down By the Riverside” and another, a solo by Hollis Dean Galloway. I Remember some of the lyrics. “ I Proves it with my razor. I never leaves a doubt. When anyone says I’m crazy I yanks that razor out.”

Blackface Entertainment

I wondered if the black people I knew would be offended.  Today, there would be no question whether or not it is offensive. But Blackface Minstrelsy was a popular form of theatrical expression as early as the 1870’s. It declined in the early part of the 20th century. 

One source I found attributes the practice of blacks dressed in an exaggerated form of black costumes intended as spoofs on the stereotypical image white people had of the blacks following the Civil War. Another source claims that minstrelsy was a white innovation and played on white stereotyping of the Negro. William Mahar argues for a complex understanding of minstrelsy as a meeting ground of many cultures, a contact between European and African-American [culture} through which songs of Italian and English Opera could enter into popular American awareness.

In Love and Theft:Blackface Minstrelsy And The American Working Class, (Oxford University Press1903) Eric Lott says “Blackface Minstrelsy both embodied and disrupted the racial tendencies of its largely white male, working class audience. Underwritten by envy as well as repulsion, sympathetic identification as well as fear--a dialect of love and theft--the minstrel show continually transgressed the color line even as it enabled  the formation of a self consciously white working class.” Another source called it a “social commentary.”

Al Jolson, an American entertainer(1886----1950) Used the Blackface Minstrel persona throughout most of his highly successful theatrical career.  He billed himself as “the world’s greatest entertainer” and coined the phrase,”You ain’t heard nothin yet.”He popularized songs such as “Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody, Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye,

When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bobbing Along, I’m Sittin’ On top of The World, California Here I Come,” and many others. In 1946 he enjoyed a resurgence of popularity after entertaining the troops during WWII and the Korean War.  The Jolson Story was released as a movie with Larry Parks playing the role of Jolson with  his voice dubbed over Parks. It was an immediate success.

That is one of the few movies I recall seeing with my Mama and other family members. I was not sure if Jolson was a black man or a white. 

Our Minstrel did not follow the three-part format with the Walk-around, which included dance; the Olio which involved a nonsensical  “stump speech” between Mr0000. Interlocutor and the straight man in the chorus. We had a young basketball coach at Vernon School who was very popular with the young people of the day. He directed the minstrel with the help of Mrs. Batson, the chorus teacher. That, of course, made all the girls want to be in the production.   

Though I never saw a Minstrel Show, Daddy took us to see a Medicine Show in Bonifay.  The woman who sang in that was visiting someone in Caryville the next day and I played with her little girl.  I was telling my Mama how glamorous I thought the “lady” was in her glitzy dress.  Mama explained that the life she led was by no means glamorous.  The glitz on her dress was cheap paste and they hardly knew from day to day where they would lay their head that night. Knowing my Dad and knowing what Mama told me, I wondered that Daddy didn’t invite them to go home with us that night.