The Minstrel show, or Minstrelsy, was an form of entertainment developed in the United States of America. Minstrel show were popular before slavery was abolished in the south, the very first show occurred in 1843, in New York City. Within a year it became the most popular form of live entertainment in America.
Each show consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, performed by white people in make-up of blackface for the purpose of playing the role of black people by imitating or caricatured slaves in the South and ex-slaves in the North. Minstrel shows lampooned black people as dimwitted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, happy-go-lucky, and musical.
White performers such as Charles Mathews, George Washington Dixon, and Edwin Forrest would blacken their faces with burnt cork or grease paint, dress in outlandish costumes, and then perform songs and skits that mocked African Americans, they would also call themselves “Ethiopian Delineators“. There was claims the Forrest’s impression was so good he could fool blacks when mangled with them on the streets. The white actors who portrayed these characters spoke an exaggerated form of Black Vernacular English.
The blackface make-up and illustrations on programs and sheet music depicted them with huge eyeballs, very wide nose, and thick-lipped mouths that hung open of grinned foolishly; one character expressed his love for a woman with “lips so large a lover could kiss them all at once”. They had huge feet and preferred “possum” and “coon” to more civilized fare. Minstrel characters were often described in animalistic terms, with “wool” instead of hair, “bleating” like a sheep, and having “darky cubs” instead of children. Other claims was that blacks had to drink ink when they got sick “to restore their color” and they had to file they hair rather then cut it. They were inherently musical, dancing, and frolicking through the night with no need for sleep.
Some of the most famous song played in the minstrel show was: Dixie, Compton races, Oh Sussanah, and My old Kentucky home. Some of the famous characters that reappeared in the minstrel show was: “Jim Crow” was the stereotypical carefree slave, “Mr. Tambo” the joyous musician, and “Zip Coon” a free black attempting to “put on airs” or rise above his situation.
The minstrel show survived for several decades as an professional entertainment. As the Civil Rights Movement progressed and gained acceptance, minstrels show lost popularity. It provided the means through which American whites viewed black people. On one hand, it had a strong racist aspects; on the other, it afforded white Americans a singular and broad awareness of what whites considered significant aspects of black culture in America.