Jim Crow came from Africa. He was a mythical creature, a shape-shifting trickster in the form of a bird, who lived in the stories and songs brought to America by enslaved African men and women. When minstrel men performed exaggerated versions of these songs, they called the character they played “Jim Crow,” claiming the name for themselves.
The minstrels claimed elements not only from African culture, but from the new culture that African Americans had created for themselves. Barred from playing drums (which slaveowners feared could be used to incite rebellion), enslaved people had developed new music, making banjos from gourds, turning objects like washboards and animal bones into percussion instruments, and tapping rhythms with their feet. When their traditional dances were outlawed (because white Christians considered them blasphemous), they created a new dance style that involved the shuffling of feet (which looked less like what the slaveowners considered “dance”). It is a testament to the resilience and resourcefulness of the enslaved people that in the face of such oppression, they created entirely new art forms. Unfortunately, these too were appropriated by white minstrels.
In adopting the instruments and dances of enslaved people, minstrels could have used their popularity to celebrate and share African American culture across the country and world. They could have paid, or at least credited, the original performers who songs they sang and parodied. They could have studied with black musicians and learned how to perform the songs and dances authentically. Instead, the painted their faces black (often with oversized red lips), adopted an exaggerated dialect, and presented a caricatured version of the black race for the entertainment of their (mostly white) audiences, billing themselves as “authentic Negro performers.”
Many white audience members (and likely, even some blackface performers) had never actually met a black person, so what they saw on stage in minstrel shows informed their opinion about the black race. There were two general stereotypes presented in minstrel shows: the “plantation darkie,” an ex-slave who sang nostalgic songs about life on the plantation, and the “Northern dandy,” a free black who was very full of himself, fond of women and prone to using large words incorrectly. Both stereotypes perpetuated insidious false narratives—one of the “happy slave,” and the other of the fool who pretended to be educated. The “Northern dandy” also served as a warning that the black man could not be trusted with white women.
It wasn’t only black men who were caricatured in minstrel shows. The stereotype of the drunk, belligerent Irishman was cultivated in minstrel shows, as well as that of the stoic beer-drinking German. There were also female impersonators. But even when portraying white characters, the minstrels wore blackface. The blackface character was the clown, the immigrant, the poor man, the uneducated man, the one at whom audiences loved to laugh. Blackface meant “lesser,” and while much of the humor in minstrels shows was about poking fun at upper class, at the end of every skit and song the blackface character was still at the bottom looking up, a situation which reinforced for white audiences their comfortable place of superiority.
It may seem surprising that when black performers later joined in the minstrel business, they also painted their faces black, but by this time the convention had been well established. One black minstrel performer said that “the public had gotten used to seeing the Negro minstrel as he is depicted by the whites, and when the genuine article came along the public was a little disappointed to find that he was not so black as he was painted.” To this day, African Americans work to overcome the stereotyped representations of them that have persisted in the entertainment industry and in the larger culture for hundreds of years. Many white Americans still form their opinions of black people from their depictions in movies and television, which is why it is so important for black men and women to be given space to write, produce, and perform their own art and present their authentic selves.