Minstrel: Overview

Virginia Minstrels
Cover of 1843 song book

Blackface minstrelsy was America’s most popular form of live entertainment in the 1840s and 1850s. It was the first uniquely American theatrical form and one of its first industries of culture. Featuring music and comedy skits performed primarily by white men made up with burnt cork to appear black, blackface characters generally portrayed African Americans in comic exaggerations. While it not an authentic representation of African American culture, as it was marketed to be, minstrel shows did embody elements of both black and white folk culture.

Along with expressions of race, minstrelsy embodied ideas of class struggle and misogyny. And, while often reducing African Americans to cruel stereotypes, the success of minstrelsy was an indication of the genuine interest of working-class white men in the music and culture of blacks. Minstrel music is also one of the fundamental building blocks of the American music genres that followed.

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