What Is The Function Of Racist Stereotype In Blackface Minstrelsy?

1193 words - 5 pages

Blackface minstrelsy became a popular form of entertainment in the early nineteenth century. Predominately, minstrel shows were performed to crowds of white working class men, by white actors who would use burnt cork, or shoe polish to blacken their skin and would create racist stereotyped characters of black people. These characters functioned to instill conceptions of white superiority into popular culture whilst at the same time oppressing black society. The characters invented were often portrayed as childlike, unintelligent and dependent on the civilisation of white society in the form of slavery. By examining the changes that minstrelsy underwent during the nineteenth century, the function that the racist stereotypes performed will become evident.

Blackface minstrelsy was an established nineteenth century form of onstage entertainment most popular in the northern states of America which intentionally created exaggerated stereotypes of black people for prominently white working class male audiences . White performers would blacken their faces with burnt cork or black grease and perform skits, songs and dances and act out their image of black people. Rather than present an accurate depiction of African Americans and authentic portrayals of the qualities of ‘negro’ life, minstrelsy reflected the ideas and conceptions of white society . The content of the shows however was altered to create images of blacks and slaves that suited white northern public opinion . White actors now had the opportunity to manipulate black identity and reinforce notions of white superiority, and by portraying blacks as uncivilised it reinforced the need for slavery. This white produced black identity served to reinforce racial differences, and allowed white performers to make money from blackness . The performers of the blackface have been described as “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money ... ” It is evident from this that blackness was reduced to a cultural commodity; one available to the white man, and a way to maintain social dominance.

In addition as minstrelsy being used a means of control it also dealt with the fear of change. Slavery was outlawed in the northern states from 1804, and in the southern states from 1863. Anxieties grew in the south from 1833 with the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society because slavery was essential to southern economy and fear that freeing of the slaves could cause economic collapse. White performers capitalised on this and, using the facade of the black mask could be free from the restraints of white society and were able to criticise social conventions, including abolition . White society also feared slave rebellion , in an attempt to depress this fear the character of ‘Sambo’ was constructed. Portrayed as a “white-toothed, dehumanized buffoon, impervious to pain, incapable of anger – a harmless empty-headed figure of fun. ” This...

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