When Black Was White: The Exportation of Racial Paradigms in American Minstrelsy
Blackface, as a theatrical strategy and as a political statement was one of the most powerful symbols of race in American and European popular culture from the late 1700’s through the 1800’s. Exported throughout Europe, the Caribbean and South America as the first form of American musical theater, at first whites, in blackface minstrelsy and then later, Blacks themselves in blackface were in such wide demand, both at home and abroad, precisely because these performances of race on the stage visually and physically forced a demarcation and delineation between “marked” versus “unmarked”…Black versus white. (Seymour Stark, 2000)
If "symbols instigate social action" as anthropologist Victor Turner suggests, (Turner 1974:55) then, cultural symbols are powerful ones that can, do and did compel individuals. This paper looks at the development and rise in popularity of American minstrelsy as transnational performances in “blackness” that were widely exported to European stages through a long list of theatrical tours presented as the first indigenous, national folk art. In much the same vein as “living museums”, circuses, freak shows and exhibitions of race at World Expositions, the exportation of American Minstrelsy to the European stage helped to define and maintain racial paradigms that significantly contributed to European imperialism, the reconfiguration of nation-states and social movements.
Keywords: Race, Blackface Minstrelsy, American Musical Theater
Dr. Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon
Associate Professor, Department of Theater, Temple University