When Black Was White: The Exportation of Racial Paradigms in American Minstrelsy

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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
Stream: Media Arts Practices: Television, Multimedia, Digital, Online and Other New Media
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Dr. Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon

Associate Professor, Department of Theater, Temple University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

As an anthropologist, playwright and performance poet, my work has always revolved around explorations of race and ethnicity in African diasporan and American popular culture. I am the author of "The Secret Messages in African American Theater: Hidden Meaning Embedded in Public Discourse” (Edwin Mellen Publishing, 2006) and I have been teaching in academia for well over twelve years. Before that (and sometimes concurrently) I have worked as Arts Producer for public radio, WXPN-88.5; reporter and columnist with the Philadelphia Tribune; and television editor for the Chicago-based "Maceba Affairs Media Review Magazine. My articles have appeared in a host magazines and newspapers. I have been fortunate enough to have over seventeen of my plays produced in professional theater; and, although my poetry has been anthologized in over 20 publications, I continue to theatricalize poetry presentations as Performance Poetry--which has developed into a more engaging and intimate theatrical experience. I heartily believe that all of my "work" is interconnected. What I do as a playwright and performance artist is really cultural anthropology. If, as anthropologist Victor Turner suggested (1986), that plays are “ethnodramas”—ethnographies or “stories” about a people tied to a specific time period and a particular culture, I write in that vein - about the people, the issues, the concerns and the traditions in African American culture.

Ref: A09P0363