On this page you will find a brief history of the role the arts played during slavery. *Warning some content may be offensive to some* After that, there will be information about Minstrelsy/ Blackface.
Slavery lasted in the United States from 1620 until 1865. A good portion of the slaves that were brought from the United States were from the Caribbean, so when they arrived to the United States they took part of their culture with them. While they worked in the fields, they would sing songs in order to uplift their spirits. The songs were normally asking for help or simply an expression of whatever their emotions were at that time. Slaves did not only use music as a means to express their emotions, they also used music as a means to communicate with each other. Now, you might be wondering how slaves singing songs connects to black theater. The connection is that slaves singing songs, also known as Old Negro Spirituals, was one of the earliest forms of entertainment that black people had. From then on, the different kinds of art grew from that.
Unfortunately, the way in which blacks would entertain themselves and others would get worse before it got better. While slavery was happening, theater in the United States was evolving and at this point in time Vaudeville was kicking off around the 1890’s. Vaudeville shows normally consisted of short skits prepared by random performers. One popular and recurring Vaudeville show was Minstrelsy. Minstrelsy was the most popular in the United States from the 1840’s-1870’s. Minstrelsy shows consisted of white actors or non-black actors putting on a show with black makeup on their face. These shows normally mocked slaves and the freedmen, if there were any at that time. One of the many problems with Minstrelsy is that the characters being portrayed on stage were normally presented as uneducated and lazy. Although Minstrelsy and Vaudeville slowed down in popularity on the stage, it would later become popular on TV once that had been invented. See a clip below of a Minstrel show from the 1920’s. In the clip, the man known as Cotton imitates how uneducated and/or how lazy a freed slave might be.
Although Majority of Minstrelsy happened during the 1800’s, freed slaves would later go on to have all black minstrelsy shows that became very popular. When they were playing to all white audiences, the black troupe members would incorporate some of the well known stereotypes, but they would try their best to shift the focus and show actual representations of black life.
During this first era, Black people had very little agency over how their stories were told and how they were represented on the stage. They were able to establish themselves and take back part of what their reputation was in terms of Minstrelsy, but things were still not ideal for them.