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Birth of An Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation

Nicholas Sammond, Author

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Introduction, Page 14

A central conceit of early minstrelsy was that its ostensibly white performers had traveled to plantations and witnessed the authentic songs, dances and wordplay of African American slaves. This fantasy treated the slave as a natural commodity, an object and owner of nothing, not even her own thoughts and gestures. 

In the 1800s, this minstrel as happy trickster was embodied by Jim Crow, later by Tambo and Bones. In the twentieth century there are echoes of the minstrel in characters such as Lincoln Perry's Stepin Fetchit and Redd Foxx's Fred Sanford from Sanford and Sons. 

Even as late as 1953, in John Ford's The Sun Shines Bright, Perry performs his controversial Fetchit persona, falling asleep and snoring loudly in the courtroom. He speaks with heavy-lidded eyes and droopy lips, and excitedly joins in with the banjo player to sing and dance to the minstrel tune "Dixieland". 

Perry's character is also parodied in the 1935 Disney Silly Symphony short Broken Toys. In this uplifting Depression-era short, a group of discarded toys bands together to repair each other, then marches off to give themselves to orphans. While most of the toys make valuable contributions to the repair effort, the Stepin Fetchit doll has a hard time staying awake; African Americans had a harder time embodying racialized ideals of New Deal uplift.

More recently, white entertainers have used blackface in attempts to comment on the racial formation of the moment, an example being Ted Danson's widely criticized appearance in burnt cork alongside his then-girlfriend Whoopie Goldberg at a 1993 Friar's Club roast. 
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Bones    Tambo    Image    Moving Image    Sound    Black and White    1930s    Color    1950s    Walt Disney    1970s    Live Cinema

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