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

Nicholas Sammond, Author

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Minstrel as Performance

The performative gestures and conventions of minstrelsy are interwoven with its visual fantasy of blackness.

One element is voice. Whether a country bumpkin like Tambo, Bones, or Jim Crow or a slick northerner like Zip Coon or George Christy's Miss Lucy Long, the minstrel mangles language, displaying a (seeming) natural ignorance and a willful or playful reworking of meaning. One convention of the standard 19th-century minstrel show in which word play was central was the stump speech, which was similar to this 1902 example by the American Quartet.

An example of the performance of language and its deformation is that of indefinite speech, as in this clip of the black blackface minstrels Miller and Lee, from the 1943 film Stormy Weather (1943). Sixty years later, in Bamboozled (2000), Spike Lee paid homage to this performance in routine performed by Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson.

In addition to language play, from its mythical inception with T.D. Rice "jumping Jim Crow," blackface minstrelsy has also been known for dance performances that center on the plasticity of the body. Those performances, often described as "eccentric dance," treated the minstrel body as fluid and transformable, much like a cartoon. One late example of this appears in Stormy Weather (1943) when black minstrels perform a dance number with vocalization in the style of the Mills Brothers. This type of dance is one of the main roots of American tap, and the two come together in this blackface number by Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936).

Minstrelsy and tap also come together in this clip from the Eddie Cantor film Kid Millions (1934). This clip is also demonstrates blackface minstrelsy's self-referential play with authenticity. Note at its beginning that as he is blacking up, Cantor says to his black valet, "This stuff is hard to put on...and to take off! You've got it easy!" To which the valet offers a double-take to the camera.

The Fleischer studios combined many of these elements in the cartoon Dinah (1932).
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