The most popular black American entertainment of the 1890s—among both blacks and whites—was most likely a theatrical extravaganza entitled Darkest America. As one black newspaper described it, Darkest America’s “delineation of Negro life, carrying the race through all their historical phases from the plantation, into the reconstruction days and finally painting our people as they are today, cultured and accomplished in social graces, holds the mirror faithfully up to nature.” In other words, according to this black newspaper, Darkest America was an authentic portrait of black America.
Yet Darkest America was a minstrel show. The performers, even though they were black, wore blackface. A photograph of an 1898 performance shows two of them playing banjos, with xylophones by their sides. One has big white circles painted around his mouth and eyes and grins widely; his collar, tie, and checkered jacket are all several sizes too large; he wears fake bare feet much bigger than his head.
It is difficult for us today to look at this photograph—it induces a cultural nausea comparable to that produced by Nazi cartoons of hook-nosed Jews. Yet none of the published descriptions of Darkest America paint the show as racist caricature. In fact, they go out of their way to emphasize the differences between Darkest America and white minstrel shows. “If you . . . have formed your own ideas of Colored folks from the stage Negro and Darktown sketches, you will be instructed and amused,” wrote the St. Louis Dispatch. The performers “would [at times] lapse into the real Negro eccentricities, which are only burlesqued in the attempted imitations so common to the burnt cork drama,” commented the Miners Journal of Pottsville, Pennsylvania. In other words, because they were black, these performers were truer to real life than were white minstrel shows.
White minstrel shows, unlike black ones, did not normally center around plantation life—the minstrel show was a vehicle for parodying almost any stereotype whatsoever, white or black. In fact, a great number of the surviving minstrel skits are loosely based on Shakespeare plays, and not only Othello either. Shakespeare’s characters would be exaggerated in obvious ways, the actors wearing burnt cork and speaking a so-called Negro dialect generously peppered with malapropisms and pretentious nonsense; in these skits the blackface performers would be almost entirely unconnected with the customs and habits of blacks.
Darkest America was thus a refreshing change of pace. Although it went through a number of changes through the years, at one point the show opened with a scene of “a crack colored military company in camp [performing] funny scenes in camp life,” according to one newspaper. It included a “watermelon scene [which] was funny enough to make an Indian laugh,” according to a second. It featured, according to a third, “corn husking scenes in the barn, [and] massing singing and the wild antics of the dance in perfect time with the music[:] a perfect reproduction of the actions of the people they represented both on festival occasions and in a measure at Sunday wood’s meetings.” There’s that authenticity claim again.
Were the performers “signifying” on minstrel traditions when they were enacting watermelon and corn-husking scenes, wearing huge bare feet with painted grins on their faces? Blacks who performed in or saw black minstrel shows left several written accounts of them, and not one of them mentions any kind of signifying whatsoever. Was it too early in American history for these stereotypes to be recognized for the disgusting slander that they constituted? Hardly—distinguished black Americans had registered their disgust for America’s most popular form of entertainment ever since the 1850s.
In fact, we can make no excuses for these performers. These African Americans took pride in deliberately replicating what to us represents the most nauseating of all racial stereotypes, and their African American audiences ate it up. And to all concerned, both black and white, this minstrel show was the most authentic presentation of actual black American life available.
Black minstrelsy had grown out of white minstrelsy. The first all-black minstrel troupe was organized around 1865, right at the conclusion of the Civil War, by a black man, Charles Hicks. This postdated the first white minstrel show by 22 years, and the reason for the delay was likely the fact of slavery.
The black minstrel shows soon came to eclipse white minstrel shows in popularity. Perhaps the most elaborate was Black America, an 1895 theatrical extravaganza that took place in Brooklyn. This show featured a “Negro Village” with real log cabins, haywagons, mules, chickens, and 500 blacks, “genuinely southern negroes” brought “direct from the fields.” Of course, as did many white minstrel entertainers, the show advertised its authenticity—this was real blackness on display. The players were not advertised as “entertainers,” but as “participants.”
While this was the culmination of the black minstrel show—the ultimate proof of plantation life on display for white Northerners and homesick blacks uprooted from the South—these shows continued to tour the South, playing for both white and black audiences, for another thirty years.
What should we make of the fact that the most “authentic” representation of black American life was a minstrel show that indulged in the most disgusting caricatures, and that it was widely accepted by both blacks and whites as “authentic” (and entertaining)?
Maybe it gets back to what I posted a few months ago, quoting Leon Wieseltier: the quest for authenticity is always reactionary. If you’re looking for real black folks, you’re more likely to approve caricatures of conventional ideas about black folks than you are to approve anything that varies from those conventional ideas. There's no such thing as a theatrical entertainment that portrays people as they are in real life, and approximations are no better (or worse) than wild exaggerations. In fact, they're frequently exactly the same.