Vaudeville and the American Entertainment Industry

8 May

Vaudeville, Jim Crow, Blackface, Minstrelsy. These are all words associated with the early 1900’s and rise of the American music industry.

Riddled with stereotypes, racism and demoralizing acts, Vaudeville acted as a catalyst to keep the white privileged and the black in the service industry.

white actor in blackface

Blackface was an entertainment act put on by both black and white actors in order to illustrate “blackness” to entertain a white audience.  By acting on and reinforcing black stereotypes, the actors were able to make a comedy out of such differences between the black and white community. Actors, whose faces were painted a very dark shade of black save the area around their lips in order to illustrate a large mouth and large lips, would dance on command, speak in long drawls, eat watermelon, “lie” and “steal” in order to create a degrading form of entertainment.

An interesting fact was that black actors would paint their faces even darker in these entertainment acts. America was under the impression that the darker the skin, the less privileged the individual. This is often why house slaves tended to be of lighter color than workers who were in the fields.

Looking at the example of Amos and Andy, we’re able to see how the black invidivuals are portrayed as irresponsible (by causing traffic) and lazy (by refusing to do anything about it) and clumsy and lesser privileged (by showing their damaged car and how they falter around it). We then are shown the relationship between those characters and a while male who speaks fluently, wears nice clothing and acts as gentlemen.

Even in the YouTube comments for this video we’re able to see how America is still torn between whether or not this act of entertainment was politically correct or unjust.

These types of acts assisted in the racial categorization of African American people according to the website Blackface!:

  • “Jim Crow”: originated from Thomas “Daddy” Rice’s dancing jig to the tune “Jump Jim Crow”.
  • “Zip Coon”: originated from George Dixon’s performance that mocked the free blacks which showed him dressed lavishly, however spoke with misused puns and vocabulary to make him appear ignorant and naive.
  • “Mammy”: a independent and stern black woman
  • “Uncle Tom”: a old, wise, good, gentle banjo playing man.
  • “Buck”: A big, proud black man who is interested in white women.
  • “Wench”: A temptress, typically a man dressed as a woman.
  • “Mulatto / Mulatta”: Mixed skin, attempting to pass as white.
  • “Pickaninny”: unkept hair, bright red lips and are often eating watermelon
Blackface and Vaudeville made these terms an acceptable way to address African American individuals.

Did America’s existence of segregation, racism and slavery make this an acceptable form of entertainment? Or do we still have to ask ourselves how we were even able to get to get to a mindset where we thought it was acceptable?

These images in media portrayed by extremely famous American actors romanticized the idea of keeping the black community underprivileged and underrepresented. It created a fallacy of just privilege for white Americans and enforced the myth that black Americans were lesser people because of their color; these are the representations American media was attempting to illustrate through these messages.

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