Minstrels shows began in the 1830s and thrived when vaudeville was a major form of entertainment. White actors would paint themselves black and perform ‘blackface’ in this form of entertainment where comedy sketches were conceived around mockeries of Black culture with codified stereotypical Black behavior. We can still watch blackfaced minstrel scenes from movies made in the 40s and 50s, like “White Christmas” or even “Little Rebels” a children’s movie with Shirley Temple. Of course this type of entertainment found its way into children’s media. Songs like ‘Eenie Meenie Miney Moe” and “5 Little Monkeys” grew from the minstrel tradition and it transmitted stereotpyes about all racial and ethnic groups, not just Blacks. This is how we transmit what we value as a culture.
This type of racism hasn’t ended. It continues without the black face paint whenever a non-Black person dons stereotypical elements of black culture whether it be forms of speech, dance, dress or contemplation. I see it all the time in ‘New Girl”.
I also witness it in MG and YA books when authors rely on stereotypes rather than lived experience to write about Black culture; or perhaps more correctly when editors force stories in this direction. And, I see it in picture books when monkeys, apes and gorillas are humanized in ways that correspond to these same stereotypes that include physical appearance and mannerisms. Rather than humans with black grease paint, publishers are presenting simians with Black human characteristics based in the meta-narrative that equates people of African ancestry with simians.
I was looking at a few monkey books that were released in 2021.
I can barely express how disappointed I was to see grumpy monkey beginning to grow into a franchise with toys, graphic novels and easy readers being added to this series published by in the US by Random House. Publishers still can’t consistently deliver chapter books series written by marginalized authors but they can grow the monkey series!
So, the minstrel shows persist.
I know I’ve been quiet on this, but, I’m watching, thinking and learning.
Let’s think about how to examine these ‘monkey books’ should your child bring one home from the library. How can parents uncover and disarm the racism with their children?
How can children be prepared to resist the racism embedded in these books should a teacher read such a story to their class class? Here are a few important thoughts and ideas https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/phoenix/2019/03/01/how-do-explain-blackface-my-kids-here-5-things-know/3020802002/
How can we end the minstrel shows?
read more about minstrels: https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/blackface-birth-american-stereotype
One thought on “100 Years of Minstrel Shows”
The Jim Crow Museum is only an hour north of where I live. I hope to get there this summer, now that Covid numbers are improving.
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