Historian Dale Cockrell once noted that poor and working-class whites who felt “squeezed politically, economically, and socially from the top, but also from the bottom, invented minstrelsy” as a way of expressing the oppression that marked being members of the majority, but outside of the white norm. Minstrelsy, comedic performances of “blackness” by whites in exaggerated costumes and make-up, cannot be separated fully from the racial derision and stereotyping at its core. By distorting the features and culture of African Americans—including their looks, language, dance, deportment, and character—white Americans were able to codify whiteness across class and geopolitical lines as its antithesis.
The first minstrel shows were performed in 1830s New York by white performers with blackened faces (most used burnt cork or shoe polish) and tattered clothing who imitated and mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations. These performances characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice. Thomas Dartmouth Rice, known as the “Father of Minstrelsy,” developed the first popularly known blackface character, “Jim Crow” in 1830. By 1845, the popularity of the minstrel had spawned an entertainment subindustry, manufacturing songs and sheet music, makeup, costumes, as well as a ready-set of stereotypes upon which to build new performances.