The minstrel character was usually some variety of common man, if by common we mean poor, possessed of a bad work ethic, and not very bright. Insulting as this is, the character did contain an element of homage. Not only were many of the characters also virtuous and innocent, but lack of education and a simple mind have been celebrated throughout America’s history. Bart Andrews and Ahrgus Juilliard point out that the song “Yankee-Doodle” is not American in origin, but British, intended as a satire of the illiterate, boorish American. That we embraced this caricature is revealing. However, since minstrel shows involved one racial group making fun of another, they have long been in disrepute.
They began in the mid-19th Century as traveling stage shows, were popular and dominant for decades, and still performed in the early 1920’s as radio became increasingly popular. Though by then minstrelsy had entered its decline, when some of its practitioners made the switch to radio, they took their characters with them.
Noah Arceneaux writes that pioneering radio station KDKA from Pittsburgh aired a complete minstrel show as early as 1921. New York’s WEAF, in 1923, aired the show The Gold Dust Twins whose title characters were a blackface minstrel act.
Using a technique Mel Watkins calls “racial ventriloquism,” white actors created their versions of the sounds of Negro speech to carry some of the connotations previously created by the black makeup. Early practitioners included the duo Moran and Mack, whose characters were called “The Two Black Crows” and made the flight from stage to air in 1928.
The Aunt Jemima radio series also began on stage and moved to the air in 1929. It ran until 1953 on NBC, featuring traditional minstrel songs.
Amos and Andy co-creator Charles Correll was also among those, according to Andrews and Juilliard, adept at "Negro dialect." In 1925, he penned,with Freeman Gosden (himself a fan of minstrels) a comic song called “The Kinky Kids’ Parade.”
In January of 1926, the duo debuted on Chicago’s WGN with the show Sam ‘n’ Henry, famously the precursor to Amos and Andy. Sam and Henry were going through what a lot of real-life men were, relocating from the South to the North seeking employment. The serial included an ongoing bout of the pair looking for, finding, and losing manual labor jobs.
When Sam ‘n’ Henry was reborn as Amos and Andy, it would become the most famous radio show with traits of minstrelsy. Cultural memory has given them a lot of credit and blame for broadcasting blackface, yet, according to Arceneaux, Gosden and Correll were compared, by Variety (1927) to Moran and Mack.
- Arceneaux, Noah. Blackface Broadcasting in the Early Days of Radio. Journal of Radio Studies 12 (1). 2005. 61-73.
- Andrews, Bart and Ahrgus Juilliard. Holy Mackerel! New York: Dutton. 1986.
- Minstrel Shows: Harlem Renaissance