Corps de l’article

The history of white minstrelsy, which involved White actors applying burnt cork makeup to perform as caricatures of African Americans on stages in theatres and, later, Hollywood films, has been explored from multiple angles.[1] Most notably, scholars have examined the rise of minstrelsy as America’s first form of popular entertainment, the social relations of its “racial” production, and the structural and emotional pressures that helped to produce “Blackness” as a cultural commodity.[2] The history of black minstrelsy — African Americans performing on stage in minstrel repertoire, both in and out of blackface — is less explored.[3] Compared to white minstrelsy, as Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen have argued, “black minstrelsy usually treasured, re-presented, or reinforced, established negative stereotypes of blacks.”[4] Where White minstrels claimed to be pupils, or even kin, of the Black people they mocked, they also passionately made clear that they were White.[5] This distinction was often made through visual ephemera that mirrored the “before and after” imagery popularized in beauty advertisements of the period. As scholar of African American beauty Noliwe Rooks has observed, “There is no doubt that the ‘before’ [the body of the African American woman in opposition to the figure of the White woman] drawing represents the least desirable of the two figures.”[6] White minstrel lithographs would often feature the White body (out of blackface) juxtaposed with the White body (in blackface) to make clear that they were giving a performance of Blackness. Black minstrel shows, however, were promoted by their management without any distinction between performer and performance and were thus sold to White audiences as “authentic representations of black life.”[7]

William Henry Lane (1825–1852/1853), also known as Master Juba, was the first Black actor to perform in blackface.[8] Lane is not only remembered as the first Black minstrel and originator of African American dance, but he is also considered “the Jackie Robinson of the American stage.”[9] Before him, there were few — if any — African Americans appearing as performers in a White troupe before White theatre-goers.[10] After Lane, the first all-Black minstrel troupe organized at the conclusion of the US Civil War in 1865 was managed by an African American, Charles Barney Hicks (1840–1902), who is commonly viewed as the father of black minstrelsy.[11] In 1865, he managed a troupe called the Original Georgia Minstrels, billed as “The Only Simon Pure Negro Troupe in the World.” It was so popular that it reportedly outdrew all other minstrel troupes, black or white, in 1866.[12] Thereafter, with few exceptions, black minstrel troupes were distinguished from white minstrels by one of three designations: “Georgia,” “Coloured,” or “Slave” (“Negro” was used for whites in blackface).[13] The first black minstrel troupes stressed their authenticity as “genuine Negro slaves and concentrated on Southern plantation material” because many of them were formerly enslaved.[14] Other troupes, such as Georgia Slave Troupe Minstrels, originally of Macon, Georgia, were organized by W. H. Lee, a White man who toured the troupe during the 1865/66 season, although eventually they came under the management and proprietorship of Sam Hague (1828–1901), a White minstrel performer who changed the troupe’s name to Sam Hague’s Slave Troupe of Georgia Minstrels.[15] In 1866, Hague took his troupe to England, where he settled permanently.[16] Beginning in the early 1870s, White managers increasingly took over the most successful black troupes, benefiting mostly from the successful 1866 tour of Sam Hague’s Slave Troupe in England that helped Black minstrels establish themselves as “bona fide entertainers back home.”[17]

Once African Americans became marketable as entertainers, “It was generally white managers who reaped the profits. Thus when white tavern owner Charles Callender took over Sam Hague’s troupe in 1872 and began turning black minstrelsy into big business through extensive newspaper advertising and [P. T.] Barnum-style sales promotion,” it launched a new era in black minstrelsy when White managers, who jostled for control of the industry, could be replaced if their efforts were not financially successful.[18] In 1878, following poor attendances, Callender was replaced by Jack “J. H.” Haverly (1837–1901), who promoted his black minstrel company by increasing the troupe’s size, adding new features, advertising flamboyantly, and completely focusing his shows on the southern plantation.[19] Haverly’s Colored Minstrels, followed by his white Mastodon Minstrels, reached success in Britain and Canada in large part because of three African Americans: principal comedian Billy Kersands (1842–1915); songwriter James Bland (1854–1911); and Horace Weston (1825–1890), a musician, dancer and actor who had toured Britain several times before joining Haverly’s troupes.[20] Ultimately, by the late nineteenth through early twentieth centuries, white and black minstrels accessed the popular entertainment stage, performing race — and gender — for the amusement and nostalgia of their audiences, which comprised both men and women, Black, White, and recently arrived immigrants primarily from Western Europe.[21] However, in the 1890s, a large number of all-Black minstrels hit the stage without blackface, a practice that underlined their authenticity as “real Negroes” and which was the major bases of their appeal to White audiences.[22]

Between the 1850s and the 1920s, black minstrelsy was underpinned by different sets of assumptions about Blackness that appealed to White Canadian audiences. After decades of white minstrelsy, they had been primed to interpret Black performance on stage as “authentic” and “real” representations of Black life. This representational Blackness was driven by nostalgia for plantation slavery, the believed-to-be rightful place for Black people, which had become the panoramic image of Blackness circulating not only in the theatre but also in visual culture. For example, when white minstrelsy appeared at the legitimate theatre, shows often recreated “Dixie,” a real and imagined symbol of culture, leisure, and pastoral romance for Whites who romanticized about having loyal southern Black servants, such as Aunt Jemima, and who through amateur minstrel show performances conceptualized the plantation South as a fictive place of longing for Black people.[23] As entrepreneurial practice, Canadian editors courted readers and businesses with these shows, and while the newspapers sometimes perpetuated the myth that the United States exclusively was home to anti-Black racism and violence, since no complaints were ever reprinted in response to the racist prose detailed in editorials about minstrelsy performance, it is reasonable to infer that such performances were widely accepted.[24] Black minstrelsy’s claims of authenticity, like most of such claims, were superficial as black minstrelsy’s supposed “realness” was at its core a pretense just like white minstrelsy. As such, this article elucidates what constituted “authentic” Blackness in black minstrelsy, why and how this representational Blackness constituted a form of nostalgia that appealed to White Canadians’ desires to experience plantation slavery.

Scholarship on blackface in Canada has focused on three major areas of white minstrelsy: First, touring American minstrelsy, homegrown minstrelsy, and the role newspapers played in reporting on and promoting local blackface entertainment; second, touring Uncle Tom’s Cabin minstrel shows in Ontario in the 1850s and 1860s and the Black community’s overtures to stop the appearance of blackface acts in Toronto; and third, the promotion of amateur blackface by White Canadians performed in communities across the country.[25] While there is no known Canadian black minstrel troupe, African Americans in and out of blackface performed on stages in Canada with great regularity between the 1880s and 1920s.[26] Through an analysis of the discourse on black minstrelsy, and its best-known managers — Charles Hicks, Sam Hague, Charles Callender, J.H. Haverly — I use editorials, advertisements, and other textual records from newspapers to fill a gap in the literature on minstrelsy in Canada.[27] White minstrelsy’s adoption in Canada was underpinned by Negrophobia (a fear of Black people), on the one hand, and Negrophilia (a love of Black culture), on the other hand. A discourse of authenticity that disseminated via newspaper editorials helped to legitimize black minstrelsy by framing Black performers as “real” representatives of southern plantations, and, discursively, positioning their performances as ethnographic explorations into the supposed scenes from formerly enslaved Black people. By situating Black bodies as “in place” in servitude and “out of place” in freedom, black minstrelsy reinforced the notion of “the primitive” as being representative of an authentic Blackness. This representational Blackness became both a site of White desire and disdain.

America’s Blackface Origins and Its Canadian Adoption

On 28 December 1916, an amateur blackface minstrel troupe known as McCormick Minstrels posed for a photograph in the basement of the McCormick Recreation Centre in Brockton Village in Toronto.[28] In the photograph, 23 boys and men in blackface are seated on a stage. Of the blackface performers, four hold tambourines, but all wear large, oversized bow ties; the men wear suits, the boys wear shorts. In the front row, middle, sits a lone performer not in blackface like the band (pianist, fiddle player, conductor, drummer, and two standing men) positioned off the stage.[29] Above them hang two Red Ensigns and the Union Jack flag.[30] As part of a larger discussion about children’s performance of race through dramatics in early twentieth-century Toronto, Ann F. Murnaghan has stated that “These boys were part of … a Christmas pageant and their performance was probably a few songs accompanied by music.”[31] Murnaghan has written further that “The creation of a playground identity in this west-end center was organized around homosocial activities like sports, and the minstrel show reinforced racial identities alongside gendered ones. The racialized (White) masculine identity was premised on its differentiation from a feminized (Black) Other.”[32] Blackface, in other words, was a familiar comfort to White Canadians by the 1920s, and its latent racist intent and disparaging embodiments were steeped in a racial logic that was similar to but different from its White American creators.

Eric Lott has centred the development of American blackface among working-class White men who, in response to demographic shifts in the northern American class structure in the 1820s and 1830s, urged the need for a discrete sphere of what he has called “working-class sociability.”[33] Meaning, just as an urban culture industry was beginning to emerge, Lott has argued, the popular theatre, the saloon, the museum, and the penny press prominently displayed “the ambiguities that resulted from the grounding of much racial discourse in working-class culture.… In minstrel acts and other forms of ‘black’ representation, racial imagery was typically used to soothe class fears through the derision of black people, but it also often became a kind of metonym for class.”[34] On the contrary, White Canadians reproduced the tenets of the American minstrel show not to soothe class fears but in response to fears of Black immigration and perceptions about their supposed lack of ability to assimilate into Canadian culture. The wearing of blackface onstage was, as Annemarie Bean has explained, the wink to the audience “based in the mutual understanding that we (the performers) are different from you (the audience) but only because we (the performers) are putting on a show, an act, a minstrel show in blackface.”[35] “This knowledge — that everyone is ‘shady,’ but no one is truly ‘black’ — is an important distinction in deriving pleasure for the white audience and white performers,” Bean has written further.[36] The need to distinguish between White audiences and performers and Black people is best explained by examining the wider context of early-twentieth-century Canada.

Five months before the McCormick Minstrels photograph was taken, on 5 July, the No. 2 Construction Battalion, the first and only Black Battalion in Canadian military history was authorized to serve in the First World War.[37] The unit was segregated, as Melissa Shaw has written, because, “Black Canadians were deemed unfit for combat because of dominant racial stereotypes that assumed that they, as a racial group, were lazy and lacked initiative and were thus only suitable for unskilled duties.”[38] A group of White men and boys in blackface in 1916 must be read in relation to the pervasive anti-Blackness that dehumanized Black men and boys who sought to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF). “White Canadians participated in the Western ideology of racism,” James W. St. G. Walker has observed. “This was true not only in the general sense of accepting white superiority, but in the particular image assigned to certain peoples which labelled them as militarily incompetent.”[39] Blackface had been an important part of Canada’s military culture since the nineteenth century.

In 1879, near Battleford, Saskatchewan, one of the first cultural events to take place at the barracks of the Northwest Mounted Police was a blackface minstrel show, which included such songs as Stephen Foster’s (1826–1864) “Massa in de Cold.”[40] It was first performed by Christy’s Minstrels, an early minstrel troupe created by Edwin P. Christy (1815–1862), the son of “respectable” Philadelphia parents, who is often credited as one of the originators of blackface theatre.[41] Published in 1852, a few days after Foster’s twenty-sixth birthday, in its first four and a half years the song earned Foster nearly $1,000 in royalties, which represented a sale of more than 45,000 copies.[42] While the exact numbers for sheet music sales in Canada are unknown, the music was frequently advertised in Canadian newspapers. For example, a minstrel song book printed by Oliver Ditson & Company appeared in Toronto’s The Globe in 1882 stating the following: “Minstrel Songs. Old and New…. 100 popular Ballads and Plantation Songs with piano accompaniment.”[43] In addition to American sheet music, touring minstrel shows had toured Canada since the mid-nineteenth century.

In Canada West (present-day southwestern Ontario) touring Uncle Tom’s Cabin productions, known as “Tom Shows,” attracted a large segment of the population starting in the mid-nineteenth century that otherwise would have never exposed themselves to the theatre, and, in the words of Stephen Johnson, “it is safe to say that most citizens of Canada West were exposed to this performance phenomenon.”[44] Despite the fact that Toronto’s Black community petitioned city council annually from 1840 until 1843 to prohibit touring minstrel shows, blackface minstrelsy continued to draw large audiences to theatres in the city. By 1851, more than half a dozen prominent troupes visited Toronto, including minstrel performances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.[45] In their examination of minstrel shows in Niagara Falls, Ontario from the early-twentieth century to the 1960s, Joan Nicks and Jeannette Sloniowski have found that by the 1920s blackface amateur shows were nurtured in the city “as if a homegrown form and that the shows functioned as a carnivalesque outlet for the expression of local ambivalence about racial and class issues in an era of increased immigration and economic stress in the community.”[46] Where touring professional minstrels appeared at movie theatres in the early twentieth century, amateur blackface in Niagara Falls was enjoyed on a community level at local churches and service clubs as charity events.[47] Across the country, professional minstrelsy in the legitimate theatre and amateur minstrelsy at community venues was commonplace for over a century.[48]

As David Roediger has asserted, minstrelsy was a complicated genre: “Blackface could be everything — rowdy, rebellious and respectable — because it could be denied that it was anything.”[49] This denial fuelled White Canadians’ enthusiasm for it. In many ways, White Canadians enjoyed a double distancing from the subject matter. Like White Americans, they were distanced from full identification with African Americans, and, at the same time, they were distanced from the racial, gendered, and class politics that defined the American consciousness in the nineteenth century. Blackface minstrelsy represented both a recognition of Black life and its disavowal at the same time. This contradiction underpins the Canadian consciousness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Sarah-Jane Mathieu has explained, many White Canadians viewed Black presence as a threat to their modernity. As a result, alarmed “white Canadians increasingly turned to American southerners for clear clues on how to handle blacks, adopting and adapting Jim Crow to fit into Canada’s own political archetype.”[50] For example, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier’s administration led by Immigration Minister Frank Oliver proclaimed that Black migrants should be barred from the dominion as “the Negro race … is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.”[51] “Yet white Canadians constantly discussed that ‘Negro Problem’ as though it were a virus carried north by black migrants themselves,” Mathieu has asserted, adding “They rationalized their xenophobia and white supremacist propaganda by blaming nature — what they called ‘climatic unsuitability’ — and black settlers themselves.”[52] They did not, in other words, interrogate their own anti-Blackness, but rather blamed Black people for their supposed inability to adapt, an adaptability that they, paradoxically, enjoyed viewing on stage.

This cognitive dissonance between self-identification and self-reflection helped to nurture White Canadian purveyors of minstrelsy. Quebec City-born artist Henri Julien (1852–1908) produced a serial in the Montreal Daily Star between January and April 1899 in which he depicted Sir Wilfred Laurier, the first French-Canadian Prime Minister, and his cabinet in blackface, singing minstrel songs.[53] Titled Songs of the By-Town Coons, Julien adopted codes of denigration associated with Blackness in dominant Western culture, such as “the black/white conflict [that was] implicitly reconfigured as both French/English and Liberal/Conservative conflicts,” as Dominic Hardy has suggested.[54] For some, Julien’s reproduction of scenes from the minstrel show was not to denigrate Black people, but to demonstrate the extent to which French politicians were not being respected by their English counterparts. In this sense, “The institution of parliament [was] seen, under the governance of a francophone-led Liberal government, as little more that [sic] the production of a minstrel troupe, as a parody of true (English-speaking, British-Canadian, Conservative) governance.”[55] The problem with this argument is that it denies the denigration of the Black body and the exploitative ways it was used by Julien to serve his own purposes. If a caricatured Black body was an insult to French Canadians, to borrow from Homi Bhabha, it was also both a recognition of difference and its disavowal.[56]

Canadian blackface performers such as Calixa Lavallée (1842–1891) have also been framed as existing outside a persistent homegrown racism because they found success in America as white minstrels.[57] According to Brian Christopher Thompson, “most biographical articles published in the 1880s repeated the same stories about [Lavallée’s] life and career. They never refer to his life as a ‘blackface’ minstrel or to any events of the 1860s, with the exception of his service in the war.”[58] His ability to don the burnt cork mask meant that he condoned its racist intent similar to other homegrown white minstrels like Toronto-born Colin Burgess (1840–1905), one of the most successful Canadian-born minstrel performers of the nineteenth century, who toured with a succession of American minstrel companies, in addition to entertaining audiences in Canada and Britain during the 1870s through the 1890s.[59] These White Canadians (francophone and anglophone) were able to become white minstrels in America because they understood the racist intent of the shows, they agreed with it, and, as such, must be read similarly to White American minstrel performers.

Climate unsuitability might have been one way to explain Canadian xenophobia and White supremacist propaganda, but performance was also an outlet for negrophobia, which at its core had the same intent as negrophilia.[60] Negrophilia, from the French négrophilie, signifies a love for Black culture. Negrophobia, on the other hand, is characterized by a fear, hatred, or extreme aversion to Black people. Petrine Archer Straw has asserted that while negrophilia was used positively by the Parisian avant-garde in the 1920s to affirm their defiant love of Black culture, the word’s origins were not flattering: “To be called a ‘negrophile’ … was to be dammed as a supporter of liberal attitudes towards slavery and its abolition. Even more negatively, negrophiles were sometimes accused of having a deviant sexual appetite for blacks, thereby placing them outside ‘civilized’ society’s moral boundaries.”[61] Similarly, H. Alexander Welcome has observed that “making black males the sole reservoir of non-normative sexual drives means that, in the eyes of the Negrophobe, the black male is the pinnacle of virility. However, the Negrophobe can maintain both his sense of innocence and his sense of being the zenith of virility by adjusting mythical blackness’ position in his existential world.”[62] Stated otherwise, to the negrophobe, Black men represented the embodiment of sin; “in the Negrophobe’s world, innocence is the only possibility for whiteness, and sin is the only possibility for blackness.”[63] White Canadians found pleasure in the performance of black minstrelsy because at the same time they viewed Black people as immoral and sinful, they desired to live vicariously through their supposed lack of civility. White managers of black minstrelsy exploited this desire when they took over all-Black companies in the late-nineteenth century.

White and Black Managers of Black Minstrelsy

How did minstrelsy’s managers approach managing all-Black companies? Hicks, who was born in Baltimore, Maryland, is the only known African American manager of black minstrel troupes. He began touring all-Black companies in the northeast and west in 1865, and by 1870, he, and some of his Black members, joined with Hague’s Great American Slave Troupe (formerly Lee’s Georgia Slave Troupe Minstrels) for a tour of the British Isles.[64] Hicks eventually sold his company to Callender in 1872 but he continued to work as its manager from 1877 to 1880, when he toured Australia with a new troupe, which was also called the Georgia Minstrels.[65] Hague’s Slave Troupe of Georgia Minstrels also toured Britain with a view to “ride the wave of interest in the slavery of the Deep South that had been regenerated by the Civil War.”[66] Unlike Hicks, Hague sought to exploit Black entertainers to earn as much as he could from minstrelsy’s audiences who grew tired of acts just as quickly as they celebrated them. He is credited with introducing “a new business acumen, at times stepping over into ruthless capitalist practices, as for instance when he appropriated the management of the Wilmington Jubilee singers, who came to Britain in 1876.”[67] Michael Pickering has observed further that “Hague disposed of their black manager, leaving him ‘destitute in a foreign land’, and unscrupulously stole the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ programme, performance aesthetics, even their style of publicity, such that one of their members referred to him in a letter as ‘a very unprincipled man’.”[68]

A press announcement in 1872 stated that Callender bought out the interest of his former partner, William Temple, and was now the sole proprietor of the Georgia Minstrels.[69] Callender’s Georgia Minstrels brought a lot of changes to black minstrelsy. By the 1873/74 season, he greatly increased the size of his troupe from around a dozen to twenty-two.[70] For the next few years, Callender’s Georgia Minstrels evolved into a troupe that became the best known across North America, as well, Callender garnered a reputation — by both White and Black contemporaries — for “recruiting the most talented Black artists he could find to perform with the Minstrels.”[71] But like Hague, he was not respectful to his Black performers. One man who had worked with Hague in England in the early 1870s was reportedly disgusted with Callender’s “economic exploitation of black performers.”[72] In 1878, Haverly became the proprietor of Callender’s Georgia Minstrels, and Callender was retained as manager.[73] A big-time promoter, Haverly used his promotional skills to advance his newly acquired black troupe in the same way he did his white troupes.

White managers’ interest in Black entertainers did not derive from their desire to liberate the race. Rather, “They, in all likelihood, were building upon the popularity of the slave dramas of the earlier part of the century, such as Darling Nelly Gray (1856), William Wells Brown’s Escape; or, A Leap to Freedom (1858), and the many versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin being performed simultaneously throughout … the 1850s,” as Bean has argued.[74] Of all the White managers, it was Hague “who began a new vogue for large troupes of up to 60 performers, and for extravagant display that moved minstrelsy away from ‘negro delineation’ towards the variety entertainment that would eventually supersede both minstrelsy and music hall.”[75] By the time black minstrelsy hit Toronto’s stages, large extravaganzas were the talk of the town; and like in Britain and elsewhere, newspaper coverage sheds light on the content of the productions that for the most part was centred on black minstrels’ imitation of life on the plantation.[76] In 1920s Paris, the White avant-garde’s “participation in black culture meant rejuvenation and liberation from the trappings of bourgeois values. But it was the ‘idea’ of black culture and not black culture itself that informed this modernity.”[77] Similarly, the newspaper discourse on black minstrelsy tells us how White Canadian audiences indulged in reproduced Black culture through performance, it does not necessarily reveal what, if any, these audiences knew about Black people themselves.

Black Minstrelsy’s Imitated Authenticity and Canadian Nostalgia

On 13 December 1882, an advertisement in Toronto’s The Globe announced that Hague’s British Operatic Minstrels would appear at the Grand Opera House, one of the city’s legitimate theatres.[78] By the time Hague’s troupe performed at the Grand, it was managed by Oliver Barton Sheppard (1848–1928), who had insight into how the international touring and booking syndicates brought plays and blackface acts to theatres across North America.[79] At the same time that Hague’s group attracted public attention, other groups calling themselves Georgia Minstrels toured in the east, one of them under the management of Hicks, whose Georgia Minstrels had come off a yearlong tour of the American West Coast that included Oregon, California, British Columbia, and fourteen weeks in San Francisco.[80] In February 1883, The Globe reported that Callender’s Georgia Minstrels would hold a brief engagement at the Grand Opera House. “The members are genuine coloured men, and there is no use for burnt cork amongst them,” the newspaper explained.[81] In May the following year, the Grand Opera House featured “The Callender Minstrel Festival” after a “triumph in all the largest cities.”[82] In addition to a festival of artists, one of the headline acts, Billy Kersands (1842–1915), is described as “the greatest comedian living, in his original specialties.”[83] Kersands started performing with Callender’s Georgia Minstrels in the 1870s, singing such songs as “Old Aunt Jemima” and “Mary’s Gone with a Coon.” He became renowned for his slow-witted, big-mouthed, black caricature.[84] In 1894, Hick’s Original Georgia Minstrels, featuring thirty artists, appeared at the Grand Opera House in Hamilton.[85] As late as 1910, another iteration of the Georgia Minstrels appeared in Toronto. This time, James McIntyre (1857–1937) and Thomas Heath (1853–1938), two White American men performing as the duo “McIntyre and Heath” brought the blackface show to Shea’s Theatre. McIntyre and Heath developed a blackface act in which McIntyre played “Alexander Hambletonian,” a buffoonish stable boy, while Heath acted as “Henry Jones,” a black entertainer who frequently outwitted Alexander. Their Georgia Minstrels was a skit in which “Henry” persuaded “Alexander” to quit working as a stable-boy to join a travelling show where he is promised fame and fortune.

These editorials about black minstrelsy’s appearance in Canada must be understood through the lens of authenticity and nostalgia, two complex and often contradictory concepts. As Nowatzki has explained,

On the one hand, minstrelsy’s racial performance was based on concepts of authenticity, and white minstrels often advertised themselves as ‘authentic’ or ‘genuine.’…. However, as minstrelsy grew, most American audiences realized that the ‘black’ bodies on the stage were usually blacked-up whites performing ‘blackness,’ ‘and there was often a tongue-in-cheek quality to the performers’ claims of authenticity.[86]

Stated otherwise, White minstrel performers were imposters; and they knew it. That was part of the entertainment of white minstrelsy. How could the White actor approximate Black dance and musical styles such that it appeared to be just as “genuine” as the real thing? Initially, black minstrels performed as if they were white minstrels performing Blackness; but over time, as Black actors like Kersands became famous, black minstrelsy developed its own authentic forms of dance and song that was distinct from white minstrelsy. When Kersands rose to fame, for instance, he played heavily caricatured roles that emphasized Black men’s supposedly large lips and mouth. While White minstrels had made themselves up to appear to have huge mouths before this, Kersands made his own unusually large mouth, often out of blackface, one of the central features of his act, and eventually a core tenet of black minstrels in general, so audiences knew they were going to see “the real thing,” not White imitators performing the real thing.[87]

As its popularity grew, The Globe began to describe black minstrelsy as “the Black Boom.” One piece described Haverly’s Coloured Minstrels’s opening act on 19 May 1881 as “a very striking coup d’oeil, the curtain been rolled up on a beautiful set scene with a southern river in the background, and the entire company grouped upon the stage singing the Suwanee River.”[88] By this time, Black troupes were performing in a genre that had crystallized into a set format and had become highly commodified. White managers increasingly demanded that Black minstrels act out racial caricatures, preventing them from introducing significant changes to its format and tone.[89] When Black performers removed the burnt cork, however, their performative Blackness was interpreted as more real than white minstrelsy, which in comparison, was viewed as counterfeit, though still entertaining to audiences especially if the white troupe’s approximation of Blackness was deemed “genuine.” Of the black minstrel shows that graced the stage in the 1890s, Alfred Griffin Hatfield (1848 or 1850–1921) often billed as Al G. Field, or Al G. Fields, manager of Darkest America, would oversee the first show to feature many of the major Black entertainers at one time.

Darkest America premiered in 1894. Together with 1895’s Black America, it was billed as the most “authentic” minstrel show in history and marked a fundamental change in black minstrelsy’s direction.[90] As Taylor and Austen have explained, “Darkest America was a minstrel show. The performers, even though they were Black, wore blackface … mainstream newspapers went out of their way to emphasize the differences between Darkest America and white minstrel shows … because they were Black, these performers were truer to real life than were white minstrel shows.”[91] Darkest America was also one of the first shows to centre plantation life. By 1897, the show’s scenes included a cotton field with a fully operating cotton gin, a Louisiana sugar plantation like the one made infamous by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the levee at New Orleans, a panorama of the Mississippi showing the famous 1870 race between the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee, the interior of the South Carolina State House during the 1876 Hayes-Tilden election dispute, a gambling scene, a camp meeting, Jacksonville on the night of the 1894 Corbett-Mitchell prize fight, and a black ballroom scene in Washington.[92] That same year, Fields brought Darkest America to Hamilton and London, and then onto Toronto. On 7 April 1896, a London Grand Opera House playbill celebrated the elaborate staging of Darkest America. The first page of the playbill read “Al. G. Field’s Big, Black Boom, Darkest America, under the management of Will A. Junker. 40 – Real Southern Negros — 40 …. Home life in the South. Pictures of Dixie Land. Plantation Pastimes. Dances of the South.”[93] On 11 April 1896, the show appeared at Hamilton’s Grand Opera House and by the time it arrived in Toronto, there was plenty to be said in The Globe about its content.

“Advance Manager Irons of the ‘Darkest America’ company is in the city, making arrangements for the coming of the colored swells next week,” read The Globe on 4 May 1896.[94] “The organization is claimed to be the largest all-colored minstrel company travelling,” the newspaper added. Two days later, the newspaper alerted readers that “Al. G. Field’s big colored minstrel company, ‘Darkest America,’ will be next week’s attraction at the Toronto Opera House. Mr. Field, with his usual good judgment, has not only selected first-class talent, but has also introduced into his entertainment a great variety of material of a novel and original character.”[95] On 8 May, The Globe’s editorial promoted another week’s engagement of Darkest America. “The southern States of America and the dusky denizens thereof have a peculiar interest and fascination to those who have never lived or travelled extensively through the south.” It went on to add, “The negroes of the south are an interesting race. Their habits, customs, home-life are but little known outside of the section where they dwell. As natural musicians they are not excelled by any people on earth. There is a charm to the negro southern melodies that has made them popular the world over.”[96] Darkest America is described further as “music, singing and dancing and the representation of home life in the south as it actually exists in the cities and on the plantation.” Why was the plantation-themed minstrel performance of Darkest America so appealing to Canadian audiences at the end of the nineteenth century?

By the turn of the twentieth century, part of the reason why White Canadians were so drawn to the southern plantation was because there were multiple industries recreating nostalgic sojourns back to “simpler times” and the pre-industrial South was the dominant aesthetic that captured this desire for a long lost way of life, especially in the North where industrialization, urbanization, and immigration had sped up the pace of daily life and the demands on individuals living in cities.[97] In the aftermath of the Civil War, a vast pedagogical industry worked ceaselessly to oblige young Americans to remember/forget the war as a great “civil” war between “brothers” rather than between — as they were briefly — two sovereign nation states (the North and the South).[98] The South was reinvented as a place of pastoral leisure, happy Black slaves, and “southern hospitality” via advertising, the theatre, and eventually film. At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, for example, audiences (some of whom were Canadian) became increasingly nostalgic for the antebellum South. Most notably, during the Exposition, Nancy Green made her debut as Aunt Jemima, a slave appearing in a booth designed to look like a giant flour barrel where she greeted guests and cooked pancakes all while singing and telling stories of her life on the plantation. Canadians consumed American culture, including its exportation of commodified nostalgia for a past where African Americans were not only stuck on the plantation buy were happy there.

For Black performers during this time, as David Krasner writes, “the real was commodified in order to lead the challenge against minstrel theater.”[99] Stated otherwise, given the few economic opportunities for African Americans, they sold one of the few commodities available to them — their “primitive realness.” This performative authenticity was not just unique to black minstrelsy, it was as Taylor and Austen write, a fundamental element of American entertainment, which “has always had a desire to ‘keep it real,’ and the black minstrel show was necessarily more real than the white minstrel show could be.”[100] Entertainment and advertising delivered a hyperreal Blackness by tapping into the domain of White desires.[101] Whites could feel good after seeing black minstrelsy because “it confirmed and reinforced White ideas about the inferior nature of blacks and the merits of continuing their degradation by staging elaborate plantation fantasies in which Blacks were happy and foolish, while the Whites, by implication at least, were benevolent and protective.”[102]

By the 1920s, the prevailing mood was a desire to return to what American President Warren Harding called the “normalcy” of the good old days.[103] Theatrical productions of slavery played a pivotal role in engendering this desire for the past. In 1925, for example, when African Americans Eubie Blake and Nobel Sissle brought Plantation Days to Hamilton and Toronto, an ensemble photograph on 28 April appeared alongside the caption, “‘Plantation Days,’ the big all-colored revue which is featured at the Pantages theater this week.”[104] Three days prior, an advertisement declared it the “fastest show in Canada,” adding “Brand New 1925 Edition of the Greatest All-Coloured Revue Ever Produced for the American Stage.”[105] Canada had, since the nineteenth century, propagated a mythology about its White citizens as benevolent and protective through the narrative of the “Underground Railroad” and the North as a safe haven for enslaved African Americans. This mythology drew White Canadians to black minstrelsy’s plantation-themed shows because they could reminisce about slavery while denying their own latent anti-Black racism.


Black minstrelsy complicates how we think about minstrelsy and its lasting impact on performance history. Like white minstrelsy, black minstrelsy was also a “love and theft” of Black cultural forms, to borrow form Eric Lott. It was mimetic, as Krasner has asserted, in that “Not all black performers opposed what was then the status quo; in fact, the use of the blackface mask by black performers perpetuated the accepted stereotype…. The new ‘realism’ at the turn of the century was paradoxical in its appeal to both what was real and what was not.”[106] Stated otherwise, while Black performers had to don the burnt cork mask of minstrelsy and perpetuate stereotypes that White people had come to expect from blackface, these performers also innovated dance, theatrical performance, and comedy in ways that subverted some of the stereotypes. For example, Bahamian-born headliner Bert Williams (1874–1922) performed from behind the burnt cork mask even as African Americans found more opportunities in mass entertainment in the 1920s, but he was heralded as a performer who could carry on in the Kersands-like minstrel tradition of “playing the coon” while also dancing the high-kicking, strutting cakewalk, a distinctly African American dance.[107]

The production of Black culture in minstrelsy helped to facilitate White people’s regression into the primitive within.[108] Meaning, the authenticity of Black culture did not matter to White audiences. What mattered was their ability to experience Black life as real, and in turn, this realness enabled them to sojourn into transgressive, nonconformist, and subversive behaviours that would not have been condoned in the dominant culture. Black minstrelsy, and by extension, Black entertainers’ seemingly display of reckless abandon appealed to Whites’ (Canadians, Americans, and Britons) desire to depart from Protestant Anglo-Saxon ideals of “self-control, self-discipline, and hard work.”[109] In other words, Blackness was exploited as a fleeting sojourn from the ordinariness of White life. As black minstrelsy faded in the twentieth century, replaced by vaudeville and, later, film, White Canadians celebrated their newfound status as an Anglo-Saxon modern nation-state by putting on their own amateur minstrel shows. As part of the Anglo-Saxon defence of the nation’s cultural heritage, Whites put on amateur minstrel shows and created social glue for local groups-service clubs, youth and church groups, Protestant and Catholic, while excluding non-Whites.[110]

Ultimately, blackface gave Canadians — including ethnic Whites such as Jews, who, in the 1920s, also began to don the burnt cork mask of minstrelsy — an outlet to reassert their dominance over Black people, who by the first decades of the twentieth century, were immigrating to the country in significance numbers.[111] As E. Patrick Johnson writes, “When white Americans essentialize blackness, for example, they often do so in ways that maintain ‘whiteness’ as the master trope of purity, supremacy, and entitlement, as a ubiquitous, fixed, unifying signifier that seems invisible.”[112] Black minstrelsy’s performative Blackness gave Whites an outlet to exert their power over Black people at the same time their fleshly investment in the Black body engendered an inauthentic Blackness that was made real with each performance. White audiences did not care about Black culture and Black life. What they desired was to live vicariously through a performative blackness that both made them feel superior to, and paradoxically envious of, the freedom that was on display through the performances. The theatre, then, must be located as a vital tool during Canada’s modern period that demarcated the boundaries of Whiteness, becoming the vehicle through which Black people could be seen, and in turn acknowledged, but only if performing the role of being perpetually stuck in servitude to Whites, rather than enjoying the full rights of an emancipated citizenship.