Racism in American Music
What follows is sample curriculum developed by Joe Seamons of The Rhapsody Project to educate people of all ages about the true and hidden history of American racism as reflected in our music and popular culture. To best explore these issues in your community, contact The Rhapsody Project via email to host a facilitated discussion to delve and process the impacts of this history.
We are preparing to talk about heavy, complex issues of racism and oppression. If, at any time in this discussion, you need to take a moment, step outside and process what you’re feeling, you are welcome to do so.
Why We Do This
For the sake of justice and equity, it is vital that Americans understand the sad and tragic history of minstrelsy in this country. There are multiple reasons for this:
1. It was the dominant form of popular entertainment in all of the US from the 1840s -1890s. This influence continues to reverberate in our culture in various ways.
2. Understanding how Minstrel shows reinforced racist & oppressive concepts about Black people is essential to grasping the depth and nature of American prejudice.
3. Controversies continue to arise as powerful white men are exposed and challenged for blacking their faces.
4. The idea of realness--of authenticity--is a central concern in a wide array of American musical forms, and that idea was fundamentally influenced and shaped by minstrelsy.
5. A wide swath of music we are all familiar with, from “children’s songs” to hip hop hits, make either make references to or derive from music composed in the American minstrel tradition.
6. Our music and its expression has the potential to be a great, unifying source of power for each of us. When we fail to acknowledge and explore the shameful dimensions of our music’s history, we abuse that power.
The Invention of Whiteness & the Myth of the Melting Pot
“White” is not an ethnic group, but a social caste created--in part--so that rich, white slave owners could ensure that white working class and indentured people did not join forces with enslaved Black people to seize the wealth they were creating.
At the same time, European American immigrants from regions such as Italy or Ireland were discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicities and religious practices. These new Americans were compelled to stifle, hide, and effectively trade in their ethnicity for the social and political benefits of being “white.”
We describe our country as a melting pot--and that’s been all too true. To combat and counteract the history we are about to share, please recognize that--culturally speaking-- the healthiest and richest portions of our country function as a gumbo, rather than a melting pot. Each ingredient is influenced by the others, but it also retains some of its own shape and texture.
Minstrel: Origin of the Word
For hundreds of years in the second millenium, “Minstrel” was an English word in the British Isles used to describe a wandering musician and storytelling entertainer.
Transformation into Minstrel as Blackface Performer
As early as the 1820’s there were white American performers who blacked their faces and termed themselves, “Ethiopian Delineators.” By 1832, a performer billed as “Daddy Rice” had developed a Black American folk song, “Jump Jim Crow” - learned from a disabled stable hand, into a staple of his act. This song and act were widely influential, and were developed in the 1840’s by a performer named Dan Emmett into what was now termed “the minstrel show.”
By the end of the 1800s, talented Black comedians and entertainers were compelled to perform in Blackface just to get a gig, so dominant was the popularity and ubiquity of the Minstrel show.
Sheet Music Covers & Stereotypes
You can find a shocking array of printed sheet music that was marketed and promoted in the late 1800s that portrays Black people in an array of disgusting ways. It is important to know that the “coon song” craze emerged as another sad chapter in the era of Minstrelsy, and to fully comprehend the stereotypes involving watermelon, chicken, the “mammy” figure, and more.
Integration Despite Discrimination
All the while this shameful racism was perpetrated and accepted by the majority as a matter of course, Black and “white” Americans of the working classes would regularly hear one another’s informal music making, and then incorporate elements of one anothers’ repertoires, phrases, language and styles into their own music.
Segregation was always a sham, because--at least in many Southern cultures where “white” and Black Americans were neighbors, different complexioned people saw and heard each other regularly. Thus, our culture’s gumbo got its flavors.
What Do We Do Now
There will be no end to the work that needs doing to counteract the effects of racism, colonialism, and oppression in our lifetimes. But, in addition to continuing our own education, it is essential that we:
1. Acknowledge the origins of the music we play and perform.
2. Explore the layers of our heritage so that they can inform our own self-expression.
3. Call out discrimination and stereotypes when we see them being perpetuated.
4. Be patient and forgiving of ourselves and others--assuming the best, and putting our best foot forward especially when we sense that we may have a fundamental difference of opinion. Allow the music and our explorations to help us heal.
These are simply first steps--we must establish a culture of collaboration to continue the dialogue started here.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to host a facilitated discussion about this content and its implications in your community.
This history is public information. This presentation of it was created through years of research, travel, discussion, revision, and performance. Please respect that work and consider that the discussion outline created above is protected by copyright of The Rhapsody Project, 2020.