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The minstrel show, also called minstrelsy, was an American form of racist theatrical entertainment developed in the early 19th century.Each show consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music performances that depicted people specifically of African descent. The shows were performed by mostly white people wearing blackface make-up for the purpose of playing the role of black people. There were also some African-American performers and black-only minstrel groups that formed and toured. Minstrel shows caricatured black people as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, cowardly, superstitious, and happy-go-lucky.
Blackface minstrelsy was the first uniquely American form of theater. Minstrel shows emerged as brief burlesques and comic entr'actes in the early 1830s in the Northeastern states. They were developed into full-fledged form in the next decade. By 1848, blackface minstrel shows were the national artform, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience.
By the turn of the 20th century, the minstrel show enjoyed but a shadow of its former popularity, having been replaced for the most part by vaudeville. The form survived as professional entertainment until about 1910; amateur performances continued until the 1960s in high schools and local theaters.
Although the minstrel shows were extremely popular, being "consistently packed with families from all walks of life and every ethnic group", they were also controversial. Integrationists decried them as falsely showing happy slaves while at the same time making fun of them; segregationists thought such shows were "disrespectful" of social norms as they portrayed runaway slaves with sympathy and would undermine slavery.
Minstrel shows were popular before slavery was abolished, sufficiently so that Frederick Douglass described blackface performers as "...the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens." Although white theatrical portrayals of black characters date back to as early as 1604, the minstrel show as such has later origins. By the late 18th century, blackface characters began appearing on the American stage, usually as "servant" types whose roles did little more than provide some element of comic relief. Eventually, similar performers appeared in entr'actes in New York theaters and other venues such as taverns and circuses. As a result, the blackface "Sambo" character came to supplant the "tall-tale-telling Yankee" and "frontiersman" character-types in popularity, and white actors such as Charles Mathews, George Washington Dixon, and Edwin Forrest began to build reputations as blackface performers. Author Constance Rourke even claimed that Forrest's impression was so good he could fool blacks when he mingled with them in the streets.
With the Panic of 1837, theater attendance suffered, and concerts were one of the few attractions that could still make money. In 1843, four blackface performers led by Dan Emmett combined to stage just such a concert at the New York Bowery Amphitheatre, calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels. The minstrel show as a complete evening's entertainment was born. The show had little structure. The four sat in a semicircle, played songs, and traded wisecracks. One gave a stump speech in dialect, and they ended with a lively plantation song. The term minstrel had previously been reserved for traveling white singing groups, but Emmett and company made it synonymous with blackface performance, and by using it, signalled that they were reaching out to a new, middle-class audience.
The Herald wrote that the production was "entirely exempt from the vulgarities and other objectionable features, which have hitherto characterized negro extravaganzas." In 1845, the Ethiopian Serenaders purged their show of low humor and