According to music scholar Jon W. Finson, early minstrelsy shared three primary characteristics: “invocation of the ethnically and racially exotic [or] primitive”; absurdity, irreverence and recklessness, or as Finson distilled it, “carnivalesque”; and longing for an ideal rural paradise. The carnivalesque aspect is especially important because it inverted societal norms and gave writers and performers license to deviate from the wholesome messages of the pulpit and dwell in a perverse world. Just as British rule in the U.S. ended with Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown and a possible performance of the song “The World Upside Down,” minstrelsy in America reveled in the absurdity of peasants ruling over kings and the powerless becoming powerful. Rather than drawing upon the arts and attitudes of the elite, minstrelsy dredged “low” culture for inspiration. Minstrel music was often inspired by Anglo-Celtic songs, but the performance, singing, and speech mimicked (and mocked) African American vernacular.
The primary function of blackface wasn’t just to invoke the “other,” but also to act as a mask. “The performers are maskers whose assumed disguises facilitate ironic poses that paint figurative portraits,” Finson observed. In times of carnival, celebrants often transvested, or wore the clothes of others to take on their identity. A common worker might dress up like an aristocrat or deliberately dress in low garb to become a pirate, a bum, a convict, and so on.
Blackface allowed actors and artists to hide behind a caricature while protesting and mocking the powerful without fear of retaliation. Minstrel performers could safely question authority while claiming to be acting out authentic African American expressions.
Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice supposedly lifted his solo act from firsthand observations of African American song and dance. According to Finson, Rice “was less concerned with authenticity than with assuming the mask of the folkloric. The exaggerated features of his disguise bear all the marks of a counterculture: he is not only poor, but his extremities and facial features protrude in ungainly ways meant to confront the smooth regularity of idealized gentility.” Some white performers augmented their noses and other features when performing to look more stereotypically “black.”
Rice’s “Jim Crow” character reveled in absurdity. While a comical figure with little intelligence, Crow was also a backwoods superman of sorts who could “wip my weight in wildcats” and “eat an alligator.” In a sense, Crow represented the rugged populism of Andrew Jackson. Indeed, Rice’s “Jim Crow” spoke out about tariffs, nullification, and the Bank of the United States, a far cry from the supposed goings-on of plantation slaves.
Blackface would always be Janus-faced, allowing the artist to speak freely against the interests of the powerful, a potent symbol of Jacksonian democracy. On the other hand, blackface dangerously dehumanized blacks by introducing and reinforcing racial stereotypes. Blackface popularized inaccurate representations of blacks while preventing blacks from representing themselves.