1974, Blacking Up

Cover, American Heritage



Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in the Nineteenth-Century America. New York, NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 1974.

_____.  Blackface Minstrelsy in Nineteenth Century America. Berkeley, 1972. Internet resource. 



Blacking Up! was first submitted as a dissertation. It is probably among the first works in minstrelsy scholarship to initially unfold as a doctoral dissertation. Many, many subsequent dissertations have examined aspects of blackface performance. Following the publication of his book, Toll published a condensed version for American Heritage Magazine. Toll may have also been the last minstrel scholar to see a version of his work appear in a popular magazine. Above, the cover of American Heritage, April/May 1978. The artist is Shiryo Hersanjo. This image is a reproduction of a screened watercolor. The original was probably painted in May of 1854 and depicts a performance mounted by the sailors of the Frigate Powhaten, commanded by Commodore Perry during his visit to Japan. Note that the detail on the magazine cover was slightly altered.  

The selection of this small detail to publish is baffling in the extreme. Chosing to isolate this portion of the image strips the viewer of the knowledge that the two players are seated at stage left in the minstrel half circle.  At the far right of the watercolor is the end man, Tambo.  At the opposite end (in the original) is the bone player.  Yet the Heritage image is titled "Mr. Bones," who has long since been cropped out of sight. Why this image, or even a detail from it, was chosen for the cover is a mystery probably not worth contemplating.   

It is worth wondering about the costumes worn by the band. It seems unlikely that these jackets were part of a sailor's uniform.  The matching costumes of American stars like Luke West & Matt Peel (West & Peel's Old and Original Campbell Minstrels) may have been leading fashion trends in minstrelsy. See this dauguerreotype of Peel and West, instruments in hand, now part of Harvard's American Minstrel Show Collection. 


Critical Reception:

Rehin, George F. "The Darker Image: American Negro Minstrelsy through the Historian's Lens." Journal of American Studies 9.3 (1975): 365-73.