Two important points for my argument on minstrelsy:
- Blackface performers adapted a concept of black people as “comic substance” whose humiliation, torture, and dismemberment could be enjoyed.
- The shared enjoyment of black humiliation and suffering became an anchor point for white identity.
There’s an example of the concept of black people as “comic substance” in “Lucy Long” which was written before the formation of the Virginia minstrels but was the most popular minstrel song of the 1840’s
“Yes Lucy is a pretty girl/Such lubly hands and feet/When her toes is in de market house/Her heels is in Main Street,/Take your time, etc.“
There was a stereotype that black women had large heels and feet–in this case that her feet extended 30 feet or more. The stereotypes themselves are what Patricia Hill Collins called a “controlling image” but minstrelsy multiplied the stereotypes concerning black hair, size, lips, and noses to the extent that they conveyed a general idea of black people as comic monstrosities, or “comic substance.”
A Contemporary Note:
When conservatives complain about being condemned for racist language, they express a longing to treat black people as comic substance and rage over current taboos on the n-word, racist jokes, etc. The ability to use and enjoy racist language has long been a significant part of being white and they feel the loss.