The best books to understand the minstrel show

Who am I?

I am a former network television executive who is fascinated by the history of mass media and have authored or co-authored nine books and many articles on the subject. These include The Complete Directory to Primetime Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present and Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919. I’m particularly drawn to subjects that are underexplored, or which seem to be greatly misunderstood today. I quickly learned that you are not likely to earn a living from writing, so I decided to write about subjects I cared about, and hopefully add something to our knowledge of cultural history. I became more aware of what the professional minstrel show was really like while researching Lost Sounds, based on original accounts, recordings, and films.


I wrote...

The Blackface Minstrel Show in Mass Media: 20th Century Performances on Radio, Records, Film and Television

By Tim Brooks,

Book cover of The Blackface Minstrel Show in Mass Media: 20th Century Performances on Radio, Records, Film and Television

What is my book about?

The big time, professional minstrel show lasted much longer than most people realize, from its origins in the 1840s to the early television era in the 1950s—more than 110 years. What was it, really, and how did it change over this long period? Why was it considered acceptable for so long, by almost everyone—even by many black Americans? What finally brought it down? This book explores its entire history, focusing particularly on the 20th-century mass media we know so well, radio, recordings, film, and television. Minstrel shows were featured in all of them, often performed by major stars and sometimes by blacks themselves. Major controversies are described, as is the surprising popularity of the format in Britain. This concise history of a now-controversial form of entertainment shows how we can too easily accept widely endorsed beliefs.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Censoring Racial Ridicule: Irish, Jewish, and African American Struggles over Race and Representation, 1890-1930

By M. Alison Kibler,

Book cover of Censoring Racial Ridicule: Irish, Jewish, and African American Struggles over Race and Representation, 1890-1930

Why this book?

A unique and insightful look at how three groups fought back against their widespread stereotyping in the media of the early 20th century, and how two of them largely succeeded in changing these portrayals. The reasons why African-Americans were much less successful than Irish and Jews in fighting stereotypes are complex and fascinating, and hold lessons for us today.


Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America

By Robert C. Toll,

Book cover of Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America

Why this book?

Published almost half a century ago (1974), but still the best introduction to the minstrel show as it emerged in America in the 1840s. Describes the various elements of a minstrel show, how it was originally received, and how it materially evolved in the late 1800s, but stops at the end of the century. A good, readable overview of this highly popular form of entertainment as it was originally performed on stage.


Blackface Minstrelsy in Britain

By Michael Pickering,

Book cover of Blackface Minstrelsy in Britain

Why this book?

Americans and Brits alike will be amazed to learn how pervasive the minstrel show was in Britain in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Originally experienced as an import, Britain developed its own minstrel troupes and stars and continued to embrace the format long after it was deemed unacceptable in the U.S.A. BBC television’s highly popular Black and White Minstrel Show lasted—are you ready for this?—until 1978. The troupe even performed for the royal family at the annual Royal Variety Charity Performances, although modern editors have tried to scrub that fact from the historical record.


Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class

By Eric Lott,

Book cover of Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class

Why this book?

A highly opinionated, and thus sometimes frustrating, analysis of the pre-Civil War minstrel show, and how it impacted both oppressed African-Americans and the working-class whites who made the shows so popular. This was the first major book to advance the idea that the minstrel show was not only an exploitation of black culture (the “theft”), but also appreciated that culture and began its integration into the American musical mainstream (the “love”), which would prove to have profound implications in decades to come. An influential book that has been frequently cited in subsequent works.


Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy

By Annemarie Bean (editor), James V. Hatch (editor), Brooks McNamara (editor)

Book cover of Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy

Why this book?

A collection of essays by leading scholars in the field exploring various aspects of the minstrel show in the 1800s, including its portrayal of women, social commentary, its music, and the prominent participation of African-Americans who staged their own minstrel shows. Good, concise treatment of many elements of the genre.