JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 479
Leafing my way through a reprint of the Peck & Snyder Out & Indoor Sports and Pastimes Catalog for 1888, looking for baseball equipment and giant bagatelles, I found this stunning advertisement. I knew of the tragic and long history of this form of "entertainment", as does everyone, but I must say I never considered the costume end of it. And here it was.
The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, appeared as an American invention in the 1830's--much more so by the early 1840's. It depicted blacks in only the worst possible ways, as shiftless, lazy, buffoonish, stupid, flawed in almost every way, an idiotic race with a musical advantage, relayed in predictable units, accompanied by a developing genre of American music. The ad here is for the accoutrement of the performers, layers of red rouge and carbon to build on white faces one of the lowest forms of racial archetypes that this country has produced.
The astonishing thing is that it is just a simple ad in the middle of
the page of the middle of a catalog for entertainment and sports
bits--nothing special at all, nothing remarkable to distinguish this
gaping hole of morality from the games and exercise equipment that
surrounds it. And that's the deep horror of stuff like this, this sort
of stereotyping that was so lethal and filled with hate, and not making
a ripple in the awareness of anyone's sense of correctness: the
creation of this racial image was so complete that even its most base
element could appear as an insignificant trifle in a sporting catalog.
Even more extraordinary is this ad that appears just a few dozen pages later. "The Enchanted Negro's Head" was a prop in a magic trick that involved drawing a knife across the neck of the black head. "The performer takes a small knife and says he will cut the head off"--I can imagine the sort of conversation between performer and audience before his action is undertaken, getting the audience ready to kill the "Negro Head". It would not have been pretty. And that's not all--once you were done with the "trick" part of cutting off the head, it "(could) be fixed to the top of a walking stick or umbrella....(to) form a great curiosity".
These characterizations appeared in uncountable forms in virtually every aspect of social life in this country, finding its insidious way even into something as seemingly innocent as a magic trick. It is the very vast smallness of this racism that make it so terrifically convincing and lethal. Looking at something like this makes me feel the enormous weight of the all that went into the attempted assassination of this race.
**My friend Joy Holland--chief of the Brooklyn Room at the Brooklyn Public Library at the Grand Army Plaza in the heart of Brooklyn USA--recently started a wonderful history blog at the library called Brooklynology. A recent post there talks about a minstrel-related find in their ephemera collection--it is quite interesting; take a look.