The Minstrel Legacy: African American English and the Historical Construction of “Black” Identities in Entertainment

Abstract

Linguists have long been aware that the language scripted for “ethnic” roles in the media has been manipulated for a variety of purposes ranging from the construction of character “authenticity” to flagrant ridicule. This paper provides a brief overview of the history of African American roles in the entertainment industry from minstrel shows to present-day films. I am particularly interested in looking at the practice of distorting African American English as an historical artifact which is commonplace in the entertainment industry today. Dialogue which is clearly meant as an imitation of African American English still results in the construction of an ethnic stereotype that serves as a reflection of European American attitudes regarding African Americans. As a result, such depictions provide non-Black acculturated people with a perception of Blackness that is founded in inaccuracies and derision but has been portrayed as authentic, leaving Black life open to continual mimicry.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Here I do not mean “Uncle Tom,” in the Harriet Beecher Stowe sense, where Tom was a heroic figure, strong, faithful, and loyal to both Whites and to his fellow slaves. Instead, I am referring to what Patricia Turner calls the “trope of Uncle Tom” where “few, if any popular and folk culture depictions are true to the Stowe original.” (Turner 2002, 75). My use of Uncle Tom in this instance is in keeping with what Turner identifies as today’s popular understanding of the Tom, having a “supposed identification with his masters/employers and… contempt for his own (black) kind…(having) racial self-hate…willing to ‘sell out’ blacks in order to placate whites and improve his personal well-being.” (Turner 2002, 69) There are a number of other departures between Stowe’s Tom and what modern audiences believe a Tom to be; for example, the original Tom was not old or particularly servile, but today’s Toms are, without exception, elderly, frail, and slavishly loyal to Whites. I believe that I am accurate in describing Stephen as a twisted Uncle Tom here since, in nearly every article on Samuel L. Jackson’s role in Django Unchained, the character is referred to as such.

  2. 2.

    Interestingly, here, Walker and Williams use “Swanee River,” a minstrel song originally written by Stephen Foster for Christy’s Minstrels. The song is supposedly written from the perspective of a former slave who longs for the plantation. Perhaps, its mention in the Walker and Williams song is yet another layer of signification.

  3. 3.

    It is worth noting, however, that not all speakers of African American English use every feature in every possible environment—wide variation exists between speakers and even within the speech of individuals. It is also the case that AAE shares some grammatical and phonological features with varieties of English spoken by southern Whites. Unfortunately, in the blackface imitation of African American English, the rules of the variety are misapplied (sometimes intentionally and sometimes out of linguistic ignorance) so that the dialect is presented to audiences as comedy, purposefully ridiculing Blacks.

References

  1. Bogle, D. (2001). Toms, coons, mulattoes, mammies, and bucks: an interpretive history of Blacks in American films. New York: Continuum International.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Cobb, J. A. (2013). “Tarrantino unchained.” The New Yorker. Retrieved June 1, 2014, from http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/tarantino-unchained

  3. Comer, J. (2005). Every time I turn around: rite, reversal, and the end of blackface minstrelsy. Retrieved June 1, 2014, from Ferris State University: http://www.ferris.edu/news/jimcrow/links/comer/

  4. Crossland, A. (Director). (1927). The Jazz singer [Motion Picture].

  5. Gilbert, A. (2013). What’s the word? A review of “Django unchained” directed by Quentin Tarrantino. Screen Machine. Retrieved May 15, 2014, from http://www.screenmachine.tv/2013/issue/djangounchained/.

  6. Giroux, H. A. (2002). Breaking into the movies: film and the culture of politics. Malden: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Griffith, D. (Director). (1915). Birth of a nation [Motion Picture].

  8. Johns, A. (1928, April 29). Good ol’ days old time radio. Retrieved June 25, 2011, from AMOS AND ANDY No. 30--ABCD (Special episode for Sunday beginning daylight saving time): http://fly.hiwaay.net/~ajohns/retro/A&A19280429_No.30.5.htm

  9. Jones, I., Ramey Berry, D., Gill, T., Gross, K, and Sumler-Edmond, J. (2011) “Association of Black women historians: open letter to fans of ‘The help’” New American Media. Retrieved June 3, 2014 from http://newamericamedia.org/2011/08/association-of-black-women-historians-open-letter-to fans-of-the-help.php

  10. McClintock, P. (2013). “African Americans turn out in force for Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django unchained.’ the Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved June 1, 2014 fromhttp://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/quentin-tarantinos-django-unchained-african 407582

  11. Porter, E. (Director). (1903). Uncle Tom’s cabin [Motion Picture].

  12. Rickford, J. R. Rickford, R. J. (2000). Spoken soul: the story of Black English. New York: Wiley.

  13. Smitherman, G. (1977). Talkin’ and testifyin’. Wayne State University Press.

  14. Sperling, N. and Fitz, B. (2012) “‘Django’ unchained looks at US past” LA Times. Retrieved May 30, 2014 from http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/15/entertainment/la-et-mn-quentin-tarantino django-unchained-20121215

  15. Strausbaugh, J. (2006). Black like you; blackface, whiteface, insult & imitation in American popular culture. New York: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Tarrantino, Q. (Director). (2012). Django unchained [Motion Picture].

  17. Toll, R. C. (1974). Blacking up; the minstrel show in nineteenth-century America. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Turner, P. A. (2002). Ceramic uncles & celluloid mammies: black images & their influence on culture. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Watkins, M. (2002). African American humor. Chicago: Lawrence Hill.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Wayans, K. I. (Director). (1993). “Keep your butt in school,In living color [Motion Picture].

  21. Williams, B. (Composer). (1901). She’s getting more like the White folks every day. Retrieved May 20, 2014 from http://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/23232

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jennifer Bloomquist.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Bloomquist, J. The Minstrel Legacy: African American English and the Historical Construction of “Black” Identities in Entertainment. J Afr Am St 19, 410–425 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12111-015-9313-1

Download citation

Keywords

  • Media
  • Film
  • African American English
  • Language and identity
  • Language attitudes
  • Minstrelsy
  • Language prejudice