Kevin J. Byrne

Jul 29, 2020

Minstrel Traditions

Mediated Blackface in the Jazz Age

Routledge 2020

The Blackface minstrel show is typically thought of a form tied to the 19th century. While the style was indeed developed during the Antebellum period, its history stretches well into 20th- and even 21st-century America. Far from being the endpoint posited by much of the existing literature on the topic, the Jazz age of the 1920s actually saw a flourishing of Minstrel activity, as new forms of media allowed the circulation of Blackface images in ever greater profusion. This circulation, these images, and the performances that lay behind them make up the focus of Dr. Kevin James Byrne’s Minstrel Traditions: Mediated Blackface in the Jazz Age (Routledge, 2020). Minstrel Traditions examines the technologically-mediated interactions that developed between live performances and their circulating images during this fraught period. It does so through a set of case studies: the last musical of Bert Williams, the live career of (now-former) pancake brand/performer Aunt Jemima, amateur minstrel shows and the companies that provided them with material, Black vaudeville performers, and Black Broadway. By examining how Blackface transitioned from live performance to images circulating through the mass media, Dr. Byrne provides an insightful account that deepens our understanding of the enormous, baleful influence the form exerted on 20th century culture.

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Sam Backer is a PhD candidate in History at Johns Hopkins, where his work focuses on the intersection of art, culture, and capitalism. He is also a freelance journalist and a podcaster. He is currently a host on “Money 4 Nothing,” a podcast about music and capitalism.

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