(Joan Acocella’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 11/2.)

For bien-pensant people looking to enjoy the art of the past, there is probably nothing more bewildering—not the gaze-worthy nudes of Titian, not the beautiful dances created for Indian girls who had been sold to their temples as priestess-prostitutes—than the minstrel shows that flourished in America in the years surrounding the Civil War. Typically, these shows featured a lineup of a dozen or so men performing comic songs and skits based on “darkie” stereotypes, above all the image of black people as happy-go-lucky, lazy, feckless guys lying around and chewing on something or other. Minstrel shows seem even more deplorable in that they began as the creation of white people, performing in blackface and with big, woolly wigs. But such shows were also hugely popular with black people, who were soon producing their own versions, in which they, too, corked up and put on fuzzy wigs. We owe minstrelsy a great debt. It was the foremost precursor of vaudeville. The one and then the other were what regular people had by way of variety-show entertainment before TV, and therefore they were the arena in which clogging and jigging and other dances coalesced into what we now call tap dance.


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