10/19/2017 Staff Writer

Autumn Research Fair: How 19th Century White Performers Wearing Blackface Shape Perceptions Today

Digging deep into library archives and university collections, Franklin & Marshall College junior Jael Lewis spent part of her summer immersed in the world of entertainment in antebellum Philadelphia.

She pored over music scores, read accounts of long-ago performances, and cataloged the chronology of every single performance of minstrel-related work she could find. What she discovered, she says, “was both troubling and enlightening.”

  • “I aimed to gain a deeper understanding of the mixture of genres of dance and minstrelry,” Lewis says. “I aimed to gain a deeper understanding of the mixture of genres of dance and minstrelry,” Lewis says. Image Credit: Deb Grove

In the 19th-century popular culture of white America, minstrelry was especially common. White performers wearing blackface fed into the negative, mocking stereotypes that “continue to shape perceptions today,” Lewis said.

“The history of performance of ‘blackness’ has influenced how black people have been perceived and disenfranchised,” she said.

Lewis undertook her research as a Hackman Scholar, mentored by Lynn Brooks, the Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of Humanities and Dance. Brooks has for years researched the cultural influence of ballet in early America.

Lewis built her summer study upon Brooks’ earlier research, examining the sometime surprising interface between blackface minstrel performances and “ballet blanc,” the traditional European ballet also of the 19th century. “Blackface and Blanc on Stage in Antebellum Philadelphia” is the result.

“I aimed to gain a deeper understanding of the mixture of genres of dance and minstrelry,” Lewis said. “The emergence of romantic ballet blanc was happening at the same time as black minstrelry, by both domestic and international performers.”

A double dance and Africana studies major, Lewis, of Rockaway Beach, N.Y., said her fields of study “gave me that balance, in their own respective rights,” to examine how the two performance genres sometimes intermingled as well as the extent of their cultural reach. 

Lewis unearthed documents of her research at the Philadelphia Free Library, in the archives of three major 19th-century Philadelphia theaters (Arch Street, Walnut Street and Chestnut Street theaters), as well as in the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University. 

The discovery work involved looking through hundreds and hundreds of piles of sheet music cover art, “the imagery was kind of a grotesque representation” of how the white culture viewed black culture, she said.

As part of her research project, Lewis designed a walking tour of relevant historical sites in Philadelphia. Many of the sites no longer exist, but she said they are important to the history of minstrelry performance in the city, and to Philadelphia’s free black community in that era.

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