Dinah, Put Down Your Horn: Blackface Minstrel Songs Don’t Belong in Music Class
The removal of racist songs from school music programs is long overdue
Music teachers throughout the United States are quietly removing songs like “Oh! Susanna,” “Jimmy Crack Corn,” and “Camptown Races” from their lesson plans. Educators are realizing that these songs (and many others) have racist roots in the tradition of blackface minstrelsy — a tradition with a visual legacy that still haunts college campuses and the yearbook photos of politicians.
While the offensiveness of dressing in blackface is widely acknowledged, the ubiquity of blackface minstrel songs, by comparison, is relatively unknown. Blackface songs can be found throughout the American “folk” repertoire, in the fight songs of certain high schools and universities, and most disturbingly, in children’s music. Through decades of whitewashing in the 20th century, blackface minstrel songs were rebranded into the wholesome family favorites they are known as today, where they remain hidden in plain sight.
Blackface minstrel songs, the racist relic right under our noses, must be recognized for what they are and removed from children’s music programs if we want to move forward toward justice and equity as a society.
Blackface minstrelsy was the most popular form of musical entertainment in America from the 1840s to the early 20th century. The theatrical and musical act consisted of White performers coloring their skin with burned cork and ridiculing African Americans in blatantly racist terms.
Stock characters included “Jim Crow,” the illiterate plantation “darky” whose rubbery, resilient body was resistant to pain, and “Zip Coon,” the dandy who continuously tried and failed to fit into White, middle-class culture. Entertainers caricatured Black musicians by playing banjos — an instrument brought from Africa and adapted by enslaved Africans — and spoke in a caricature of Black dialect. While blackface minstrelsy contained an element of fascination with Black culture, minstrelsy’s popularity and success was driven by the stereotypes it perpetuated of Black Americans as buffoonish, naive, devious, prone to violence, superstitious, and servile.