Politics, Mark Twain, and Blackface
Today, we are reposting Sharon McCoy’s piece from several years ago on Mark Twain and blackface minstrelsy. Enjoy.
Originally posted on Humor in America:
Mark Twain caused all kinds of trouble. In fact, he reveled in it.
He famously advertised his lectures with the tag line, “The Trouble Begins at 8,” and was apparently delighted to share that line with his favorite blackface minstrel troupe, the San Francisco Minstrels. Both Twain and the minstrel troupe played around with variations—”The Insurrection Begins . . . ,” “The Orgies Commence . . .,” “The Inspiration will begin to gush . . . ,” “The Trouble Commences . . .”—but both used the more famous version for years without interruption. One thing is sure. The phrase was indelibly associated with both: “trouble” was their trademark.
The San Francisco Minstrels were not what we expect when we think of blackface performance—at least, they weren’t what I expected when I first began researching them—for their popularity was based in part on their political satire. They were satirists who believed that the only possible fodder for a sacred cow was a stick of dynamite, and while they did indeed parody black people, they parodied everyone; they were what John Strasbaugh calls “poly-ethnic offenders” or what Chris Rock terms “equal-opportunity offenders.” And while some of their routines are ugly with racist underpinnings, other routines question these stereotypes as essential categories, challenging ridiculousness, corruption, and pretension wherever they see it. A surprising amount of their material has little direct connection to race at all. Known for end-men Charley Backus’s and Billy Birch’s free-wheeling improvisation on current events, the San Francisco Minstrels attracted nineteenth-century audiences in much the same way that Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert do today: their satiric spin on current events, politics, and entertainment.