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  • Paddy Jumps Jim Crow:Irish-Americans and Blackface Minstrelsy
  • Robert Nowatzki (bio)

At the end of the 1820s, a decade that witnessed the first wave of mass immigration of Irish Catholics into the US, two related events occurred that had an enormous impact on each other and on American culture during the mid-nineteenth century.1 The first event was the emergence of blackface stage entertainment, popularized by Thomas Dartmouth Rice's "Jim Crow" song and dance and George Washington Dixon's performance of "Coal Black Rose."2 The second event was the inauguration of Andrew Jackson with his brand of white working-class male democracy that reached out to Irish-American men. Two decades later, another influx of Irish immigrants, those escaping the Great Famine, began arriving a few years [End Page 162] after four white entertainers formed a troupe called the Virginia Minstrels whose initial performance in New York City in early 1843 would set the format for the minstrel show.3 Although the rise of blackface minstrelsy to prominence during the peak periods of Irish Catholic immigration may at first seem to be a mere coincidence, the presence of Irish-Americans left an indelible mark on the development of minstrelsy, which in turn shaped how Irish-Americans saw themselves (as well as their relations with native white Americans and African-Americans) and were seen by other Americans. As minstrel performers, audiences, and characters, Irish-Americans helped to shape the meanings of blackness, whiteness, ethnicity, and American nationalism—all issues that dominated the minstrel stage during the mid-nineteenth century.

This essay argues that the relationship between Irish-Americans and minstrelsy assumed two seemingly contradictory forms, though the differences between them were more of a historical shift than a paradox. At first, minstrelsy was a means for native-born white Americans to perpetuate negative stereotypes of the Irish (along with African-Americans and other ethnic groups). Native white minstrels often ridiculed Irish-Americans as characters, partly because they often saw the Irish as racial Others in some ways similar to African-Americans (the main target of racist minstrel humor), and partly because of the blending of and similarities between African-American and Irish-American cultures. Later, however, Irish-American minstrel performers gradually became more "white" and "American" as a result of denigrating (or at least differentiating themselves from) African-Americans—by performing their Irishness in ways that were less derogatory than the "stage Irishman" stereotype and by asserting their American patriotism. The extent to which Irish-American minstrel performers consciously purchased their whiteness through minstrelsy, and specifically by ridiculing African-Americans, is uncertain; what is important, I [End Page 163] believe, is that white status and "Americanness" were to some extent caused by Irish-American involvement in minstrelsy.4

Throughout this essay I examine minstrel songs and programs as well as essays and newspaper articles dealing with minstrelsy to track how Irish-Americans defined themselves and were defined by native whites. I also briefly analyze two recent novels—Wesley Brown's Darktown Strutters and Peter Quinn's Banished Children of Eve—that depict minstrelsy at length (it is the central focus of Brown's novel and is prominent in Quinn's); portray the New York City Draft Riots; and include Irish-American minstrel performers, some of whom are based on historical figures.5 I argue that both novels depict how the ambiguous status of Irish-Americans in relation to African-Americans and native whites complicates black/ white racial dichotomies. In making connections between Irish-Americans and minstrelsy, the novels dramatize how the meanings of Irishness were contested and were defined by the relations of Irish-Americans with African-Americans and native-born American [End Page 164] whites, and how Irish-American minstrels used the minstrel stage to construct "white" and "American" identities.

The depictions of Irish-Americans and their involvement in blackface minstrelsy reveal their complex situation in American society not only in their relationship to African-Americans and native-born whites but also to the cultural meanings and national origins of minstrelsy itself. The main source for the ridicule of Irish-Americans in American minstrelsy was the stage Irishman of English theater during the nineteenth century, but...


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