- "The Trouble Begins at Eight":Mark Twain, the San Francisco Minstrels, and the Unsettling Legacy of Blackface Minstrelsy
Our old San Francisco Minstrels have made their mark here, most unquestionably. . . . Every night of their lives they play to packed houses—every single seat full and dozens of people standing up. I have good reason to know, because I have been there pretty often, have always paid my way but once, and I had to buy a box the last time I went.1—Mark Twain, New York City, 17 May 1867
Few aspects of Mark Twain's work have disturbed readers more than his love of the blackface minstrel show.2 In our time, the very words "minstrel show" or "blackface" conjure visions of grotesque caricature, dehumanizing images of African American people that evoke shame, embarrassment, and rage. Most people have not seen live minstrel shows; their understanding, then, of what blackface minstrelsy was is constructed mostly by images in film and literature, by limitations on African American performers that still persist today, and by the minstrel-show stereotypes that are still imposed on African Americans in all walks of life. From D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, the first feature-length film, filled with grotesque use of blackface masking and racist stereotyping, to Spike Lee's Bamboozled, a scathing satire that uses minstrelsy to expose the racism in modern American culture and the entertainment industry, the blackface images are fairly consistent, arising from the minstrel shows or, more properly, from what were called the "coon" shows of the 1890s and the early-twentieth century. Grotesque stereotypes from this era depict poor, ignorant characters, wearing outlandish or loud clothing, with deliberately uglified or exaggerated features, exuding sexuality and immorality, full of rhythm and laughter and irrational anger, always the clown, often dangerous (particularly to other blacks and to white women), but impervious to both pain and reason, sensuous characters who wield razors and crave dripping, earthy food, such as watermelon or chickens, preferably stolen. The images are larger than life and less than [End Page 232] human: a denial of the rich variety of emotion, experience and appearance of real people. Moreover, such minstrel show images emerged as dominant during historical times of horrific racial violence and the systematic denial of basic rights to African American people, during times when racially motivated lynching was a public event with little or no repercussions for the perpetrators, when the brutal community murder of a black person was often made into a social event. The fact that Twain chose to associate himself with and to embrace a performance genre that has become the very image of racial derogation is disturbing, and as such, deserves full critical attention.3 "Trouble" puts it mildly.
In 1906, Twain flatly stated that the minstrel show had "degenerated into a variety show" and that what he called the "real negro show [had] been stone dead for thirty years."4 Yet as I have pointed out above, most of the images that are now popularly associated with blackface minstrelsy come precisely from this era and later, which raises the possibility that Twain's understanding of what the "real negro show" was differs from our own understanding of what minstrelsy is.5 For Mark Twain, the minstrel show was defined by particular performers, and both in his Autobiography and in the passage of the 1867 letter that I have used as an epigraph to this essay, Twain cites the same men as exemplary: the San Francisco Minstrels, whose core members and managing partners were Billy Birch, Dave Wambold, and Charley Backus. Twain often saw the troupe perform as a resident company in San Francisco and then later in New York, where they relocated in 1865.6 As the passage from the 1867 Alta California letter above demonstrates, Twain was delighted to find the successful San Francisco Minstrels in New York when he arrived and he attended their shows frequently. The fact that forty years later he still viewed these men as definitive of what he considered to be the "real negro show" makes their performance style and success worthy of sustained investigation.
The San Francisco...