Blackface minstrelsy was the most popular form of antebellum entertainment after it began in the 1830s. T.D. Rice, a comedian who was born in New York, was the first person to wear blackface on stage, where he debuted the dance known as "Jump Jim Crow" to a New York City audience in 1832. He claimed to have based his performance on the dance of a crippled slave who Rice saw performing it while traveling through the South. Many slaves had developed a dancing technique of shuffling their feet, because crossing your feet in a dance was considered sinful. But this aspect of African-American culture was distorted by the crippled slave's condition, and further distorted by Rice's extremely exaggerated rendition of it on stage. The term "Jim Crow" would later become synonymous with the system of separate and unequal segregation and discrimination that prevailed in the South for over a century after the Civil War.
In a minstrel performance, four or five white men applied burnt cork or coal to their faces and hands and outlined their mouths with white makeup in order to assume the appearance of distorted, grossly exaggerated caricatures of blacks. They dressed in ragged clothes and happily danced around the stage as "Sambo," the stereotyped carefree plantation slave. Alternatively, they wore formal clothing to depict the "Zip Coon" character, through which they mocked the aspirations of northern free blacks who wanted to attain an education and a civilized demeanor that might demonstrate their racial equality. Armed with instruments such as the banjo, fiddle, bone castanet and tambourine, the performers usually appeared in three parts: a selection of songs to start the show, an "olio" (dramatic structure) involving novelty acts—wench performances (with male performers in drag), speeches, etc.—followed by a skit, which involved dancing or burlesque.
Whites caricatured blacks for fun and profit, and many in the North depended on economic ties with the slave system for their own livelihoods. Yet blackface minstrelsy obscured this financial connection with a system of violence and exploitation by depicting slavery as benign, natural, and timeless. Minstrelsy also arose from a white obsession with the black male body, which was seen as a dangerous sexual entity as well as a source of labor. Additionally, the blackface character served as a vehicle through which northerners could define whiteness, since the question of what it meant to be "white" was increasingly complicated with the influx of Irish and other European ethnic immigrants at mid-century. Minstrelsy provided a means for whites to act out their own ideas of what it meant to be black; it also provided a form of escape for performers who could enjoy a sort of release under the auspices of impersonating a supposedly more "savage and hot-blooded" race.
By 1805, the U.S. slave population had reached 1 million people, and gradual emancipation laws had been passed in all northern states. These laws were designed to phase out slavery over time; they declared that all slaves born on or after a specified date would be emancipated when they reached a certain age (usually in their twenties). All slaves born before the deadline remained in bondage for the rest of their lives. The northern economy was becoming increasingly based on manufacturing, and was not nearly as reliant on slave labor as the South. In both sections of the country, settlement and climate patterns dating back over a century had led to the divergent pattern of economic development, and while northern textile manufacturers remained closely tied to the cotton planted and picked by slaves in the South, the North itself was not directly reliant upon the chattel system. Despite—or perhaps because of—all this, and the fact that less than ten percent of the nation's black population lived outside of the South, northern whites remained fascinated with black people, their language, and their culture.
In its appeal to mass urban culture throughout the Jacksonian age, blackface minstrelsy utilized on-stage sketches to convey powerful messages about race and identity, couched in a form of potent "insult humor" that audiences found very entertaining. Through brief thirty-minute sketches such as "The Hop of Fashion," by Charles T. White, the "natural" state of the races—both socially and economically—was illustrated by depicting traditionally stereotyped minstrel characters and displaying their absurdity in such "inappropriate" circumstances of class and rank as a masquerade ball. These routines were considered comical, but they conveyed underlying notions of racial, ethnic, and sexual inferiority by playing on the notion that Irish immigrants and black people could not function as civilized members of society. Such programs often managed to parody blacks, Irish, and women (all of the actors were male). They catered to the interests and predilections of the primarily middle- and lower-class Jacksonian Democrat audiences by interjecting parodies on class and society. Many of the characters were presented as satirical manifestations of classic Shakespearean figures, with which audiences certainly would have been familiar, since Shakespeare was extremely popular among Americans of all backgrounds in the first half of the nineteenth century.
While blackface minstrelsy appears blatantly offensive and racist today, it was in fact a very complicated phenomenon that enjoyed widespread acceptance—or at least tolerance—during the antebellum period. Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln all went to see minstrel performances. But Douglass did criticize the practice as racist; he attended performances of black minstrels after they began to break into show business in the 1840s (they could do so only if they acquiesced in blackening their skin with the same coal or cork as the white performers). He said that any black man who could appear before a white audience was a sign of some progress, but often complained that such actors were not delivering an authentically black performance. Though his concerns were certainly justifiable, given the white-engineered and manipulated origins of the performance, this led to the controversial notion that there was a single authentic performance that blacks could give. Such complications and controversies remain to this day, in the way that race and sex remain popular subjects in American comedy and mass entertainment, in the impressions of white people that black comedians like Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle have performed, and in the influence of black culture on broader American popular culture.