Showcasing the art and ritual of the African and African-diaspora religions

Commemorative Kerchief of a Minstrel Show

Catalog Number: I009


Cample Metzger & Jacobson


(framed - visible area measured) 
22" x 22"

558.8 mm x 558.8 mm

Materials: Cloth
Usage: Tourist/Souvenir
Detailed Description of Significance:

Blackface minstrelsy was a style of American popular theater that arose in the 1820s, growing steadily in popularity for the next several decades. Performers in minstrel shows were typically white men—although some were black, especially after the American Civil War—who darkened their faces with makeup and put on racist caricatures of African Americans via song, dance, jokes, speeches, and short plays. Blackface minstrelsy reached Germany in the mid-nineteenth century via imported American publications and later via visiting American theater troupes, especially after the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Variety theaters sprang up in German cities beginning in the 1870s, with different venues catering to working-class and bourgeois clienteles.

The dress and demeanor of the blackface performers featured on this kerchief suggest that it was associated with one of Germany’s upper-class theaters rather than the low-brow venues that specialized in variety shows in the late nineteenth century. The fancy attire of the smiling figures and the presence of both men and women suggest that the show this kerchief commemorates aimed for a middle-class audience of both men and women; such shows were common in the U.S. at the time, where the performers were keen to stress the wholesomeness of their spectacles, especially in comparison to the more rough-and-tumble minstrel performances of decades prior. Yet the brightly colored outfits of three of the four figures on this kerchief also betray the continued use of minstrelsy to ridicule blackness; such “Zip Coon” characters were common in minstrel shows, an urban black dandy whose attempts to pass himself off as “cultured” inevitably lead him to make a fool of himself. In this way, minstrel performers reinforced racist, ideological distinctions between whiteness and blackness by implying that blacks could only imitate whiteness, never match it.

Among German audiences, such racial ambiguities became part of larger confusions brought on by Germany’s rapid urbanization, colonial expansion into Africa, and increasing integration into transnational circuits of trade. These movements formed the backbone of a new mass popular culture in Germany, a culture that took American popular culture as its model. Even as Germany confronted Africans firsthand through colonial conquests in German East Africa, German Southwest Africa, Kamerun, and Togoland, at home they confronted both African American traveling performers and white American performers claiming to be black. Commentators in the 1880s and 1890s noted that Germans did not show the same mania for blackface that Americans did, a fact they blamed on a supposed German tendency to dislike trickery and inauthenticity, as with white minstrels pretending to be black. Instead, contemporary critics of German minstrel shows argued that Germans preferred the real thing: an “authentic” and “primitive” African culture, not one that had been destroyed over decades of enslavement in the Americas. The tropical foliage seen in this kerchief may indeed be one such attempt to establish some sort of “authenticity” for the figures depicted.

Blackface minstrelsy’s popularity in Germany peaked in the 1890s. However, blackface has had a longer life in Germany than in the U.S. Whereas blackface imagery in the U.S. largely died out in the 1960s under the pressures of the American Civil Rights Movement, it continues to manifest in Germany even today.