The post-civil war minstrel era in America at the turn of the 20th century was the beginning of an era of tremendous cultural change that was reflected in many forms of entertainment. The origins and usage of words, nursery rhymes, literature, and songs from the era are unacknowledged and forgotten to history today, but the racist roots of the era are with us as artifacts embedded in our culture. The overtly racist cultural signifiers of the turn of the century carry over to the present day in a more covert manner.
The Cakewalk dance became the central feature of this exhibit. The cakewalk was a plantation era dance that was originally created by enslaved people. It was popularized by black minstrel performers in the late ‘1900s in the USA. The dance spread to France and the UK. The composer Claude Debussy was a young man during the cakewalk era in Paris and he composed several songs for a six-music suite called “The Children’s Corner”, including a piece titled “Gollywog’s Cakewalk”. The Gollywog (also known as the Golliwog/Golly Doll), another subject of my research, is a cloth doll based on minstrel blackface performers that became the subject of children’s books. Research into the Gollywog books led to the children’s rhyme “Ten Little Niggers” and to minstrel era songs “Nigger Loves a Watermelon”, sung to the tune we know as the “Ice Cream Truck Song” and “Ten Little Indians” which describes the little Indians becoming “dead drunk”, falling out of a canoe, and shooting one another. The chorus became a counting song for little children.
With this project, I hope to bring this history into the present awareness and to counteract some of the damage being done by historical revisionism and erasure.