In 1840, William Henry Lane enraptured audiences with his smooth moves. Showman P.T. Barnum first presented him to the public in blackface, with giant vermillion lips and a woolly wig.
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For Charles Dickens, who saw his act in New York, Lane was the “greatest dancer known,” capable of “snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, spinning about on his toes and heels like nothing but the man’s fingers on the tambourine.”
In fact, Lane was a black man, burnt cork hiding his race. A white audience at the time would have felt insulted if presented with a real black dancer.
By 1844, Lane was so popular he could drop the racist pretense. He appeared with a white troupe before white theatergoers, in the process integrating the American stage.
I spoke with Yuval Taylor, co-author of “Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop,” on the following topics:
1. Minstrel Popularity
2. Racist Stereotypes
3. Black Freedom
4. Minstrel Influence
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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)
Muse highlights include Zinta Lundborg on NYC Weekend and Greg Evans on movies.
To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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