Terms of Engagement: N - Z

In progress:

The power inherent in the naming of anything is enormous. This is particularly true in the naming of individuals, which is why so many entertainers adopt stage names. Assuming a stage name was a common, but by no means required, practice among the minstrels. Cotton's given name, for instance, already encompassed a host of semantic associations... with whiteness (and blackness), with English origins (and a Puritan heritage), with the plantation systems to grow and harvest cotton, with the transportation systems to move the cotton to markets, and with the textile mills that spun the threads. A Ben Cotton, costumed as a raw recruit or a zouave, could see the manufacturing origin, "Pawtucket," stamped on the brass buttons of his uniform. The simplicity of Cotton's name served hm well with a variety of audiences. It offered a lot of ways to read and remember him.

Word play was a key element of minstrelsy. Words were the centerpiece of the performances. The stump speeches were verbal extravaganzas of misconstrued meaning. The interaction between the middle man and the endmen was a choreographed interplay between the vocabularies and speech of the master/slave relationships. The sketches were an exploration of the language and dialect of immigrant origins and class structures. Minstrelsy's prolific "naming" - verbal and visual - has left a largely unpacked legacy.    



Eric Metcalf