A theatrical poster for Neil O'Brien as a blackface minstrel performer, 1915.
This poster is typical of blackface minstrelsy, in which white (or sometimes black) actors darkened their faces and performed exaggerated variety-show routines, including musical and dance numbers, for comical effect. Blackface minstrelsy developed in the early nineteenth century and continued to influence popular culture during the Jim Crow era that Ellison depicts in Invisible Man. Performances centered on scenes of the plantation South, featuring grotesque caricatures of African American types such as the “Sambo” and the dandy.
This particular image portrays Neil O'Brien (circa 1868-1954), the leader of "Neil O'Brien's Great American Minstrels.” O’Brien, in blackface, sits alongside a railroad track and inspects the large hole in his boot while he scratches his head. The caption at bottom reads "It's a long way to Alabama.” O'Brien began his career in Lew Dockstader's minstrel troupe, became a solo act after 1913, and then founded his own troupe.