HISTORY

Black People Invented the Banjo. How Did They Become Unsung Heroes?

This society refuses to give Black people their flowers

Allison Wiltz
4 min readFeb 12, 2024

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AI-generated photo of a black woman playing the banjo | created by author using CANVA

While the banjo is often associated with white folk music in Appalachian culture, Black people were the first to create and play this instrument. Starting in the mid-1600s, the banjo was played almost exclusively by enslaved Black people "with West African heritage" in the North American and Caribbean colonies until the 1830s. Similar in appearance to a guitar, the banjo has a gourd-like body, a neck with four strings, three stretching the full length of the banjo, and a shorter thumb string "that stops about halfway up the side of the neck." Initially, white colonial culture characterized the instrument as too "primitive" for White hands. So, the irony isn't lost on the black community that the instrument has become a staple in Appalachian music. How did Black Americans become unsung heroes?

Music and the instruments people played are intricately tied to the cultural practices of that group. In this case, the racist culture of diminishing Black people and their inventions is tied to the history of the banjo. According to Johnny Baier, an executive director of the American Banjo Museum in Bricktown, Oklahoma, "white culture embraced the banjo kind of as their own in the mid-1800s" after the Civil War. "It came at the expense of the black culture, with white performers performing in blackface doing grossly exaggerated performances that really ridiculed the black culture." White artists would regularly paint their faces black and mock Black people's culture by playing the banjo — they did this so much that White audiences developed a fondness for the type of sounds it produced.

These minstrel shows were also accompanied by pushback in the black community, with racism diminishing the popularity of the banjo, contributing to a period of "abandonment." White artists reduced the rhythmic sound of the banjo to mockery, diminishing the contributions and humanity of Black Americans. Their racism had a lasting impact — even today, the sound of the banjo continues to be associated more with white culture rather than black culture. However, pockets of the black community maintained those original cultural ties to the instrument. Banjo players…

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Allison Wiltz

Womanist Scholar bylines @ Momentum, Oprah Daily, ZORA, GEN, EIC of Cultured #WEOC Founder allisonthedailywriter.com https://ko-fi.com/allyfromnola