Lenny Henry heartbreak: How comedian forgave himself for ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’

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Sir Lenny Henry is respected as one of Britain’s finest comedic talents after decades in the entertainment industry. But during a series of heartbreaking confessions while talking to Louis Theroux on his BBC podcast ‘Grounded with’, the TV star admitted he struggled with his past. At the beginning of his career, he was encouraged to join ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ where he performed as an impressionist in the Seventies. He admitted that it took years of therapy and reflection to forgive himself for being a part of the performance group that featured men who donned ‘blackface’ for performances.

Lenny Henry revealed that appearing in the controversial show was a “double-edged sword” despite it helping him to hone his craft as a comedian and support his family. 

His breakthrough into the world of comedy meant “everybody’s shoulders could relax” due to there being less of a financial burden and they “weren’t living on the breadline anymore”.

The star said: “I had to own that and not be ashamed of that because it was a very, very, very positive thing no matter how I was doing it. 

“I was able to help my family so I have to own that and not be ashamed of it. It was a good thing not a terrible thing.”

Lenny explained that his manager thought performing with ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ was a good move as it would allow him to “learn the trade”.

The audience was “not there to see comedy” and so it was thought that despite being “inexperienced” they would “endure”, “allow” and “tolerate” him because he was a “little kid off the television”.

In later life, he realised that being a black male who was part of the show had turned him into a “political football” and at the time added “marquee value” to their act.

Lenny said: “That was my job, marquee value, and also was seen as a funny thing, ‘Hey let’s go see the ‘Minstrel Show’ where there’s a real black guy in it.

“But can you imagine being a black member of that audience? My family came a couple of times but I think they were in shock, there were no black or brown people in the audience ever. 

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“God bless them, they never said anything to my face, because remember I was a kid, and also there was that thing of, ‘This is what they’re telling him he has to do’, so I guess we’ll have to go through this to get to the other end of it.” 

Lenny was part of ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ live performances from 1975 until 1980, which was something he struggled to contend with until recently.

He said: “There’s been much therapy in the last few years and having to figure out how to deal with that.”

It wasn’t until Paul Mooney, the co-writer for US comedian Richard Pryor, “forgave” him during a show that he felt he could move on. 

Lenny said: “We were both talking about African American humour and performing a sort of faux minstrel show in the white clubs.

“Halfway through this thing I knew I had to tell Paul Mooney, someone I really admire, that I was in a ‘Minstrel Show’.

“He said something like, ‘You know what? You had to do what you had to do and look where you are now. 

“‘You need to forgive yourself now and get on with your life’ and from the minute Paul Mooney said that I thought I’m going to accept that.”

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