Was blackface minstrelsy only about caricaturing blacks?
Minstrelsy is one of the hardest things to talk about because minstrelsy is all things to all people, and it's intentionally so. And it's one of the reasons that it's such a popular phenomenon. It need hardly be said that minstrelsy is about racial derision. You can hardly look at the mimicking of African-American manners, mores, maybe music, maybe dance, and see that these people are being cast as somehow less than the people who are portraying them. And that needs always to be forefront in any consideration of this. But at the same time, there's an embrace of that culture that's happening on the stage at the same time. People are having great fun, entertainment. They're embracing a culture that they're seeming to deride at precisely the same time. It's a kind of love and loathing that's happening simultaneously.
What's fascinating about minstrelsy is really just how strange it is, how weird it is at bottom. Here you have a stage form that depends on caricature, yes, but a real desire on the part of white actors and performers to act like, to inhabit the bodies of black people, to act like them, to be like them, to impersonate them. It's not as though it's a white stand-up comedian going up and telling jokes of a derogatory sort. It's actually getting inside the persons of slaves and free blacks in the North, and there are whole sets of complications and contradictions that arise from that simple fact. On the one hand, [there's] the desire to take a kind of racial ridicule to the stage and to make fun, indulge in sport at the expense of black people and made a lot of money at the same time. At one and the same moment, though, you have a real interest, cross-racial interest in what it feels like to be a black person.
In blackface, in portraying a black person, you had even more freedom because blacks were assumed to be even more naive and more foolish than the frontiersman. So that you had these two different things going on. There was a release. It was a sense of attraction to this uninhibited state of being that these characters were depicting. And it was also the ability to laugh at them and feel superior to them because that was considered negative. That was considered -- too wild, too uninhibited basically for what America thought of itself as at that time.
It spoke to the problems of living in a multi-ethnic society, of living in the society that was a slave society at that time. African Americans live both enslaved and free within that society, but everybody else is living in the society, too. It doesn't just affect them. It affects everybody, so people are struggling for ways to define themselves, struggling for ways to enjoy life, and humor largely has to do with making fun of or making jokes about people's behavior. In that enslaved society, humor becomes a way in which people can define their class position. There's a way in which they can mark who is included and who is not. African Americans come to be excluded from certain aspects of American society. And blackface minstrelsy, in a very interesting way, moves back and forth over these lines. It's not just on one side or the other. It's not just done by whites to parody blacks. That is part of it, but it's also done by people of African descent. It's done in ways in which people say, "This is authentic. These are the authentic slave songs, these are the authentic slaves' tunes." It's a way for people to negotiate or to think about or to find humor in an extremely problematic aspect of American society, which they are arguing about in their politics and in government and in other ways. The issue of what to do about having slavery in the society is a key issue in the years in which blackface minstrelsy comes to be important.
In some ways, African-American life and the Southern life has always functioned as a fantasy for Americans in popular culture. Think of Creedence Clearwater Revival, four white boys from El Cerrito, California. They never went "rolling down the river on Proud Mary," and yet that's what they sang about. The South and black life in particular has an appeal to Americans of all races that is fantastical, that is unquestionably on some levels deeply racist, but it also speaks to a longing that we all feel, I believe, for a pre-technological, pre-urban, primal, more essential life, as it were.
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