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Stephen Foster

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Blackface Minstrelsy

How did class issues relate to the race issues?

Dale Cockrell:
Dale Cockrell If you are a working-class American in New York City at the time, you're feeling yourself squeezed politically, economically and socially from the top, but also to some extent from the bottom. And minstrelsy was one of those special kind of inventions that enable you to speak to the oppression that you are feeling from the top and to give yourself a niche in society that was different from those that you hoped to be below you, African-Americans. So simultaneously you can give expression to your identity, and you can also criticize the policies of those that you feel are oppressing you.

The mask of blackface enabled you to have voice and to speak without fear of repression. I mean, masks do that. We put on masks at Halloween, and it gives us a kind of anonymity to go and to do things and to say things that we normally wouldn't. The same thing happens at Mardi Gras. Minstrelsy effectively did that.

Eric Lott:
Eric Lott I think there is a kind of subterranean identification with the desire for indolence at work. There's a real identification with the plantation style of labor which white Northern working men actually come to transform into protest rhetoric of their own. They say, "We're wage slaves. We don't want to be wage slaves." A rhetoric that itself is double in the sense that they'll do anything not to be considered slaves. There is a kind of admonitory kick to the word slavery. On the other hand, they feel like they've been reduced to slavery and so that they are not all that different from slaves on the plantation and there is a kind of, I think, a kind of felt identification of, based on oppression, given these two labor systems: a really kind of booming capitalist industrialism in the North and a slave economy, plantation economy in the South.

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