History

In Defense of Blackface

Racism, envy, and the complicated politics of minstrelsy.

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Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy From Slavery to Hip-Hop, by Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen, W.W. Norton & Co., 2012, $26.95.

If this Halloween is like every Halloween of the last two or so decades, at least one white college student or minor celebrity will arrive at a party wearing dark-brown face paint as part of a costume imitating a famous black person, photos of the incident will emerge on the Internet, and condemnations will rain down from authority figures.

In recent years, Facebook surveillors discovered and publicized photos of six University of Southern Mississippi students who colored their white skin to depict the Huxtable family from The Cosby Show, two Northwestern University students who painted themselves coal-black and dressed as Bob Marley and Serena Williams, Raffi Torres of the Phoenix Coyotes and his wife dressed and darkened as Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and a blonde Dallas Cowboys cheerleader appearing at a costume event as the rapper Lil' Wayne, complete with gold teeth, long black braids, tattoos, and chocolate-brown makeup covering her body.

As with all blackface performers since the civil rights era, charges against the latest range from insensitivity to outright racism. But virtually all critics of blackface agree that, as the Northwestern University president put it, the practice "demeans a segment of our community."

Some recent instances of blackface were obviously and viciously hostile toward African Americans. A photo of a 2001 Halloween party at the University of Mississippi showed a white student dressed as a policeman holding a gun to the head of another, who was wearing blackface and a straw hat while kneeling and picking cotton. A year later, two fraternity brothers at Oklahoma State were photographed wearing Ku Klux Klan robes and holding a noose over the head of another sporting black face paint and a striped prisoner's uniform.

But while blackface is nearly always assumed to be anti-black, the most common charge against contemporary blackface performers is that they are ignorant of its meaning and history—that they don't "know" that it's necessarily bigoted—which suggests that their intentions were not in fact hostile.

In fact, blackface performances are not always unambiguously antagonistic toward African Americans. Several scholars of the phenomenon have argued that blackface has usually been, to some degree, an expression of envy and an unconscious rebellion against what it means to be "white." There is substantial evidence that this was especially true in the first half of the 19th century, when white men first painted their faces with burnt cork and imitated slaves on stage in what were called "minstrel" shows.

Some early blackface minstrel performance was clearly little more than anti-black parody, but many historians see the songs and dances of T.D. Rice, Dan Emmett, Dan Rice (Abraham Lincoln's favorite), and other originators of the genre as expressions of desire for the freedoms they saw in the culture of slaves. "Just as the minstrel stage held out the possibility that whites could be 'black' for awhile but nonetheless white," David Roediger, the leading historian of "whiteness," has written, "it offered the possibilities that, via blackface, preindustrial joys could survive amidst industrial discipline." Similarly, the Smith College scholar W.T. Lhamon argues that slave culture represented liberation to blackface performers and fans, who "unmistakably expressed fondness for black wit and gestures." In early blackface minstrel shows, whites identified with blacks as representations of all the freedoms and pleasures that employers, moral reformers, and churches "were working to suppress."

The latest addition to this revision of our understanding of blackface is Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen's book Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy From Slavery to Hip-Hop. The authors focus on the many, largely unknown, African Americans who performed in blackface from before the Civil War to the middle of the 20th century, but they also rescue white blackface performance from the simplistic moralizing that normally greets it. "If you dismiss [minstrelsy] as simply 'demeaning,'" they write, "you miss half the picture."

Taylor and Austen's book is an encyclopedic record of not only the black performers who coaled their faces but also of the minstrelsy's many contributions to what is now considered respectable popular culture: "If we were to throw out every song originally composed for the minstrel stage, every joke first uttered by painted minstrel lips, every performer who blackened up, every dance step developed for the olio (variety) portion of a minstrel show, our entertainment coffers might seem bare." They show that much of American music, dance, and comedy originated in an art form that was "wildly popular with black audiences" but is now reflexively dismissed as mere racism. For whites, they argue, minstrelsy offered the opportunity to indulge in a "carefree life liberated from oppression, responsibilities, and burdens"; and for blacks it represented freedom as well. "Despite the appearance of minstrelsy as a servile tradition, there were elements of liberation in it from its very beginning, and these were instrumental to its popularity."

The enormous popularity of blackface in the 19th century cannot be explained without understanding that it coincided with a period in American culture in which Puritan values merged with Victorian ideas about work, leisure, sex, and emotional expression. Nineteenth-century children's books, school primers, newspaper editorials, poems, pamphlets, sermons, and political speeches told Americans that work in itself was a virtue, regardless of what one gained from it materially. European visitors frequently commented on what they called the American "disease of work." Typical was a popular textbook of the time, which instructed children that "Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do."

There was no such idea of work as godly in Africa, nor among American slaves. According to the African-American social scientist W.E.B. DuBois, the slave "was not as easily reduced to be the mechanical draft-horse which the northern European laborer became. He was not easily brought to recognize any ethical sanctions in work as such but tended to work as the results pleased him and refused to work or sought to refuse when he did not find the spiritual returns adequate; thus he was easily accused of laziness and driven as a slave when in truth he brought to modern manual labor a renewed valuation of life."

Slave beliefs and practices also offered an alternative to the famously repressive attitudes about sex among Puritans and Victorians. As opposed to white Americans' rigid adherence to lifelong monogamous marriage, most slaves had a far more flexible and forgiving attitude toward sexual and romantic relationships. Slave women who had sex outside marriage were not condemned as whores or "fallen" women, children born out of wedlock were not branded as "bastards," and divorce was not considered a sin.

It should therefore be no surprise that, though they certainly never expressed a wish to be enslaved, the white men who invented blackface performance often sang of a wish to be like slaves. Their songs celebrated the free, joyous, and sensual movements of slave dances—which were condemned by Victorian moralists as barbarous—and the slaves' relaxed attitudes toward love and work.

The two best-known songs of early blackface minstrelsy, Dan Emmett's "Dixie" and T.D. Rice's "Jump Jim Crow," are commonly regarded as anthems of Southern racism. But in their original versions, they were actually laments for being born white. In "Jump Jim Crow," the singer sympathizes, in slave dialect, with those "who happen to be white." It is "dar misfortune, and dey'd spend ebery dollar, if dey only could be gentlemen of color. It almost break my heart to see dem envy me." Emmett's "Dixie" was originally written as the longing of an ex-slave—whom some scholars have suggested represents Emmett himself—for his former life. Though normally regarded as post-Civil War propaganda for the "Lost Cause," "Dixie" was actually written before the war and with intentions that did not serve the interests of those who eventually adopted it. After the war, Confederate veterans' groups declared it the "official song of the Confederacy" and changed the lyrics to "more appropriate words" that made the singer a white soldier pining for his life atop the Old South hierarchy. When Emmett learned of the Confederate appropriation of "Dixie" he declared, "if I had known to what use they were going to put my song, I will be damned if I'd have written it."

Since then, the idea of "blackness"—not necessarily the actual beliefs and practices of real black people—has remained the primary representation of opposition to Puritan and Victorian values. The repressive norms that drove millions of white Americans during the 19th century to seek at least temporary refuge in the fantasy of being black remain powerful today. Belief in the virtue of work has helped drive the annual number of work hours in the U.S. far beyond that of most other industrialized nations. And observers from Europe are regularly stunned by the size and importance of American sexual scandals that wouldn't make the news there.

We will likely never know what motivates contemporary blackface performers. But those who reject the beliefs planted in our culture by Puritans and Victorians might consider the possibility that, like the originators of the practice, they are joining a 200-year, unconscious struggle for freedom.