Thaddeus Russell on Blackface


The latest addition to our evolving 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."

That might sound surprising, but as Thaddeus Russell notes in his review, it's in line with a lot of recent scholarship on the subject. 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, and other originators of the genre as something more: an expression of envy and an unconscious rebellion against what it means to be "white."