Sunday, March 3, 2013

Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy From Slavery to Hip-Hop (review)

Darkest America Black Minstrelsy From Slavery To Hip Hop provides a deeper understanding of the legacy of Black minstrelsy. By revealing the dichotomy of the effects/affects of this rich and heinous tradition, Taylor and Austen offer readers an opportunity to appreciate the legacy of minstrelsy despite their desires to erase its memory. “The black minstrel tradition has provided great entertainment and great art. It’s something that every American or fan of American culture should care about. They should care because that culture wouldn’t exist without minstrelsy” (5). While it’s hard to look beyond the pain to see the purpose, this text allows you to do so without shaming your interest in this history.


Austen and Taylor claim that, “The motivation for writing this book is to explore black minstrelsy’s artists, art, and audience reactions, and the ways the innovations of the minstrel stage have affected the subsequent century of African American performance-performances that have consistently defined American popular culture” (19). Despite the harsh realities of its legacy, Black minstrelsy paved the way for American entertainment. This text proves that the art of Black minstrelsy offered more to the history of American culture than defiling Black’s dignity for white’s amusement.

Stemming from historical and cultural research perspectives Taylor and Austen’s descriptive case study contextualizes the sociocultural structure of the minstrelsy tradition from the 19th century to the 21st century. Taking readers through a timeline of events that locate this tradition during slavery, the end of the reconstruction era and Hip Hop, Darkest America illustrates a visceral picture of the complexities of this art form.

The first chapter entitled Racial Pixies: How Dave Chappelle Got Bamboozled by the Black Minstrel Tradition makes clear that the minstrelsy tradition is a more complex notion than the often reduced racial degradation of the African American culture. It has more than committed a crime against the dignity of the Black American culture, it has also contributed to the legacy of African American art and entertainment. Black minstrelsy was attempting to make its performativity a more authentic version of white minstrelsy in an effort to access agency. However in doing so its response was spilt and while many embraced it, many resisted it and others attempted to redefine it. All in all for as much as it can be interpreted as a set back to the Black American culture its liberation and advantages cannot be denied.

The second chapter entitled Darkest America: How Nineteenth-Century Black Minstrelsy Made Blackface Black describes how Darkest America was one of the more popular forms of Black American entertainment in the late 19th century. This all Black minstrel show centered on the depiction of Negro life in its purest manner. It presented what white minstrelsy could not, the Black experience from the Black perspective. White minstrelsy has quite a different history from Black minstrelsy in that its origins derived from ancient Greece and emerged in the production of Shakespeare plays and was not explicitly race related. However both modes of production share the same essence of parody infused with racial impetus.

The third chapter entitled Of Cannibals And Kings: How New Orleans’s Zulu Krewe Survived One Hundred Years of Blackface details how Blacking up is still a popular practice of today’s New Orleans Mardi Gras carnivals performed by the Zulu Krewe. This New Orleans tradition dates back to the 1850’s imported from Mobile, Alabama. They are very expressive not only in make up but also in costume dressed as cartoon cannibals, “it was threating… And it was in that comical threat that the Zulus found longevity” (90). More importantly than their attire and parody was their community identity. While they were remembered fondly by some, “the Zulus offered blacks a chance to satirize white society” others criticized their productions, “this caricature does not represent us. Rather, it represents a warped picture against us” (93-94). Whether belittling or liberating the Zulus performances were meant for entertainment and pleasure.

The fourth chapter entitled Nobody: How Bert Williams Dignified Blackface offers an account of how comedian Bert Williams as Ralph Ellison would say, slipped the yoke and changed the joke by presenting minstrelsy with sorrow more than humor. In this way he revolutionized the art of minstrelsy in the 19th century. Bert Williams capitalized on making the Negro likeable and causing his audience to empathize with his performance. Beyond his comedic talent commonly depicting the trickster, Williams was a triplet threat, starring in, “Broadway’s first all-black musical, In Dahomey” and recording his signature song Nobody (113-114). Williams had this to say about his style of minstrelsy, “when we picture the negro on stage, we think of him singing, laughing and cutting up. That seems to be his nature. But has it ever occurred to you that under his mask of smiles and this cloak of capers there is hidden tragedy” (119)? Make no mistake Williams is not to be pitied, for his methods afforded him agency and a reputable legacy.

The fifth chapter entitled I’se Regusted: How Stepin Fetchit, Amos, Andy, and Company Brought Black Minstrelsy to the Twentieth-Century Screen talks about how Lincoln Perry better know as Stepin Fetchit made his style of minstrelsy legendary as, “Hollywood’s first black superstar” (135). Along with Lincoln Perry, acts such as Amos ‘n’ Andy made the minstrelsy tradition notorious in the 20th century. “A national sensation that shaped the future of American entertainment. It is credited as the first sitcom, the first original serial for radio, the first soap opera, and a pioneer in the medium for its use of recurring characters, storytelling techniques, and syndication” (146). However the success of Amos ‘n’ Andy waned due to the controversy of its content. Bill Cosby agreed that the show was funny, “but we don’t want the white people laughing at it” (163).

The sixth chapter entitled DYN-O-MITE: How Cosby Blew Up Black Minstrelsy, and J.J Put It Back Together details how the decline of the Amos ‘n’ Andy show caused the decline of all Black casts for the, “subsequent dozen television seasons” (165).  But with the introduction of TV’s Super Negro, all Black casts were soon to make a come back. Cosby maintained the ability to change the view of Black entertainment, by focusing on broadly appealing storytelling and challenging white expectations (173). Cosby proclaimed, “my way is to show white people that Negroes are human beings with the same aspirations and abilities that whites have” (174). Unfortunately Flip Wilson, J.J. a.ka. kid Dy-no-mite and Flava Flav did little to maintain Cosby’s efforts to portray only Black pride on TV.

The seventh chapter entitled That’s Why Darkies Were Born: How Black Popular Singers Kept Minstrelsy’s Musical Legacy Alive talks about how the popularity of minstrelsy music lived throughout the early 1900’s and by 1920 the genre had more or less disappeared (203). It exposed and defied racism in the subtleties of its signifying by performing racist material with a sly playfulness (217). However with the dawning of the civil rights movement, “happy darky material was no longer acceptable; black pop signers wanted to sing about what blues singers had sung about: real life” (221-222). And from 1960 to 1980 any reminisce of minstrel music was scantly visible.

The eighth chapter entitled Eazy Duz It: How Black Minstrelsy Bum-Rushed Hip Hop describes how Hip Hop has become the latest target for, “the inflammatory contemporary usage of the M-word” because of its satirical demonstration of what the Black American culture seemingly represents. It appeals to the masses by doing what’s true to each artist’s own art form and, “audiences eat it up when rappers boldly present low lurid, taboo, criminal, and stereotypical facets of black culture” (225-226). The problem with the M-word is how its usage, “seems to draw on only certain aspects of the black minstrel tradition: lowbrow African American performances of stereotypes for an audience that includes whites” (237). Under the scope of the white gaze any display of behaviors by Blacks that can’t be taken seriously are subject to cooning and buffoonery.

The ninth chapter entitled We Just Love To Dramatize: How Zora Neale Hurston Let Her Black Minstrel Roots Show talks about how “Playing to white folks was one of her literary aims from the very beginning of her career. In Hurston’s view, ‘making the white folks laugh’ is an act of liberation” (264-265). Hurston’s contemporaries consistently ridiculed her for her shoddy techniques and they believed her success was shameful. “Her conception of black identity and therefore, of black literature depended in part on the intersection between the black minstrel and the black folk tradition-in other words, the use of black folklore to make white folks laugh. And she never apologized for it” (280).

The tenth chapter entitled New Millennium Minstrel Show: How Spike Lee and Tyler Perry Brought the Black Minstrelsy Debate to the Twenty-First Century illustrates how Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled attempts to reprimand the persistence of minstrelsy in the 21st century. The point of the story is to prove, “the network does not want to see Negroes on television unless they are buffoons” (288). However it seems the message of the film proves that the seduction of success ultimately prevails. While Lee’s film sought to signify on racial stereotypes, Tyler Perry’s plays/films revel in the use of black folklore to make mixed audiences laugh. Perry argues, “Why are black people complaining about what other comedians are doing? It’s a comedic moment, people just need to chill, let that shit go, man” (299). Should it matter what anyone else thinks if one is doing what makes him or her happy and it’s legally affording them a lifestyle they’ve become accustomed? I guess it all depends on how much the “Other’s” gaze matters to you.

Taylor and Austen claim, “this book does not aim to deproblematize black minstrelsy,” but after a close reading of the text it’s seemingly undeniable that they have at least taken a stab at doing so. While it has been acknowledged that Black minstrelsy has caused as much sorrow as it has laughter, its legacy proves to be invaluable to the American culture. “…African American minstrels were operating on a different plane. They transmogrified white imitations of blackness, they brought in their own cultural traditions, and they used the forum and form to practice entertainment innovations that still powerfully resonate” (306).

This text makes clear that we can be and need to be in a constant dialogue about this subject matter because it’s not going away. More importantly it challenges the notion that the presence of Black minstrelsy needs to be expunged from the records of American culture. This text does more than highlight the effects/affects of this tradition it urges the reader to reconsider its approach to interrogating this art form.

Black minstrelsy enthusiasts will recognize that many of the historiographies recorded in this text are similar to those of, Eric Lott’s Love And Theft Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Stephen Johnson’s Burnt Cork Traditions And Legacies Of Blackface Minstrelsy and W.T. Lhamon Jr.’s Raising Cain Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. However Taylor and Austen’s work does not reflect that of the scholarly texts mentioned above, yet their journalist perspective still deserves a place in the canon. By exploring the good, bad and ugly their work exposes the beauty of innovation and agency of people determined to thrive against all odds. This book celebrates the unyielding pulse of an American tradition marked by the inequities of its legacy.

Why is Black minstrelsy persistent in the American culture today and if this tradition has made a viable contribution to the entertainment industry why is it consistently demonized more than praised; what is the problem of 21st century minstrelsy and how should it be resolved; what’s the shame in performing for laughs and who determines when comedy has crossed the line; and who decides what art is? I suppose these answers will be interrogated further in subsequent investigations of this art form. My ultimate concern is: there may never be a viable alternative to this minstrel performativity that will be collectively embraced and self-hate in the Black community will endure as a result.

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