Nov 102012

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Oxford University Press, 1993. Amazon

In tracing the long and crooked path from the reality of slavery to the fantasy of slavery, I’ve passed through blackface, or more generally whites imitating blacks.

Blackface minstrelsy was a very complex phenomenon. To begin with, it originated in the North East of the United States, not the South, and it was first performed by working-class whites, often Irish, who were perceived as only slightly above blacks in the grand scheme of things. Minstrelsy was an insulting parody of blacks, and an appropriation of black music, songs and dialect; it was also an expression of working-class whites’ anxieties about their precarious position in society, their resentment at efforts to free the black southern slave while leaving the white northern “wage slave” in the same dependent state.

Minstrelsy articulated racial difference:

This articulation [of racial difference] took the form of a simultaneous drawing up and crossing of racial boundaries. […] It was cross-racial desire that coupled a nearly insupportable fascination and a self-protective derision with respect to black people and their cultural practices, and that made blackface minstrelsy less a sign of absolute power and control tan of panic, anxiety, terror and pleasure. [Pg.6]

[…] we must now think of, say, the blackface mask as less a repetition of power relations than a signifier for them — a distorted mirror, reflecting displacements and condensations and discontinuities between which and and the social field there exist lags, unevennesses, multiple determinations. [Pg.8]

The burnt cork and greasepaint was a way of putting black s in their place, but it was also a way of taking whites out of theirs, giving them license to express emotions that the newly redefined “white” identity didn’t allow: from macho swagger to feminine yearning for home and family and an agrarian past, at a time when the nation was industrializing and urbanizing, with consequent changes in family structure and gender roles. There’s a long history of people (well, white men) using race or gender crossdressing as “an equivocal emblem of popular resistance”, such as the Boston Tea Party, with men dressed as blacks or “Indians”. (Pg.27) Natalie Davis’ paper “Women on Top” has several examples.

Blackface was just one aspect of  white people borrowing elements of black culture in general. In the 1850s, young white American men wishing to be comical greeted each other with an imitation of “the peculiar chuckle of the sable race.” (pg. 248, n.23)

I’ve often thought that there’s a hidden genre of “blackface in whiteface” entertainment, like Lil’ Abner and, more recently, Jackass, Jersey Shore and the like. It’s basically lower-class Caucasians,  “white trash” to be blunt, who are entertaining because they act in an uninhibited, pure id, bodily way. They are entertaining because they vicariously give people a way to shed the shackles of white bourgeois self-restraint. Elvis Presley and Eminen are just the more recent figures in this tradition, and it’s worth noting that both of them identified as working class, with the same complex mixture of appreciation and appropriation as blackface minstrelsy.

The sentimental side of blackface was where blackface rubbed up against the sentimental movement in American culture, of which Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a leading text.

Like women, blacks were considered creatures of feeling at a time when feeling was paramount in the culture; what fund of emotion the “go-ahead-ative,” aggressive Anglo-Saxon lacked, blacks would surely supply. [pg.32]

And what of the “fairer sex”, if you’ll pardon the expression? In minstrel shows, black female characters (“wenches”) were portrayed by white men in double cross-dressing, both drag and blackface. “Wench” parts were not intended, at least consciously, as sensually appealing; black women were depicted as grotesquely unfeminine, with giant feet, hindquarters and/or mouths, and appetites for food and/or money to match. This was a reflection of social anxieties about changing gender roles and family structure. Industrial wages could make men an ineffectual breadwinner, while wages could give some women a means of self support. White men imagined a woman characterized by excess of everything. The flipside of this was a zone of freedom of gender and sexual norms, both homosocial and homoerotic.

In rationalized societies such as the one coming into being in the antebellum years, the Other is of prime importance in the organization of desire. Whites’ own “innermost relationship with enjoyment,” writes Slavoj Zizek, is expressed in their fascination with the other; it is through this very displacement that desire is constituted. Because one is so ambivalent about and represses one’s own pleasure, one imagines the Other to have stolen it or taken it away, and the “fantasies about the Other’s special, excessive enjoyment” allow that pleasure to return. Whites get satisfaction in supposing the “racial” Other enjoys in ways unavailable to them–through exotic food, strange and noisy music, outlandish bodily exhibitions, or unremitting sexual appetite. And yet at the same time, because the Other personifies their inner divisions, hatred of their own excess of enjoyment necessitates hatred of the Other. [pg.148. See Zizek’s “Eastern Europe’s Republics of Gilead”]

This is the dynamic behind the cuckold fantasy of the black “bull”, and in Orientalist fantasy as well. Sadomasochism is a way of recuperating those ideas disavowed by rationalized society, pulling in bits and pieces of the past and other cultures and arranging them into fantasies.

[Note to self: research Mattie Griffith’s fraudulent 1857 slave narrative, Autobiography of a Female Slave; and Karen Sanchez-Eppler’s “Bodily Bonds” essay.]

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