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The New Minstreldom, or Why So Much in Contemporary Black Culture Went Wrong

ISSUE:  Spring 2003

Blame Thomas Dartmouth Rice, if you must, because he is given credit for “corking up” and introducing a song-and-dance act called Jim Crow. The year was 1828, long before “Jim Crow” became associated with laws and customs designed to keep freed slaves and generations of their descendents “in their place” as second-class citizens. True enough, Rice’s character, an old crippled slave, did not appear out of nowhere. Years before, whites had impersonated blacks between acts of plays or during circuses; and blacks sang, with banjo accompaniment, on many a city street. But it was Rice who brought to wide attention the shuffling, “teeth-‘n’ eyes” darkie who would become a staple of the minstrel show.

When I tell my students that I once appeared in a minstrel show, they are (rightly) dumbfounded because this once popular American entertainment is now seen as deeply racist and just plain wrong. You do not have to count yourself among the politically correct to cringe at the prospect of a civic organization in the North or South mounting a contemporary minstrel show, although that is precisely what the filmmaker Spike Lee did in Bamboozled (2000). His film forces viewers to see the world through the mask, the blackened faces, of his cast. The result is meant to be a chilling vision of the racism that continues to separate—and, yes, to also bind—blacks and whites in America.

Nothing so elevated (if that is the right word) attached itself to the minstrel show I was part of as a benighted fifth grader. True enough, our teacher made sure that we adhered to the formula perfected by Edwin P. Christy and his Christy’s Minstrels in the years between 1850 and 1870: our cast sat on chairs in a semicircle, while Mr. Interlocutor (in this case, me) cracked lame jokes with the side men and, during the olio or vaudeville section, I introduced those who would belt out “Camptown Ladies” and other such songs or dance up a storm doing a fifth-grader’s version of the buck-‘n’-wing. For the finale, we passed in review in the traditional “walk around.”

The evening was meant to be good fun, as well as a makeshift lesson in Americana. Nobody—not our teachers or the school board, the students or their parents—gave the production a second thought. No matter that we corked up by smearing our faces with a cork that had been blackened on its bottom (not the more complicated, authentic blacking up that Spike Lee’s film so vividly demonstrates) or that our costuming was less than professional, we nonetheless managed to touch on the minstrel show’s central spirit and its central message—namely, that blacks are contented, funny and, most of all, inferior—not at all like us.

No doubt the fact that there were no black students in our elementary school and, moreover, that blacks in our small southwestern Pennsylvania town (30 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line) were as “invisible” as Ralph Ellison said they were. That Invisible Man was published in 1952, the same year as our minstrel show, is a coincidence I’ve long pondered. Granted, I made my acquaintance with Ellison’s work much later, just as I found myself fully involved in the Civil Rights Movement in my late teens, but in fifth grade I was essentially an innocent. I was handed the role of Mr. Interlocutor for the same reason that, during the school’s Christmas pageant, I was always cast as the Wise Man with the most speaking lines: I was a bright student, exactly the sort who could memorize a longish part and deliver it with panache.

My father, I should mention, was less than pleased about my Wise Man role, but he didn’t give a fig about me corking up for a school minstrel show. He attended neither performance, just as he didn’t care about the fancy knots I learned as a Boy Scout or how I later made the high school varsity football team as an interior lineman. One Yiddish word, narishkeit (foolishness), was sufficient to describe these activities and dozens more that cropped up during my years as a public school student.

But my father’s easy dismissal of my minstrel show experience is. . ., well, too easy. Something eerie, even dangerous, was going on just beneath the trappings of mass entertainment. Whites wore the mask of blackness just as blacks had long ago learned the survival skill of cultivating wide grins and rolling eyes. At bottom, the old-fashioned minstrel show displayed a host of negative stereotypes that were culturally constructed rather than real. On the ladder of bigotry that goes from “some blacks are shiftless and lazy” (no doubt true for some blacks as well as for some whites) to “most blacks are shiftless and lazy” (not true), and then escalates to “all blacks are shiftless and lazy” and makes its final resting place with “only blacks are shiftless and lazy,” the minstrel show helped to reinforce attitudes of an unearned superiority. After all, if only blacks were shiftless and lazy, this meant, a priori, that no whites were shiftless and lazy, no matter how shiftless and lazy they in fact were. Stereotyping reduces human complexity and social truth to ugly lies.

As the age of the minstrel show came to an end in the 1880’s, whites, performing in blackface, could be found on the vaudeville stage, in Broadway shows, and finally on the motion picture screen. Jewish-Americans performers such as Sophie Tucker, Eddy Cantor, and, most prominent of all, Al Jolson, numbered themselves among those who blackened their faces and performed what were then known as “coon songs.” For the sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants, the distance between their condition and that of American blacks did not seem so culturally distant—at least to them. When Jolson got down on bended knee and belted out “Mammy”—in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first “talkie”—his soulful rendition included much that tied it to cantorial music and to his own white Jewish mother. Indeed, the central point of The Jazz Singer argues that the secular son of a traditionally religious cantor could still sing to God, even if it be through the medium of jazz.

As with George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, a tale of black life in Catfish Row, what Jolson popularized was a wholly imagined black person. Many scholars have taken Michael Rogin’s lead, advanced at length in his 1996 study, Blackface, White Noise, that Jewish performers who corked up “washed themselves white.” Thus, playing the black man put Jews squarely inside the melting pot, or that at least is what they hoped it would do. Rogin’s thesis, however, may be too clever by half: Jewish entertainers were, after all, first and foremost, entertainers; and the black mask they donned (sometimes reluctantly) was a way of getting work, just as playing the shuffling darkie was a way for black actors to play very minor characters in major Hollywood films.

During the latter stages of the Civil Rights Movement, such displays of grotesquely comic ineptitude offended large numbers of Americans, both black and white. The stereotypes they conveyed and the attitudes they helped to harden were no longer acceptable, regardless of those who argued that “Amos “n” Andy” was, at bottom, a black version of Jackie Gleason’s enormously popular television series “The Honeymooners.” Eventually, black pressure groups (principally, the NAACP) forced “Amos “n” Andy” off the nation’s television screens, and put a number of talented black actors out of work.

At this point, let me suggest that negative stereotyping (always a tricky matter to define, much less to prove) is not limited to the minstreldom I have thus far been talking about. The new minstreldom also traffics in stereotyping, but one that turns the old minstrel show on its head. I am referring to hip-hop in general, and gangsta rap in particular. In much the same way that the Warner Brothers’ crime films of the 1930’s— Public Enemy, White Heat, Petrified Forest—etched the patter of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart into our collective unconscious, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy became an etiquette book for would-be wise guys, so too does hip-hop create a treasure trove of information about how to dress and act for many black (and white) adolescents. My point is that ganga rappers such as Dogg Pound, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube do not meaningfully represent black life. Instead, they socially construct a world that is little different in kind from that created by the old minstrel show. Far from being the “CNN of the streets,” as it is commonly thought, hip-hop music is a consciously ugly distortion.

No doubt many factors contribute to the lowering of possibility for much of contemporary black culture, but I concentrate on hip-hop because it has become a multimillion industry and because its influence permeates far too much of black culture. I was made vividly aware of this when my department began interviewing candidates for a position in black literature. As is the custom at most small colleges, students were invited to attend “presentations” by each would-be instructor, and then to ask questions. No matter what the candidate talked about, whether it be the arc of black poetry in America, or the novels of Richard Wright, what the students wanted to know is what they thought about rap music. With a possible job on the line, it is hardly surprising that each one made a public statement about how enthusiastic he or she was about rap, sometimes citing its dazzling verbal “takes,” sometimes talking about the form’s musical structures. Not since the Russian show trials has there been an occasion for such abject groveling. Talk about stereotyping! Here were young scholars who had devoted themselves to aspects of black culture worthy of study being forced to declare their affection for music and lyrics that are little better than brain-numbing 1970’s disco. Had one of these candidates said that he or she loved and collected the recordings of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, or Miles Davis, I would been impressed; and if that imaginary person had been honest enough to say that rap music is so much balderdash, I would have cast a positive vote on the spot. But, of course, no candidate did. Indeed, no candidate could. This does not mean, by the way, that our job-seekers were hip-hop buffs (they decidedly weren’t) but simply that they were faced with a student litmus test, and had no choice but to treat the questions put to them as rhetorical rather than real.

An ocean of ink has already been spilled about the ways that many rap tunes denigrate women, homosexuals, the police, or whites in general. As such, there is no need for me to attack what is obvious about rap music’s agenda; but I continue worry about the ways in which this music reinforces separatism and the way it makes no bones about who is authentically black and who is not. In this arithmetic, rappers are the really authentic blacks, not only because they dress the part (ball cap quarter-turned, baggy pants, extra-long sweatshirt, set off by a piece of over-sized jewelry), but also because they brandish firearms, and often use them. Gangsta rappers give every appearance of being highly verbal, in-your-face gang-bangers, and the image has an enormous appeal. Unfortunately, that appeal often translates into black students feeling that good grades are a sure sign of selling out to the white world, just as any measure of middle-class success is immediately suspect. Many black adults, solidly in the middle class and enjoying the American dream, however belatedly it has arrived, know better; but they also know— even if they won’t always say it—that their children are growing up in a world where street life at its meanest is what much of contemporary black culture fixates upon. Those who came up from real urban streets are not as inclined to be so romantic about drug dealing, turf wars, and premature deaths.

Hip-hop, I would argue, is a late flowering of the Black Power movement that announced itself in the late 1960’s, and went on to splinter effectively the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood the political capital that would accrue from seizing the high moral ground. He (rightly) assumed that all people of conscience would support his crusade for equal treatment, and that white bigots would ultimately lose the battle. By contrast, Black Power revolutionaries had bigger fish to fry—nothing less than the overthrow of everything associated with the white “Establishment”— and they went about their business by “corking up”—1960’s style: oversized dark glasses, black berets in some cases, dashikis in others, and always accompanied by games faces, and incendiary rhetoric.

To call them the new minstrels is one way to draw attention to how the new stereotyping worked. Fueled by a con artist’s instinct for tapping into white guilt, the political scene has been dominated by such types for many decades now. The Reverend Jesse Jackson is a case in point, as he goes from one photo-op to another, always spouting cant and collecting unaccounted for dollars. The Reverend Al Sharpton is another, as he talks about the possibility of running for the presidency in 2004. True enough, the new minstrels do not put on oversized shoes and clownish costumes (much less blacken their faces), but they are “clowns” nonetheless. What is saddest about these displays of a continuing problem in black leadership is the way that worthier black politicians are pushed off to the margins. Like the job candidates I described earlier, they have to talk the authentic black talk if they are to have any hope of being elected.

I knew there was something wrong in the way that my grade school minstrel show got cheap laughs from our audience, but I lacked the words and the confidence to speak up. Decades later, I find myself with both, along with the ability to detect old minstrel antics when they are turned on their heads. Others—I think of Michael Myers, a columnist for The New York Post, music-cultural critics as Albert Murray or Stanley Crouch, and the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis— have talked eloquently about integration and their continuing faith in America’s democratic values. Had our college been lucky enough to have had any of these as a job candidate, they would have set our students, black and white, straight about hip-hop. They would have told them, as Marsalis recently informed a college audience, that hip-hop is minstrel music. Indeed, that compared with jazz at its best, hip-hop is barely music at all.

What all of us want is the most vibrant black culture possible, but for most of the period since the late 1960’s what we’ve gotten is a poor limitation of an imitation— namely, a new minstreldom that is no more acceptable than the old one turned out to be.


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