The Real ‘Nigger’ Show

“The real nigger show — the genuine nigger show — the extravagant nigger show.”

— Mark Twain”The game ain’t changed, it just got more fierce.”

— Slim Charles,
The Wire

It was my misfortune to have been reading Joseph Boskin’s
Sambo: the Demise of An American Jester as the events of the past week began to unfold. Boskin’s general thesis is that Sambo, while clearly a tool of a racist society hell bent on denying African-Americans full access American citizenship, had finally met a slow and uneventful death towards the end of the 20th century. When Sambo was originally published in 1986, Boskin was likely unaware of the burgeoning phenomenon known as hip-hop and indeed it would two years still before the imagery of hip-hop would forever change via the debut of Yo MTV Raps. So yeah maybe Sambo did die, but there’s been a resurrection — one worthy of a billion dollar industry — and the opening segment of last week’s Monday Night Football broadcast, the Vibe Awards ceremony that was broadcast the following night and the closing minutes ESPN’s Friday night NBA game between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers were proof that Sambo and the minstrel stage that so powerfully nurtured his existence are still alive and well and whetting the appetites of those desiring the “real nigger show”.

Ironically the week began with eulogies for the late ODB (Russell Jones), who clearly deserved to feted as the last American Sambo. A week later Russell Jones’s life seems less surreal — the opening trailer to what was perhaps the most surreal week in the life of Sambo. As the story goes Sambo can be traced back to European explorers — the cutting edge of European imperialism — trying make sense to the sounds and sights they witnessed while traveling in West Africa. But Sambo really takes shape in the imagination of a developing nation trying to make sense of their “race problem” in the years before and after the Emancipation Proclamation. Sambo receives a legible form when Thomas D. Rice (“Daddy Rice”) begins performing “Jim Crow” in 1828 and becomes the most popular purveyor of blackface minstrelsy.

Boskin notes in his book that the “minstrel show became the most popular fare throughout the country… Shuffling and drawling, crackling and dancing, wisecracking and high-stepping, the white minstrel man welded the image of the black male to material culture, laid the foundations for its entry into the electronic media of the following century, and carried it to audiences on three continents” (75-76). In other words white male performances of blackness — faces donned with burnt cork in an attempt to “represent” the realities of black life and culture — became one of the most popular forms of American entertainment in the 19th and early 20th century. In the absence of “real” contact with African-Americans, the minstrel stage became the site of authentic blackness for many white Americans, so much so that Mark Twain could remark in his autobiography that the minstrel stage was “the real nigger show — the genuine nigger show — the extravagant nigger show”.

Though the minstrel stage was the most popular site for Sambo, the icon could be found in a wide array of locations including postcards, magazines, children’s books (Helen Bannerman’s
Little Black Sambo for instance), advertisements and stereoscopic slides — the precursor to the movie projector and television. Sambo was also presented in a variety of forms including stage performers, artifacts and athletes. According to Boskin, what all of these images shared was the intent by its purveyors to “make the black male into an object of laughter, and, conversely, to force him to devise laughter…to strip him of masculinity, dignity and self-possession.” (14). Boskin adds Sambo as an “illustration of humor as a device of oppression, and one of the most potent in American culture” — an attempt to “render the black male powerless as a potential warrior, as a sexual competitor, as an economic adversary.” (14) The critical point here is though the early minstrel performances were dominated by whites in blackface, the very idea of Sambo created a context in which even black performers were forced to adhere to the conventions of minstrelsy. And of course there were rewards for such performances by blacks — financial and social rewards that far outweighed the reality of being black and actually having to live in a Jim Crow society as opposed to performing “Jim Crow”. This explains why even a light skinned black artist like Bert Williams felt compelled to “cork-up” for white mainstream audiences in the early 20th century and why some black performers continued to cork-up well into the mid-20th century.

Decades after the supposed demise of Sambo, black performers no longer need to “cork-up” in a literal sense, as their very presence on a Disney or Viacom network is meant to convey a sense of black authenticity — “the real nigger show”. Like the minstrel stage of the 19th century, hip-hop is now the “most popular fare”, but Sambo’s presence is now less about making white America laugh (though that still remains a critical component) and more about the
work that Sambo puts in as a broad-based entertainer in the context of the Americanization of global media and commercial culture. Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan — both brilliant and problematic — were both products of the minstrel tradition and the figures who most raised the financial stakes for Sambo. Their black authenticity was conveyed via signature moves — MJ’s Moonwalk and Jordan’s above-the-rim court style. Not so much superhuman as much as they were extraterrestrial — a continued commentary on the distance between “authentic” blackness and white America. The commercial success of Michael Jackson in the 1980s and Michael Jordan in the early 1990s helps pave the way for the mainstreaming of hip-hop culture and its influence on the contemporary minstrel “stage”.

A good example of the continued presence of the contemporary minstrel stage could be found during Tuesday night’s UPN broadcast of the Vibe Awards. While many folk commented on the “fight” that erupted as Dr. Dre was being presented with a lifetime achievement award, more alarming was the granting of the first “video ho” award (formally known as the “sexiest video vixen” award) or Snoop and Pharrell’s performance of “Drop It While’s It’s Hot” which featured the requisite dice rollers and pimps. No doubt Mr. Twain is happy to know that “the real nigger show” still exists, perhaps giving more weight to comedian Paul Mooney’s quip that UPN was the “u pick a nigger” network.

Such minstrelsy was also at play last Monday night when ABC television ran an opening segment to the Monday night football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys. The segment was a brilliantly conceived attempt to cross — promote two of the network’s most highly rated franchises —
Monday Night Football and Desperate Housewives — but products that don’t share the same audience. No doubt for ABC, it was entirely bankable that the interests of Monday Night Football’s largely male audience would be piqued when a nearly nude Nicolette Sheridan showed up on their screen. That Terrell Owens was the object of her affection was both revolutionary and thoughtless (somewhat akin to believing that the majority of white men who watch porn really want to watch black men have sex with white women) — the product of insatiable desires to sell anything at any cost. Given the hoopla over “tittie-gate” at the beginning of the year and the results of the Presidential election earlier this month, it would be naïve to think that the religious right wouldn’t be all over this thing if it was Peyton Manning or Brett Farve that was being seduced by Ms. Sheridan. The reality though is that it was Terrell Owens, who along with Ron Artest, is the poster-child for the “don’t-give-a-fuck” black male athlete. Anyone who suggests that there aren’t clear racist overtones to criticisms of the Owens-Sheridan spot should get themselves a copy of Geoffrey C. Ward’s Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. Somewhere Johnson, who was a champion heavyweight boxer in the early 20th century and who enjoyed flaunting his relationships with white women, is dancing a jig (maybe even Ray Lewis’s jig).

Whereas Johnson was an singular object of disdain for many whites both for his professional skills as a boxer and for his extracurricular activities with white women, the heightened visibility of highly paid black male athletes has helped create an industry of derision — sports talk radio being just one example — and indeed such derision, even hatred, is the price of the ticket for black male athletes who desire to be those highly visible, highly paid black bucks. Not simply the
assets that help increase the coffers of the owners of professional sports teams (and the attendant paraphernalia) , highly paid black athletes – Sambos — are now targets for the legions of over-worked, under-paid, and disaffected white men. In the political economy of black male celebrity, highly paid black male athletes are the “shiny little ball” that diverts attention away from the reality of underemployment, lack of adequate healthcare, and aluminum foil ceilings (thinking about the assistant managerial class at your local fast food restaurant). In the an effort to keep their fandoms happy and paying (this includes home subscription sports packages), owners of professional sports teams and sports commentators (the white gaze — though quite a few minstrels provide such commentary, Misters Steven A. Smith and Stuart Scott) often turn a blind eye to the rhetorical violence that black male athletes face and the threats of real violence that fester beneath the surface, not unlike that which exploded in Detroit last Friday night.

When the NBA’s highly salaried overseer meted out punishment (David Stern’s salary has been rumored to be as high as $20 million) to members of the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons, his message was clear: Sambo you here to perform and part of that performance is to ignore those fans who pay good money to be entertained and who reserve the right to publicly despise you. As such the NBA, Disney, Viacom and the NFL offers little protection for their highly paid minstrels. Such is the case for the fame and fortune that now comes with “the real nigger show”. As Slim Charles so eloquently reminded us during the current season of
The Wire, “The game ain’t changed, it just got more fierce.”

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Mark Anthony Neal is Associate Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Program in African and African-American Studies at Duke University. He is the co-editor (with Murray Forman) of That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader and the author of four books including New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity which will be published in April of 2005.