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Performing Arts

Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop

Yuval Taylor, Jake Austen

An exploration and celebration of a controversial tradition that, contrary to popular opinion, is alive and active after more than 150 years.

Reprinted from Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop by Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen. Copyright © 2012. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Chapter 1.

Racial Pixies

How Dave Chappelle Got Bamboozled

by the Black Minstrel Tradition

The black minstrel tradition is a hell of a drug. If taken properly it can relieve tension, produce euphoria, and simulate a sense of freedom for performers and audiences. However, its side effects can include shame, nausea, and short- and long-term cultural memory loss. It has been on the market for over 150 years (despite countless challenges by self-appointed regulators), and over that period there have been very few reported overdoses. That rarity explains why the entertainment world did a double take in 2005 when Dave Chappelle O.D.’d on black minstrelsy.

That was the year that Chappelle, the preeminent comic of the hip-hop generation, stood in a production studio dressed as a “racial pixie,” a tiny minstrel performer who appears on the shoulder of African Americans to encourage them to embrace stereotypes. He delivered a manic, absurd performance, in full blackface, wearing a bellhop’s uniform and brandishing a cane. Dancing to banjo music, grinning and yelling “Hallelujah,” he sent crew members into paroxysms of laughter.

But, as he later told Time magazine, when one staffer, a white man, laughed particularly loudly and long, “it made me uncomfortable. As a matter of fact, that was the last thing I shot before I told myself I gotta take fucking time out after this. Because my head almost exploded.” He later told Oprah Winfrey, “It was the first time I’d ever gotten a laugh I was uncomfortable with.”

Since its 2003 debut on Comedy Central, Chappelle’s Show had been a showcase for outrageous sketch comedy that explored and exploited racism and racial stereotypes. Sketches included “Blind Supremacy,” a 60 Minutes–style report on a reclusive, hate-filled white-supremacist author who, because of his blindness, doesn’t know that he is African American, and “Racial Draft,” a variation of the NBA draft in which executives representing different races negotiate for the rights to claim ownership of multiracial celebrities like Tiger Woods. But Chappelle also parodied more conventional representations of African Americans, from crack addicts to dice players to hip-hop stars, and his parodies often came dangerously close to embracing the stereotypes he was playing with. As the show gained popularity, Chappelle found himself increasingly uncomfortable bringing offensive stereotypes to dramatic life, especially when white fans would quote his characters in black dialect. The “racial pixie” sketch was the tipping point.

Though outrageous, the skit was clearly a multileveled exploration of racism. It was a smart piece that reflected upon minstrelsy’s echoes (Chappelle has his blackface pixie pop up in a clip from an episode of MTV Cribs that showcased the clownish antics of black hip-hop duo the Ying Yang twins, declaring, “Never thought I’d say this, but I’m embarrassed.”). But apparently, for a contemporary African American performer, standing in front of a white audience (even a handful of crew and cast members) is not easily reconciled with performing buffoonish comedy in blackface. Immediately after filming the skit, Chappelle, a Muslim, quit producing the show, which had spun off into the all-time bestselling television DVD, and attempted to perform hajj—the pilgrimage to Mecca (he got only as far as Turkey because he couldn’t get a visa for Saudi Arabia). A short time later Chappelle walked away from production again, disappeared for days, and eventually was found in South Africa, where he had begun his permanent vacation from Chappelle’s Show. Forgoing a $55 million contract was, apparently, a fair price to pay to get away from the minstrel imagery that, even when explored from an informed, satirical perch, proved to be too painful a burden to bear. Taking a cue from Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, the comic decided to destroy his minstrel show before it destroyed him.

The minstrel tradition, as practiced by whites in blackface, was a fundamentally racist undertaking, neutering a race’s identity by limiting it to demeaning stereotypes. But what Chappelle and other contemporary performers draw upon is the more complicated history of black minstrelsy. Since emancipation, black performers have alternately embraced, exploited, subverted, and turned stereotypes inside out, quite often becoming tremendously successful with both black and white audiences in the process. Black crowds enjoyed early black minstrel shows without shame; black blackface vaudeville stars like Bert Williams were heralded as dignified geniuses; and black performers like Mantan Moreland and the comedian-filmmaker Spencer Williams were able to lead dual performing lives, fulfilling cartoonish minstrel-inspired stereotypes for white Hollywood audiences that drew harsh criticism from the black intelligentsia while presenting almost identical performances that felt unproblematic in productions for black audiences. Critics often posit that these performers were forced to indulge in demeaning caricatures or wear blackface. But in fact, they knew exactly what they were doing: they often had alternatives, and had good reasons for choosing to draw from the minstrel tradition.

Minstrelsy presents a carefree life liberated from oppression, responsibilities, and burdens, where one can be as lazy, crazy, and irresponsible as one wants to be. It held and still holds tremendous attractions for performers and audiences. If you dismiss it as simply “demeaning,” you miss half the picture. There are many reasons to be horrified by minstrel material and as many reasons to be attracted to it. The two reactions are equally natural and equally valid.

In the nineteenth century the minstrel show became the most prominent and popular form of American entertainment. Today we instinctively recoil at the sight of performers in the burnt-cork makeup and clownlike greasepaint that turned their skin pitch-black and their lips and eyes into giant cartoon features. But the foundation of American comedy, song, and dance was laid down by white and black minstrel stage legends. For this reason it is absurd to dismiss or bury works because of their minstrel origins. Teen rapper Jibbs had his popular tune “Chain Hang Low” branded as “minstrel-show rap” because it borrowed a melody from the ubiquitous ice-cream-truck theme song “Turkey in the Straw,” originally a minstrel tune, and in 2008, Pomona College halted performances of its alma mater, “Hail, Pomona, Hail,” when students believed it had been originally composed for a blackface review. But if we were to throw out every song originally composed for the minstrel stage, every joke first uttered by painted minstrel lips, every performer who blackened up, every dance step developed for the olio (variety) portion of a minstrel show, our entertainment coffers might seem bare. We would be denied the tremendous contributions countless black artists made to American popular culture, from dance pioneer William “Master Juba” Lane and composer James Bland (whose “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” was Virginia’s state song until its minstrel heritage doomed it to retirement in 1997) to comedy giant Bert Williams and writer Zora Neale Hurston, whose work was steeped in black minstrel traditions. Imagine your childhood had Charles Hicks’s black minstrel troupe not created “Why did the chicken cross the road?” jokes.

But the black minstrel tradition is not relegated to history’s pages. It is found on television every day, in the malapropisms on Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns sitcom and the giant, bejeweled grins flashed in Lil Wayne’s music videos. It went intergalactic with Star Wars’ Jar Jar Binks character, and viral with Internet sensation Antoine Dodson’s histrionic dialect diatribe against an Alabama “bed intruder.” And it’s referenced online and in print when cultural sentinels like Stanley Crouch or Web sites like Bossip tar popular contemporary black performers with the blackface brush.

And it’s not inherently heinous. The black minstrel tradition has provided great entertainment and great art. Black performers have played it shamelessly, signified on it, or attacked it—but they’ve had to deal with it in one way or another. 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. And because minstrelsy hurts—a lot.

Though nineteenth-century white and black minstrel shows (whose history the next chapter describes in detail) are reduced in the collective memory to grinning blackface clowns performing corny comedy or sentimental songs about the South (or “Mammy”), by their very form, with their built-in variety portion, they were showcases for diverse talent. Gifted minstrel-show performers included opera singers like the brilliant Sissieretta Jones, elocutionists, female and male impersonators, magicians, ventriloquists, tightrope walkers, trick skaters, trained French poodles, and oddly attired contortionists billed under names like the Human Corkscrew or the Human Frog.

While black shows also featured performers imitating the dehumanizing stereotypes used by whites in blackface, African Americans were able to distinguish themselves from their pale imitators by bringing humanity to the caricatures and providing coded messages to their brothers and sisters. As an African American theatergoer told a white writer attending a black-written, black-cast play in the early twentieth century, “We get things in the show you couldn’t possibly react to.”

And black audiences have always been there to react.

Nineteenth-century traveling black minstrel troupes and popular “legitimate” theater acts like Williams & Walker usually played to mixed audiences, and twentieth-century tent shows often played to predominantly black or all-black crowds. Black troupes at the turn of the century put on shows for crowds of paying black customers numbering in the thousands. A 1908 review in the Dramatic Mirror declared it an “undisputed fact that the very sinew of support of a colored show comes more than one-half from the ranks of their own people.” A 1926 article in the New York Herald Tribune claims that black-cast theater shows typically ran long because of African American audience members’ applause and demands for encores.

For decades most of these shows featured African American men and women in burnt-cork blackface performing low, buffoonish comedy, which may make it hard for contemporary sensibilities to believe that they entertained and inspired black audiences. Though many black minstrels throughout history performed without makeup, in his black theater study Blacks in Blackface, Henry T. Sampson (an African American nuclear physicist and inventor who in his spare time has become a leading authority on African American entertainment history) demonstrates that blacks in burnt-cork blackface remained popular with black crowds well into the 1930s. The black comedian Pigmeat Markham wore blackface into the 1950s. New Orleans’s Zulu Krewe still parades in blackface every Mardi Gras, the majority of their route in front of a mostly black audience.

Black minstrelsy involves not only stereotypes and caricatures, but comic traditions, linguistics, low humor, verbal dexterity, improvisation, and numerous other elements. But stereotypes are a basic building block of the tradition, and identifying these specific figures is crucial to understanding the art form.

Black male minstrels seem to fall rather loosely into three central types, which were seen in white minstrel shows as well. The coon is the shiftless, uneducated, slow-witted buffoon. The dandy is his northern brother, a free man who thinks he’s far more eloquent and better dressed than he really is. And the trickster is the fly in the buttermilk, the direct descendent of Br’er Rabbit, who’ll play jokes on anyone, black or white—even himself—and damn the consequences. But it’s important to note that actual minstrel personae were rarely so pure—most were a combination of these. For example, most coons had an element of the trickster in them (feigned stupidity and sloth is a trick to lower overseers’ expectations); and most dandies were also coons to a large degree (the northern dandy was often called Zip Coon).

There were other nineteenth-century stereotypes that played little part in minstrel shows but have come to be identified with them nevertheless, usually mistakenly so. Two are worth particular mention.

The Tom is the older black man who has seen hard times. Omnipresent in American popular culture after being immortalized by Harriet Beecher Stowe with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853, he began to appear in minstrel shows shortly thereafter, but only as an adjunct figure rather than a central character. For Uncle Tom was created to be pitied, and minstrel shows centered around laughter.

The buck—Stagolee, Nat, the dangerous black killer—“was relatively insignificant in antebellum days,” as poet Sterling A. Brown wrote in his 1933 study of stereotypes, since “pro-slavery authors were anxious to prove that slavery had been a benefit to the Negro in removing him from savagery to Christianity.” He was even more absent on white minstrel stages (and subsequently the black ones that took cues from their forebears) because the harmless, happy, naturally entertaining Negro whites in blackface and their audiences imagined is contradicted by the intimidating stereotypes of virility, savagery, and power that kept miscegenation laws on the books until 1967. He became a stock figure of Ku Klux Klan literature, and was used to justify countless lynchings, but when he appeared as a blackface character (as in the pro-Klan film The Birth of a Nation), it was as a distant cousin of the minstrel figures, using the tools of minstrelsy to convey a far different message than that of the traditional comedy-variety shows.

However, the Stagolee figure, with his penchant for violence and his powerful sexuality, became integrated into the figure of the coon in the “coon songs” that became extremely popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and this spilled over to representations of the coon on the popular stage as well. Capable of almost infinite variations, the coon is minstrelsy’s primary legacy, with his shucking, grinning, sloth, and mirth—whether he appeared as Sambo, Jim Crow, Zip Coon, or “The Hottest Coon in Dixie.”

The trickster, ubiquitous in folklore, cannot be classified as a minstrel creation. The same can be said for the dandy; black figures in flashy, ornate, status quo–challenging attire in fiction and fact existed long before minstrel shows. In England, where slaves were often considered luxury items, it was not unusual to dress them in foppish attire for novelty’s sake. In literature the figure of the sharply dressed Negro with attitude emerged in the 1760s, notably in the opera The Padlock by Isaac Bickerstaffe, which featured the truth-talking black dandy Mungo Macaroni, whose character soon became a popular costume (for whites) at masquerade balls. Macaroni was later personified by Julius Soubise, black companion to the Duchess of Queensberry. In his powdered wig, silk breeches, and red, diamond-buckled shoes, Soubise became Britain’s first black celebrity.

In addition, many of the earliest descriptions of slaves in America note flashy, unusual attire. When slave owners encouraged blacks to embrace Christianity with Sunday services, they were shocked by the creativity and fashion sense their “property” demonstrated. One plantation owner’s wife breathlessly described her slaves’ church attire as “the most ludicrous combination of incongruities that you can conceive... every color in the rainbow, and the deepest possible shades blended in fierce companionship.”

Some attribute this fashion sense to West African traditions. Art historian Robert Farris Thompson equates “rhythmized textiles,” the bold pattern and color combinations favored by Africans and African Americans, with African music. Certain early African American fashion traditions (including head and body wraps) had obvious motherland ancestry. When given a grander stage, African Americans took these traditions to spectacular extremes in slave festivals like Pinkster, Negro Election Day, and Jonkonnu. There blacks paraded in gold chains, silk stockings, ruffles, silver shoe buckles, and recycled Revolutionary War uniforms ornamented in ways that predicted Michael Jackson’s 1980s attire. And though New Orleans’s tramplike Zulus are an integral part of local culture, the ornate Mardi Gras Indians became international icons because of their breathtaking, peacocklike costumes.

In Slaves to Fashion, scholar Monica L. Miller calls the tradition of black dandyism a “creative, self-defining art form,” adding that “black fashion is a form of signifying, not copying white/mainstream style.” This signifying—tweaking things to subvert their meaning and employing irony to clarify the performer’s distance from them—was demonstrated on the black minstrel stage in ways that often defied the foolish Zip Coon character. The cakewalk was a dance developed as a parody of white balls, and while contemporary eyes may see it as ridiculous and demeaning, it not only functioned as a signifying critique, but became a sensation because of its groundbreaking demonstration of the grace and creativity that are foundations of African American dance. George Walker, the black minstrel era’s most acclaimed dandy, dressed sharp to impress, not to clown, and his cakewalk was seen not as comical or absurd, but as breathtaking. An 1897 review in the African American newspaper the Indianapolis Freeman credited Walker with possessing “incandescent comportment.”

The outrageous attire of minstrel stage dandies seemed to be revived when black stand-up comedians earned mainstream attention in the 1980s on cable TV, and the world marveled at their brightly colored, unusually cut suits. However, similar suits can be seen on contemporary black parishioners, and it would be a cruel leap to equate real-life worshipers to Zip Coon. Thus, despite black minstrelsy’s powerful influence on African American theatrical culture, contemporary African American performers draw their dandiness from too many sources to confidently place that aspect of their performance in the black minstrel tradition.

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