Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop

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.

The Greatest Colored Show on Earth

Female stereotypes are harder to enumerate, simply because there were far fewer female characters in the minstrel show. Many minstrel troupes were all-male, with the female parts played by men in drag. (Comic drag and musical female impersonation were common on the American stage, whether minstrel or not. However, many contemporary critics brand any black comic in drag a minstrel.) Two female stereotypes remain associated with minstrelsy. Aunt Jemima, or Mammy, is Uncle Tom’s female equivalent—harmless, happy, and sexless. Topsy, the dancing child, is the carefree “pickaninny.” Like Uncle Tom, these were familiar characters in literature, the stage, and other media, and the degree to which they figured in black minstrelsy is unclear. Minstrel shows traditionally featured a narrative play as the third act, and these caricatures would often be relegated to these melodramas, which were not unique to minstrel shows. In fact, one parallel to traditional minstrel shows were Uncle Tom’s Cabin plays (known as U.T.C.’s), performances of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel that folded a full variety show into loose skeletal interpretations of the story.

These stereotypical caricatures have appeared in pop culture continuously since minstrelsy’s heyday, sometimes intact, but more often in bits and pieces: the wide eyes and surprised mouth signified by the blackface makeup; the huge, carefree, tooth-baring grin; shabby rural rags or absurdly ostentatious urban attire; country dialect or would-be-urban malapropisms; superstitious fears of ghosts and boogeymen; comic razor fights; dice games; watermelon and chicken theft; extreme sloth.

Over the years, African Americans have usually approached these stereotypical characters and their traits in one of three ways. Some embrace them, playing them straight to make folks laugh (or to ingratiate themselves with a white audience), even to the extent of affirming them as part and parcel of their identities. From the earliest black minstrel shows to today’s hip-hop videos and “chitlin circuit” stage plays, this is a charge that keeps black minstrelsy alive as a hot-button issue. Others signify on them. This was Dave Chappelle’s usual approach, and it can be seen in performers as diverse as Ethel Waters, André 3000, and George Clinton (who funked up the minstrel refrain “Feet don’t fail me now”). Still others make war on them with such vehemence that they come alive. As seen in Richard Wright’s attack on Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Stanley Crouch calling Tupac Shakur a “thug minstrel,” and Spike Lee’s unforgettable Bamboozled, black minstrelsy rears its ugly head whenever black critics worry that black artists are reinforcing negative stereotypes.

Whichever approach is taken, the black minstrel image remains inescapable, something that every black performer, critic, and thinker has to reckon with.

Performers adopt personae when they go out on stage. They can be exuberant or cool, clumsy or smooth, shiftless or industrious, cowardly or brave, submissive or angry, embarrassed or proud, gluttonous or abstemious, stupid or smart, devious or honest. Throughout American history whites have had the freedom to choose any of these traits without being accused of anything worse than playing to the crowd. But whenever a black performer chooses a persona featuring several of the traits we’ve named first in this list of opposites, the accusation of minstrelsy tends to follow.

Many of the most popular and revered black performers of the last fifty years—Marian Anderson, Halle Berry, James Brown, Bill Cosby, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur—have mainly embodied the latter positive traits enumerated above. But are these the only ones black entertainers should adopt? Many prominent black cultural commentators—Jesse Jackson, Stanley Crouch, Wynton Marsalis, Spike Lee, Albert Murray, Oprah Winfrey, and several of those on the above list, including Brown, Cosby, and Davis—have publicly denounced black entertainers who choose to embody less positive traits, as have organizations like the NAACP. They all have good reason for doing so, for those negative traits are precisely the ones that whites have used for centuries to create demeaning stereotypes of blacks.

Yet throughout history, some black entertainers have deliberately adopted these negative traits. This is only natural, for those traits, being more subject to ridicule, are more conducive to laughter. It is easier to make your audience happy by acting devious than honest, exuberant than cool, clumsy than smooth.

“The humor of nearly all minorities reveals a tendency toward self-deprecation,” writes Mel Watkins in his definitive history of black American humor, On the Real Side. And certainly this has been a constant theme in black American writing: the self-contempt induced by minority status, by oppression. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about the “double-consciousness” of black Americans in The Souls of Black Folk: “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Ralph Ellison echoed Du Bois when he wrote of the “double vision” of black Americans. And indeed, as Jewish humor also so richly shows, oppressed people have a natural tendency to exaggerate their perceived faults.

Yet the notion of self-deprecation doesn’t necessarily include the adoption of the point of view of the oppressor. The Jewish comic, for example, rarely jokes about the money-grubbing miser or the manipulator of the world’s finances. Black minstrelsy, by contrast, is based precisely on the adoption of the most slanderous fictions that white people have used to characterize black men.

Is this a remainder of the slave mentality, as some argue? Is this simply an example of black people giving white people what they hope and expect? Or is it something more complex? These are the fundamental questions this book is trying to answer.

And perhaps this desire for laughter is at the heart of the problem. In Wright’s review of Their Eyes Were Watching God, he wrote, “Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh.” Du Bois foresaw comments like Wright’s when he wrote, “The more highly trained we become, the less we can laugh at Negro comedy.” Dave Chappelle’s horror at a white man’s laughter echoes Du Bois and Wright. The minstrel tradition was designed to provoke laughter above all, and it has thus tainted that desire in the eyes of many African Americans.

The thriving black minstrel shows of the nineteenth century were designed not only for laughs, but for comfort: their formal structure usually echoed the familiar outline of the traditional minstrel show. But in the twentieth century they took more contemporary forms. Traveling tent shows traversed the rural South; black vaudeville developed the rhythms of minstrel-show end men into a more intimate exchange; proper black revues and narrative plays were developed for small black halls and grand Broadway theaters. And with each development in technology (from cinema to sound recording to television to Internet) black artists continued to practice tried-and-true techniques that were developed under a layer of ebony paint.

One of the best examples of the tradition surviving into the twentieth century and exerting influence on all areas of American popular culture is the lengthy career of the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, a troupe Sampson declared “the best of the minstrel companies owned and managed entirely by blacks.” Pat Chappelle (no relation, to our knowledge, to Dave) opened a vaudeville theater in Tampa, Florida, in 1899 and began assembling a new ensemble to perform in a revue he commissioned entitled A Rabbit’s Foot. In 1900 the show began a monthlong tour, making it up to New York City. Despite the Indianapolis Freeman declaring that “the Foots” transcended the stigma of tent shows, Rabbit’s Foot was a tent show, albeit a high-end one, pulling in $1,000 a week (at 35¢ a ticket, a dime above its competitors’ prices) primarily in the South. The troupe often entertained mixed or all-white crowds but also frequently performed for thousands of rural blacks. They had over forty performers, five custom railway cars (valued at up to $10,000 each), a tricked-out automobile which they paraded through towns before shows, and bragging rights that they had “not one pale face among us—even our advance agents are colored” (though the company would lose that boast after Chappelle’s 1911 death when white carnival man Fred S. Wolcott purchased the troupe).

Though the Rabbit’s Foot Company still performed traditional minstrel comedy and lowbrow musical material like “Phrenologist Coon,” “Cannibal Love,” and “Dis Ain’t de Kind a Grub I Been Gittin’ Down Home,” twentieth-century tent shows combined elements of vaudeville, blues, jazz, the circus (the Rabbit’s Foot Company had an “educated goat which does seventeen tricks”), and sports (by 1905 the company had a baseball team that played a local club in each city while the concert band played classical music to accompany the contest). Several of the greatest black comics of the twentieth century passed through the Foots’ ranks, including Tim Moore (who a half-century later starred in that milestone of minstrelsy, the Amos ’n’ Andy TV show), and the raunchy duo Butterbeans and Susie. But it was the troupe’s legendary blues musicians, artists rarely associated with minstrelsy, that have kept the Rabbit’s Foot name alive despite a century of minstrel-show deniers. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (along with her husband Will “Pa” Rainey) joined in 1906, years before becoming “Mother of the Blues.” Rainey is said to have recruited and mentored a teenage Bessie Smith in 1912. Ida Cox was briefly with the show in 1913. Delta bluesman Big Joe Williams played with the company in the 1920s. And in the 1930s, Brownie McGhee, who became an international star during the blues revival of the 1960s, cut his teeth accompanying the comics and blues shouters in the show.

But the Rabbit’s Foot veteran who did the most to keep the black minstrel tradition alive was far from a traditional bluesman. As a teenager in the mid-twenties, Louis Jordan’s first important gig was joining his father in the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, where he played clarinet, sang, and danced. Jordan would take the wide-eyed clowning, raucous humor, and corny jokes (“Ain’t nobody here but us chickens…”) he learned with the Foots to stage, screen, and recording studios, where his R&B/jump blues music made him a superstar, one of the first Billboard crossover artists, and a pioneer of rock ’n’ roll.

Though the glory days of tent shows and minstrelsy were long behind it, the actual Rabbit’s Foot Company persisted in some form until at least the early 1960s. In 1957 the Chicago Defender ran a photo of a blackface comic routine that it called the Rabbit Foot Minstrels’ most popular act among both white and black southern viewers. The account books of Nashville’s famed Hatch Show Print document the Foots ordering posters until December 1959. And in 1960 photographer Henry Clay Anderson shot fourteen young members posing in front of a truck trailer painted with the circus-style declaration “GREATEST COLORED SHOW ON EARTH!” The company’s legacy lasted far longer, as Rabbit’s Foot alumni continued to perform for decades. Memphis soul legend Rufus Thomas worked as a comic in the show in the 1930s, and took that training into the recording studio, where he made clownish R&B records from the 1940s through the late 1990s, including the 1969 novelty hit “Do the Funky Chicken.” Mary Smith McLain, Bessie Smith’s half-sister, who joined the troupe in the mid-thirties, had a late-in-life revival on the blues circuit in the 1980s as Diamond Teeth Mary (her diamond-studded dentures blazing the trail for Lil Wayne’s hip-hop “grill”). She starred off-Broadway, performed for Reagan, toured internationally, released an album in 1993, and played Tampa clubs until her death in 2000. Outlasting her was Arnold “Gatemouth” Moore, the singer who billed himself as the last surviving Rabbit’s Foot minstrel (though he also spuriously claimed to have been Buckwheat in the Our Gang comedies). Best known for writing songs recorded by B.B. King and others, Moore cut excellent jump blues records in the 1940s, became a Memphis disc jockey in the 1950s, and was a successful preacher. He continued to sing gospel (and occasional blues) until his death at age ninety in 2004, which perhaps closed the century-plus history of the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels.

During the Rabbit Foot’s reign and the decades preceding and following it, instances of African Americans acting like minstrels raised the question of how these performers could enthusiastically participate in demeaning acts of self-representation. There is no definitive answer to this question, and this book does not aim to deproblematize black minstrelsy. The vast majority of viewers and listeners remain uncomfortable with it, with good reason. But reluctance to dig deeper than the usual reaction consigns the entire enterprise of black minstrelsy to the shadows of history.

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. There have been countless fascinating books written about white minstrel shows. There have also been a number of excellent books about African American theater and comedy history that include brilliant research on black minstrel performers. These include the work of the tireless Henry T. Sampson; the exhaustive ragtime research of Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff; the passionate explorations of black humor history and theory by Mel Watkins; Errol Hill and James V. Hatch’s definitive history of African American theater; and even an encyclopedia/partial memoir cowritten by stand-up legend Redd Foxx. However, there has never been a study fully devoted to black minstrelsy and its legacy. And there will never be a book long enough to cover the immenseness of the subject. We don’t expect Darkest America to be the last word on the black minstrel tradition, but rather hope that it will be an eye-opening conversation starter that will fuel discussion and debate among scholars, performers, and fans.

Though there are many challenges to approaching the history and legacy of this thorny subject, one refreshing aspect of this study is that it doesn’t ask the student to choose sides, identify villains, or make declarations of good and evil. Any ire that works its way into Darkest America is reserved for scholars who knowingly truncate quotes, ignore inconvenient data, and rewrite history to make black minstrels of yore fit into contemporarily acceptable molds. Everyone else’s hands are clean. Performers perpetuating stereotypes and pandering to the expectations of white audiences were also helping to keep alive and move forward important African American comic traditions. And these traditions had a purpose. Rather than simply reenacting degrading stereotypes invented by whites, blacks used these stereotypes to momentarily liberate themselves and their audiences from white oppression. While a Stepin Fetchit movie, a Jimmie Walker sitcom, or a Flavor Flav reality show may have earned charges of coonery, they also brought laughter and pride to black viewers who at some level appreciate that these artists demonstrate nuances and rhythms of African American humor that will always be out of the reach of white performers in (literal or proverbial) blackface.

Minstrelsy’s critics are similarly justified, even when their criticisms are flawed. Richard Wright may be wrong for dismissing Zora Neale Hurston’s writing as vapid, but when he called it a “minstrel show,” he was making a valid point. Critics of gangsta rap who may be well aware that their provocative charges of millennial minstrelsy are an ill fit for the noncomical, murder-themed music they abhor have invoked the names of Amos ’n’ Andy and Sambo with good reason—they sincerely thought such efforts were necessary to protect young fans of the music from negative influences.

“Blackface is a very difficult image,” Dave Chappelle told Oprah Winfrey, adding that he was disturbed by how it “got me in touch with my inner coon.” But Chappelle was right to “blacken up” for the racial pixies skit, because it perfectly served his astute, powerful, hilarious examination of the inner conflicts fueled by centuries of hurtful stereotypes. When Chappelle’s Show added tragic, tangible humanity to a minstrel chestnut like a dice-playing routine, took a watermelon skit to an extreme (murderous gunplay instead of petty theft), or histrionically exploited the worst stereotypes imaginable in their African American version of The Real World, Chappelle was appropriately, even admirably, following in the footsteps of black comics who were tweaking, updating, and making minstrel show content their own before the ink was dry on the Emancipation Proclamation.

Yet he was equally right to walk away from the show. It is impossible to find fault when Chappelle explains, “I don’t want black people to be disappointed with me for putting that out.” The black minstrel tradition is an umbilical cord that feeds contemporary performers both the genius and the frustrations of their ancestors. It allows artists and audiences to feel the shameless liberation of laughter, and it undercuts that with a shame born of bearing the weight of generations of racism and oppression. It’s a legacy in which two dissonant instincts attempt to harmonize. Audience members shouldn’t apologize for their joy, but critics shouldn’t hesitate to challenge content they deem harmful. Entertainers are not required to fret about acting a fool, and offended souls shouldn’t stifle their tone when they voice disdain. Regardless of one’s reactions to low, incautious, stereotype-flaunting comedy, everyone can benefit from knowing its history. That history is what Darkest America humbly attempts to survey.

Photo (partial) by TK.

Yuval Taylor, senior editor at Chicago Review Press, is the coauthor of Faking It and the editor of I Was Born a Slave.

Photo (partial) by TK.

Jake Austen is the editor of Roctober magazine. They are both residents of Chicago, Illinois.

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