Is black minstrelsy a celebration of noxious stereotypes or an important part of American culture? Or both?
Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-HopPublisher: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Length: 368 pages
Author: Yuval Taylor, Jake Austen
Publication date: 2012-08
They used to make a big deal about black being beautiful back in the day. It was a slogan, a catchphrase, a call to cultural arms. It was a time seized to right historical wrongs, to correct imbalances, to reset the very image of blackness from the degrading effacements of grinning darkies and subservient mammies. It set out to demolish their portrayals of our outer visages, and then repair our perceptions of our inner dignity.
Oh yes, black was indeed beautiful, we all proclaimed in the late '60s, with our Afros reaching skyward. We would no longer acquiesce to being characterized as foolish coons content to sing and dance all day like so many Happy Darkies on Parade, only too eager to curry massa’s favor. We proclaimed ourselves strong black men and righteous black women, and there would be no turning back.
A few years later, black theater artists did indeed turn back – to a time when a lot of that coonishness was in style. The musical revue Bubbling Brown Sugar (1976) revisited a long-neglected corner of black life, its show business tradition of the early 20th century. It saluted the likes of Bert Williams and Duke Ellington, and had plenty of black folks singing and dancing, adorned in bright costumes and big smiles, and having a grand old time struttin’ it across the stage with nary a care in the world.
It was initially criticized as a departure from, if not reality, then at least the prevailing mood of ‘70s black theater, which skewed more towards social topicality and away from flamboyant showing out, lest that ol’ black stereotype of Happy Darkies on Parade be summoned from the allegedly dead. And there may have been a grain or two of truth to that. Look at this scene of folks out for a stroll down a Harlem boulevard, from a production marking the show’s 20th anniversary:
Now, compare it to these clips of black folk doing the popular cakewalk dance back in the actual day:
Troubled by the similarity between a lively number staged for modern audiences and apparently coonish fare from the bad ol’ days? Not to worry, asserted the show’s co-author, playwright and black theater historian Loften Mitchell; Bubbling Brown Sugar wasn’t escapist entertainment:
“I would hope that this play would cause a rethinking in terms of the black community. I would hope that it would have some kind of contagious effect, a chain reaction that would make folks say, ‘look a here, we ain’t all that poor. We may be broke, but we’re not poor.’”
Contagious effect, check. Bubbling Brown Sugar launched a string of hit shows -- Ain’t Misbehavin’, Eubie!, One Mo’ Time, Black Broadway, Sophisticated Ladies -- reclaiming and reframing the legacy of early black show business as something to be not just remembered, but authentically black and proud about. That high-steppin’, big-grinnin’, loud clothes-wearin’ buncha Negroes on stage cuttin’ it up like nobody’s bidness? Such images used to be highly problematic for some blacks. Suddenly, they were getting nominated for Tony Awards.
And there were black folk loving every minute of it, seeing their culture and folklore rendered so lovingly, without the patina of Happy Darkies on Parade complicating their post-Black Is Beautiful entertainment.
All well and good, except that for years, black audiences enjoyed them some Happy Darkies on Parade plenty good without needing the context of a history lesson to feel guiltless about it.
Consider, as Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen do in Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop, the case of Louis Jordan. Jordan’s jump blues hits throughout the ‘40s laid the groundwork for post-war R&B and much of what followed it, which would include rock 'n' roll. Many of them traded in black comic colloquialisms played as broadly as a 78rpm record would allow: “Caldonia”, “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens”, the grammarian’s delight “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” And Jordan, ever the showman, sold ‘em even harder on screen, mugging and dancing for all he was worth in movie cameos and short films (“soundies”) accompanying the songs.
A supposedly sophisticated set of post-Black Is Beautiful eyes might look upon Jordan’s oeuvre and wonder, “What sort of buffoon is this? Did black people really go for stuff like this?” The answers are: a pretty darned smart and talented performer of a buffoon, to be exact; and yes, in spades. True, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single message of defiant racial fist-pumping in any song he ever sang. But that doesn’t mean his music didn’t Uplift the Race.
Jordan sang about black life, in an unmistakably black context, in a manner that appealed to many but had a special resonance for black audiences. At a time when there was scarcely anything the seemingly least bit funny about black life in America, Jordan tapped into it, anyway. At a moment when the most self-righteous about it would have decried all expressions of common black mirth for common black mirth’s sake, Jordan and his band re-invented how that mirth ought to sound for a new age.
Jordan was as big a black star as there was in his day. Years later, he was among the second class of inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with Hank Williams, Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson. A few years after that, his canon would be mined for the proto-jukebox musical Five Guys Named Moe.
Thus, Jordan is considered a major American pop artist. But Jordan cut his show biz teeth with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, one of the most famous troupes of black minstrels. Suffice it to say that they won’t be showing up in a hall of fame or a Broadway production anytime soon.
That’s because, more than a century after its heyday, minstrelsy remains a tripwire of a subject when examining race and entertainment. Briefly, minstrelsy took hold in mid-19th century America, as a variety show with the essential features of white performers trading on common, vicious stereotypes of black people as dim-witted, razor-toting, language-mangling, watermelon-loving ne’er-do-wells, the most notorious being the appallingly shiftless Sambo. To drive the point home, they covered their faces in burnt cork and exaggerated their lips, meaning blatantly to say that this was some sort of black person they were 'realistically' portraying.
Believe it or not, black performers undertook their own form of minstrelsy, stereotypes and all. And they even did it in blackface, even though their faces were already 'black'. In time, both black and white troupes would compete for the crown of authenticity, promoting their performances as detailed, spot-on representations of Negro life. Of course, none of them were.
Black minstrelsy posed an especially troublesome quandary, and still does. Yes, these were gifted performers telling jokes and singing songs on stages ranging from formal theaters to shows under tents in vacant lots. Yes, they entertained audiences everywhere they went. And yes, black minstrelsy is where the first generation of black performers (and a few black entrepreneurs to boot) in American show business can be found.
But the jokes they told! The caricatures they portrayed! The out-and-out coonishness that reigned supreme in a typical minstrel show! Minstrelsy had its critics, who savaged the genre for its detrimental representation of black people. And even though, later black culture scholars have written, there was something of a qualitative difference in the meaning of the same minstrel trope when a black performer did it as opposed to a white one, the fact that any black would stoop to do it all was far more than many, from Frederick Douglass to Richard Wright, could stand.
When minstrelsy began to fade by the '20s, no one much lamented its demise – even as many of its performers and comic conventions showed up elsewhere within pop culture, as Darkest America delineates. And like clockwork, every time its vestiges showed up – in both the radio and TV versions of Amos ‘n’ Andy, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and other examples Taylor and Austin explore – critics were there to decry its offenses against the race, even as other blacks were laughing their asses off in enjoyment. The whole notion of minstrelsy as nothing more than the repository of hurtful images struck such a nerve among black people that the word “minstrel” would officially and finally become shorthand for “backward, ignorant, self-hating Negroes intent on embarrassing the race in full view of white people” (Taylor and Austen don’t quite locate the tipping point, but I suspect it came during the Black-Is-Beautiful era).
By the time gangsta rap arrived in the late ‘80s, its legion of detractors labeled it as modern-day minstrelsy and its artists as Samboes, even though its actual connections to actual minstrel coonery are tenuous at best. The same goes for Tyler Perry’s critics, although at least he’s closer to the long tradition of lowbrow black comedy than Eazy-E ever was. The whole notion of minstrelsy had become so distasteful, Taylor and Austen embed their tongues firmly in cheek by referring to it as the “M-word.”
Thus, the tradition which spawned Jordan (not to mention the troupe which would give us him, Ma Rainey and Rufus Thomas, among other future stars) remains a mystery cloaked in anger and shame, so much so that today, more than a century after minstrelsy’s peak, people light into Pavlovian anger at the very sight of the word.
I’m not so sure that Darkest America, however noble its intent, will do a lot to place black minstrelsy in a more proper context. That will take readers doing a lot of study about all the touchpoints, some predating even the master comedian Bert Williams, that Taylor and Austen pass through (and they spend more time interpreting history than presenting it; people who consider Ice Cube as old-school will likely have little frame of reference for any discourse on who was doing the cakewalk in the 1890s – or even what the cakewalk was)..
More than that, it will require a measure of emotional detachment that, I suspect, most folks won’t bother to muster. While we can study slavery as an aspect of American history that no longer exists (although its after-effects sure do), our mental image of minstrelsy – however accurate it may or may not be – still lingers, and still hurts. It’s a reservoir of uncomfortable cultural memories, of blacks choosing to blacken their skin, playing the fool and, worst of all, having to assert that these performances were akin to documentary realism, all to entertain audiences. It goes completely against the grain of everything we came to believe when we were finally convinced black really was beautiful. Ben Vereen tried to go there in a portrayal of Williams in and out of blackface as part of a gala during Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inauguration, and saw his career all but derailed for the effort.
But coming to grips with the legacy of black minstrelsy merits getting past all that – in large part because its legacy is much of what has passed for black entertainment ever since. Jordan wasn’t the only beloved performer whose career was born in minstrelsy. It's impossible to appreciate Perry’s self-made moguldom (regardless of whether you enjoy his work) without understanding his place in the minstrelsy continuum. It's the source of much that has made us laugh for a long, long time, even if we were cringing at the sight of it.
Besides, black audiences weren’t stupid. They knew, and know, the difference between being laughed with and laughed at. Black minstrelsy, to a large extent, was black folks laughing with each other, even if they traded on some odious stereotypes in the process (and it’s not like black comedy today doesn’t trade on its own set of odious stereotypes). It’s a far different thing from “white minstrelsy”, which never took seriously black art, black life, or black people.
When I reviewed a Bert Williams biography here in 2008 ("Retelling the Story of Black Music: Bert Williams, Godfather of the Black Stage & Studio"), I seemed to like it more than Taylor and Austen do), I found myself going down a rabbit hole populated by black showbiz legends I’d never known about: performer and songwriter Will Marion Cook; bandleader and World War I hero James Reese Europe; opera singer Sissieretta "Black Patti" Jones, and many more. These are people whose stars, like Williams’, rose and fell even before the world knew of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith (yet another minstrelsy alumna). And most of them, if they weren’t themselves veterans of minstrelsy, were keenly aware of the milieu and its vexing contradictions.
Yet theirs was a world of invention and triumph, even if they had to endure second-class status in most respects. They had agency, they had dignity, they had hustle as well as flow. We can and should question their artistic choices, but not their artistry. It’s a shame that decades-old perceptions of what they did and stood for, hardened all the more by historical obscurity, color our ability to see them as people and artists in their proper contexts, both for better and for worse.
There’s one thing I found especially enlightening as I got to know all those Happy Darkies on Parade, as they made people laugh, made the best of bad situations, and made a way for themselves that ended up creating a space for others to make their own, better ways. Even back then, black in all its shades – comic, tragic, noble and cartoonish -- was considered beautiful.