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Love and Theft in the Carolina Lowcountry
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SCOTT PEEPLES Love and Theft in the Carolina Lowcountry The island had once been home to pirates and runaway slaves, and giant sea turtles that crawled out by moonlight to lay their eggs. I no longer remembered what brought me there. And always the sound of the sea, like an overtone of eerie applause, the clapping of the palms of the palmettos. I was dreaming, slightly intoxicated, and I found myself standing outside the little Catholic church, Stella Maris, "Star of the Sea." The priest stood before me, a beaten, disheveled man with ashes on his robes and the unmistakable aroma of alcohol like an unholy ghost drawing us closer. "These people," he said, waving his arms around at his imaginary flock, "they think love's easy, something nice and tidy that can be bought, that makes them feel good about themselves. Believe me, it's a horrible thing to love. Love is a terribk thing, terrible!" James Tate, "Stella Maris" In 1994 the publication of Eric Lott's Love and Theft initiated a new wave of academic writing on blackface minstrelsy.1 Lott's title distills the conflicting motivations and paradoxical reception to this deeply racist form of entertainment: "Underwritten by envy as well as repulsion , sympathetic identification as well as fear, the minstrel show continually transgressed the color line even as it made possible the formation of a self-consciously white working class" (8). Blackface proved amazingly resilient on the American vaudeville stage and in film through the mid-twentieth century, and the broader dynamic of white love and theft of black music and performance styles has been one of the defining characteristics of late twentieth-century popular music, which might have been what Bob Dylan had in mind when he gave his Arizona Quarterly Volume 60, Number 2, Summer 2004 Copyright © 2004 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1610 34 Scott Peeples 2001 album the same title as Lott's book.2 But at its peak in the 1840s and 1850s, minstrelsy infused virtually all of American popular culture and seemed to many "the most representative national art" (Lott 8). Antebellum blackface performances operated alongside an already longstanding tradition of racial cross-dressing: white Americans "playing Indian" either while engaged in acts of protest—the most famous instance being the Boston Tea Party in 1773—or in fraternal organizations such as the St. Tammany Society and the Improved Order ofRed Men. While there are obvious differences in the histories of these practices, one can observe that like blackface minstrelsy, the "Indian" rituals practiced by white groups, from anti-rent protesters in the eighteenth century to the Boy Scouts in the twentieth, sprang from the need to define "whiteness" in terms of the racial other. Philip Deloria, who has documented the strange history of playing Indian, describes the practice in terms similar to Lott's: "Savage Indians served [white] Americans as oppositional figures against whom one might imagine a civilized national Self. Coded as freedom, however, wild Indianness proved equally attractive, setting up a 'have-the-cake-and-eat-it-too' dialectic of simultaneous desire and repulsion" (3). The work of scholars like Lott and Deloria complements the trend of applying postcolonial theory to American studies. The boundaries of "postcolonial" are obviously subject to debate, but if we define the term broadly, as a way of reading critically representations of people and places formerly colonized or (in the case of American Indians) still colonized , "postcolonial" certainly describes what has become mainstream practice in the study of American culture. In the introduction to her book on Indian ghosts in American literature, Renée Bergland summarizes both the difficulty and necessity of regarding the United States in this light: "On the one hand, America is and always has been a colony ofEurope; on the other, America is an imperial power. But both ofthese facts are somehow shameful in an American context, since American nationhood is built on the denial of colonialism" (13). If, by simultaneously embracing their colonial past and denying their role in perpetuating colonialism, some American sites are more postcolonial than others, I would nominate Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, for a spot near the top of...