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In The Creolization of American Culture, Christopher Smith argues a “creole synthesis” that had been taking place in the Americas since the colonial period ultimately led to a musical style that predated and anticipated the popularity of minstrelsy in the United States. This creole synthesis was a blending of Anglo-Celtic with African American and Afro-Caribbean musical styles. This blending was not unidirectional, but rather led to an exchange that influenced musicians, white and black, rural and urban. Smith credits the emergence [End Page 696] of the creole synthesis to cultural exchanges that occurred via the maritime and riverine environments created across early America as blacks and whites interacted at work and within the various spaces created in coastal cities and river ports that thrived because of the patronage of men who worked onboard ships. Rather than claiming that minstrelsy emerged as whites improperly copied and mocked a style of music and dancing from the plantation South, the first two chapters of this book convincingly argue that minstrel performances were actually representations of an older, popularly accepted form of music, and notwithstanding the inherent racism of minstrel performances, should be acknowledged as an “admiring and respectful replication of an already existing creole performance idiom” (p. 77).
Although the author sets out his methodological approach in the first chapter, readers who are not already familiar with the work of William Sidney Mount have to wonder exactly how the painter fits into this synthesis after the first two chapters as there is very little sense of his biography until chapter three. Despite this, the analysis of Mount’s paintings to explicate the creole synthesis is both fascinating and effective. Rather than treating Mount’s work symbolically as most art historians have done, Smith uses the artist’s paintings and sketches as a means of showing how Mount experienced and understood the musical performances of his day-to-day life. What emerges from this analysis is the sense that the performances that Mount attended living in Long Island in the mid-nineteenth century drew on exactly the type of cross-cultural world that Smith outlines in the first chapters of the book. Moreover, the author is able to examine the paintings Mount produced of African American musicians in such a way that indicates these men were practitioners of this creolized style. As Smith makes clear, blackface minstrelsy was not something that somehow emerged in the antebellum period, but instead represented “a coalescing and commodification of idioms that were already familiar to audiences from the streets and wharves outside the theater doors” (p. 212).
Historians interested in reading this book need to be advised that it is written in the “cultural studies style” of academic writing, meaning [End Page 697] all of the arguments are thoroughly prefaced and often feature intertextual citations using only the last names of the authors of the studies being referenced. There is also plenty of jargon and short, sometimes seemingly random, heading breaks. This is not necessarily a criticism of the book, but for those less familiar with this style of writing, it can be a challenge. However, this book provides a new set of roots for minstrelsy, an intriguing look at popular culture in early America among non-elites, and an innovative method of using multiple disciplines and sources, which in many ways should be a model for historians to think about the past from different angles.
TIMOTHY R. BUCKNER has published several essays on race and slavery in the United States and is co-editor of Fathers, Preachers, Rebels, Men: Black Masculinity in U.S. History and Literature, 1820–1945 (2011). His current research is focused on two book projects: one on the public memory of slavery in Alabama and the other on the career of author David Foster Wallace.