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Burnt Cork

Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy

edited by Stephen Johnson

Publication Year: 2012

Beginning in the 1830s and continuing for more than a century, blackface minstrelsy—stage performances that claimed to represent the culture of black Americans—remained arguably the most popular entertainment in North America. A renewed scholarly interest in this contentious form of entertainment has produced studies treating a range of issues: its contradictory depictions of class, race, and gender; its role in the development of racial stereotyping; and its legacy in humor, dance, and music, and in live performance, film, and television. The style and substance of minstrelsy persist in popular music, tap and hip-hop dance, the language of the standup comic, and everyday rituals of contemporary culture. The blackface makeup all but disappeared for a time, though its influence never diminished—and recently, even the makeup has been making a comeback. This collection of original essays brings together a group of prominent scholars of blackface performance to reflect on this complex and troublesome tradition. Essays consider the early relationship of the blackface performer with American politics and the antislavery movement; the relationship of minstrels to the commonplace compromises of the touring “show” business and to the mechanization of the industrial revolution; the exploration and exploitation of blackface in the mass media, by D. W. Griffith and Spike Lee, in early sound animation, and in reality television; and the recent reappropriation of the form at home and abroad. In addition to the editor, contributors include Dale Cockrell, Catherine Cole, Louis Chude-Sokei, W. T. Lhamon, Alice Maurice, Nicholas Sammond, and Linda Williams.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page, Copyright

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Contents

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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-x

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xii

My thanks to the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, the Cinema Studies Institute, Faculty of Music, Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies, Centre for the Study of the United States, Jackman Humanities Institute, and Connaught Foundation, all at the University of Toronto, as well as that institution’s School of Graduate Studies ...

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Introduction: The Persistence of Blackface and the Minstrel Tradition

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pp. 1-17

Not long ago I was approached by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, where I teach, to be interviewed on a radio talk show regarding the question “Why has there been a resurgence in the use of blackface in contemporary society?” The interview did not take place—more newsworthy events took precedence—but the question remains. ...

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1. Turning around Jim Crow

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pp. 18-50

“If you pass Hepzibah’s cent-shop,” wrote Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne after reading The House of the Seven Gables, “buy me a Jim Crow (fresh) and send it to me by Ned Higgins.”1 In 1851, when Melville asked his friend Hawthorne for a Jim Crow cookie, the phrase, figure, and behavior had a different sense than they do today. ...

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2. Of Soundscapes and Blackface: From Fools to Foster

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pp. 51-72

The song “Jim Crow,” first made famous by Thomas D. Rice in 1830, was a lot of theater and dance, and not much music. One critic observed that it “has a feature that belongs to few songs—it is mostly made up of dancing.”1 Another said of “Jim Crow” that it was “a dramatic song, depending for its success, perhaps more than any play ever written for the stage, ...

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3. Death and the Minstrel: Race, Madness, and Art in the Last (W)Rites of Three Early Blackface Performers

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pp. 73-103

The work of historians of popular culture demands that we make much of little, the more so the further back in time we wish to travel, and the further down we descend in the hierarchy of personal celebrity and generic respectability. For those of us who make this journey, our research is measured in lines of text, not pages, ...

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4. The Uncanny History of Minstrels and Machines, 1835–1923

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pp. 104-132

On or about December 1835, sometime early in the month, though the details remain appropriately mythical and therefore necessarily fuzzy, American popular culture officially began. It may seem obvious that this is merely a restating of Virginia Woolf ’s famous declaration of the change in sensibilities that signals the formal birth of what we call literary or cultural modernism, ...

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5. Surprised by Blackface: D. W. Griffith and One Exciting Night

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pp. 133-163

According to current critical wisdom, D. W. Griffith’s 1922 film One Exciting Night fails to deliver the excitement of its title. Indeed, many critics consider it the legendary filmmaker’s very worst film, playing to all his weaknesses, both racial and aesthetic.1 Not equipped for the tight plotting of mystery or for the light comedy ...

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6. “Gentlemen, Please Be Seated”: Racial Masquerade and Sadomasochism in 1930s Animation

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pp. 164-190

In 1932 Walt Disney Productions released Trader Mickey, a new cartoon short featuring its rapidly rising star, Mickey Mouse. This cartoon followed a fairly standard format for the early sound era: a minimal plot and a centerpiece musical production number highlighted the wonders of the still relatively new technology of sync sound, ...

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7. From New Deal to No Deal: Blackface Minstrelsy, Bamboozled, and Reality Television

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pp. 191-222

Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000) defines itself for viewers from its very first word, spoken in voice-over narration by protagonist Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans): “Satire.” The film goes on to feature a full-blown minstrel show in which the performers—and ultimately the members of the studio audience— black up. ...

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8. American Ghetto Parties and Ghanaian Concert Parties: A Transnational Perspective on Blackface

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pp. 223-258

Ralph Ellison identified the minstrel mask as “an inseparable part of the national iconography,” and he is certainly not alone in seeing minstrelsy as a quintessentially American form.1 How deeply embedded blackface is in our national psyche is perhaps nowhere more evident than the transformation of Jim Crow from a fictional nineteenth-century stage character ...

Notes on Contributors

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pp. 259-260

Index

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pp. 261-266

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613762103
E-ISBN-10: 1613762100
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558499331
Print-ISBN-10: 1558499334

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 90 illus.
Publication Year: 2012

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Subject Headings

  • Minstrel shows -- United States -- History.
  • Blackface entertainers -- United States.
  • Minstrel shows -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • United States -- Race relations -- History.
  • Racism in popular culture -- United States.
  • Whites -- Race identity -- United States.
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