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  • “So-called black”: Reassessing John Berryman’s Blackface Minstrelsy
  • Peter Maber (bio)

John Berryman’s Decision to have his main character Henry in The Dream Songs perform “sometimes in blackface” came as a shock (Dream vi). Not only did the inclusion of dialect radically unsettle his once conservative literary voice, but here was a liberal intellectual in the 1960s apparently reverting to the crudest racial stereotyping of the past. Here was a character appearing to black up in the minstrel tradition to become “Mr. Bones,” performing minstrelsy skits with his fellow “end man,” and speaking in a dialect that approximated the offensive invention of white racists. Early responses to the poem were mostly so confused that the shock was somewhat mitigated by the general sense of disorientation; as critics began to unpick the Songs’ many-leveled influences, the minstrelsy elements began to be examined in more detail, and uncertainty over how to react to them gave way to the sense of a need to account for them, an urge to explain away that has led to traduction of their actual content and their function. Surveying the whole body of criticism today it becomes clear that little perspective has ever been gained on this problematic mode. There is an urgent need for a reassessment and indeed a reorientation of this perplexing and uncompromising aspect of one of the mid-twentieth century’s most important poems.

Despite their varied interpretations, discussions of The Dream Songs’ blackface are almost invariably framed in terms of an argument about legitimacy. Most critics, seemingly embarrassed by this anachronistic usage—coterminous with the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s—have sought to justify the move. Kathe Davis, despite going further than most in analysing the constitution and function of [End Page 129] the dialect, epitomises the tendency to plead exculpation on Berry-man’s behalf. She concedes that “Berryman’s use of [blackface dialect] may seem questionable if that literary and stage tradition is seen to represent a history of white expropriation,” but insists that “Berryman made it clear that he meant the dialect to express himself as ‘imaginary Negro’ . . . going beyond mere sympathy to an imaginative identification with oppressed peoples” (33–34). The difficulties with these sorts of claims are multiple. Berryman’s intentions may differ from what he actually achieves. Furthermore, the phrasing of blackface dialect’s connotations as a choice needs qualification: whilst its entire history and usage are bound up with competing white impulses—love and theft as Eric Lott has it—its consistent raison d’être, in both minstrel shows and in dialect literature, has always been one of white control. Davis’s final rejoinder is to echo the earliest critics of the Songs, and indeed Berryman’s source Carl Wittke, remarking that “the original Jim Crow was not a white imitation, but a crippled black man” (34).1 From the varying accounts and historical mythologizing of the Jim Crow story, however, it is impossible to speak with any certainty about the origins of the minstrel acts, and in dedicating the second Dream Song to Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice, Berryman makes it clear that such representations of black behavior are viewed through the filter of white performance: the whole question of authenticity lying at the heart of this debate is far from clear-cut.2

Some responses to this mid-twentieth-century poetic incorporation uncannily echo the responses of writers to the antebellum minstrel shows. J. M. Linebarger, for instance, concludes that “Berryman admires Negroes for their creation of a dialect” (86); and William Wasserstrom, one of the first critics to detect the importance of the minstrel elements, nonetheless betrayed the confusion of the early commentators on blackface minstrelsy when he referred to Berryman’s “undisguised importation of Negritude” that is “drawn straight from the heart of misery incarnate” (176).3 Wasserstrom apparently conflates black and blackface, and equates sorrowful expression with black expression.4 This ostensible diagnosis in fact raises so many more questions than it answers: is Negritude something which can be said to be imported; or, rather, as an inherent quality—what has since been termed “the essential black subject” (Hall 28)—is it not in fact...


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pp. 129-149
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