- Representing African Americans in Transatlantic Abolitionism and Blackface Minstrelsy
Robert Nowatzki's Representing African Americans in Transatlantic Abolitionism and Blackface Minstrelsy examines the significance of one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the nineteenth century in America and abroad, the blackface minstrel show. In this well-written study, Nowatzki expands our understanding of the ways the minstrel show both influenced and was influenced by the rhetoric, ideology, imagery, and "racial attitudes" of abolitionists; literature; and public sentiment in the northern states of America and in Victorian Britain (3). At the beginning of each chapter, Nowatzki unpacks themes that tied together abolitionism and entertainment and that formed the basis of nationalist cultures from the 1830s to the abolition of American slavery.
Nowatzki sees a clear parallel between minstrel shows and the American antislavery movement, where abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe and blackface performers focused on the innate racial and cultural differences between whites and blacks and created staple characters, such as the Zip Coon and Uncle Tom of blackface minstrelsy popularized in the 1840s through 1860s. These shows were clearly different from early shows popular in the 1830s and reflected the influence of abolitionism. The romantic racialism of northern abolitionism contributed to the view that blacks were innate performers, ignorant, docile, and in need of paternalistic whites, and this perspective informed a change in minstrel shows from their early manifestation in the 1830s. Romantic racialism also shaped white responses to black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown. Although informed by similar racial ideology, in some cases blackface minstrel shows were more liberal in their attack against the institution of slavery than were abolitionists, in particular when shows dealt with miscegenation and the rape of female slaves, for example. But with the exception of the blacking up and impersonating of African Americans, abolitionism was analogous to blackface minstrelsy, and Nowatzki's exploration of these strange bedfellows reveals the conflicting racial ideology that informed both.
Across the Atlantic, Nowatzki demonstrates that Victorian England's "reputation as a color-blind abolitionist stronghold" served to establish nationalist superiority and contributed to the false idea in the African American community that England was the promised land (47). Like America, England's past was stained by its participation in the Atlantic slave trade and the nation's colonial investments in the West Indies. Rather [End Page 265] than a distinctly American phenomenon imported to Britain, Nowatzki finds in the "repeated crossings" of minstrelsy a "Blackface Atlantic" (72). Although Nowatzki posits that the resurgence of blackface minstrelsy in the 1840s reflected the growing racism of imperialism and the small black population in Victorian Britain, he does not consider the relationship between England and the thousands of blacks in the West Indies and how this might have shaped minstrelsy. Nowatzki shows how the minstrel's derogatory depictions of American blacks and other images created in England contributed to English travel and fiction writers' continual desire to capture authentic blackness as depicted and constructed by the minstrel show.
Minstrelsy, according to Nowatzki, illustrates the need to expand the traditional image of national literature that defined "American" as proletariat, masculine, and white in the mid-nineteenth century to include African Americans who contributed a uniquely American style of writing in their slave narrative publications. Here Nowatzki examines the manner in which white working-class men in the North mocked the "bourgeois pretensions" of white abolitionists and identified with southern slaves, while at the same time "laughing at them" through the venue of the minstrel show (126).
While Nowatzki synthesizes some of the most important literature on blackface minstrelsy and transatlantic abolitionism—including the works of Eric Lott, Michael Rogin, Paul Gilroy, Robert Toll, David Roediger, Dale Cockrell, and George Rehin—the particular contribution the author hoped to make remains unclear. Specialized scholars will find useful his exhaustive review of the mid-nineteenth-century literature, but readers unfamiliar with the particular travel, fiction, and nonfiction writings of the time might find this section challenging. Nowatzki makes highly...