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Reviews Dale Cockrell. Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. xx + 236. $54.95 (casebound); $17.95 (paperbound ). The usual suspects appear in most recent scholarly accounts of blackface performance. Blackface may represent the white working class's identification with slaveholders or its perception of itself, by contrast to blacks, as part of a unitary "white race." Blackface may be a means to express class-based grievances by relying on the body of those suffering most in nineteenth-century America or a means to express the mingling of desire and repulsion black men elicited in white men. Scholars in the late twentieth century hound these suspects in a hunt for the resolution of one of the mysteries of the American early republic: were there forms of political and personal sympathy and allegiance that crossed the black-white race line that, if used well, might have provided an alternative to the bloody, separatist, and rancorous way citizens of the U.S.A. and its government alike have long dealt with black-white relations? By ending his study in the years when others begin theirs—he ventures only into the 1840s—Dale Cockrell suggests that a vibrant European folk tradition, paralleled by some African American practices, articulated an anti-slavery alternative to anti-black racism. Demons ofDisorder describes the feudal background of early American blackface in the Lord of Misrule festival, carried over into the early modern world as the charivari and functioning in Europe and America as a rite of passage for young men, a means of communal regulation, and an opportunity for expressing grievances to the social elite by means of role inversion . Blackface, Cockrell notes, appeared in such festivals and was not initially a symbol of African heritage but of the "Other" assumed in role inversion (53). Such festivals, Cockrell also notes, have their parallels in African American culture in the "black governor's day" of North America and the John Canoe rituals of the West Indies in which blacks in performance wear whiteface in personification of their Other while whites in John Canoe performance match the whiteface with their own blackface. By rooting blackface in folk theatrics, in which the laborers of society made "life spill over into art," Cockrell can then argue that "derision is intended; but so too is incorporation of the Other. The power of subsequent laughter, a form of truth, joins rather than divides. Performance suggests time and again that early blackface minstrelsy was as much about healing as about wounding, as the ancient theatricals 434 Reviews435 also taught understanding" (60-61). Here Demons ofDesire intersects with some recent scholarly thought on black-white relations in the early republic: a pre-modern standard of unity and sentiment across the race line (even if impossible in a slave society) was replaced by a modern standard of equal rights for black and white (even if similarly impossible in a society marked by poverty and racism). Early blackface, Cockrell argues, was often both abolitionist in proclaiming brotherhood between black men and white and traditionalist in protesting the effects of the modernizing process on the working class. To the obvious comment that blackface was derogatory to African Americans even in relatively early manifestations (an 1 830s broadside, "Zip Coon," depicts a black man with an enormous phallus, uncircumcised , uncovered, and hanging to his kneecaps, though there is a tiny chance that it is not his penis but part of a mock-military uniform he wears as he marches, with a smile on his lips), Cockrell responds that ordinary white folk embrace paradox in at once denigrating and supporting their black compatriots in a way that the white elite cannot because of its fear of disorder and disruption. Again, it's the Lords of Misrule against the Lords of Rule. To the equally obvious argument that by the mid-nineteenth century minstrelsy seems to have been about as disruptive as our Hollywood films, Cockrell responds that after 1840 blackface performance started to exclude the noisy premodern festival traditions , the grievances of the working class, and, he adds, the interests of ordinary white folks. The Virginia Minstrels, for example...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 434-435
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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