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  • Burnt Cork: Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy ed. by Stephen Johnson
  • Brynn Wein Shiovitz
Burnt Cork: Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy edited by Stephen Johnson. 2012. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press. 304 pages, 90 illustrations. $28.95 paper.

In his new anthology, Burnt Cork: Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy, Stephen Johnson weaves together eight essays that comment on the [End Page 131] historic and contemporary manifestations of blackface minstrelsy. Although each essay offers a unique authorial voice, the collection revolves around shared themes: Jim Crow's symbolism, black/white relations, Eric Lott's ideas regarding minstrelsy and the working class, and, of course, performance. Smaller thematic clusters converge around essays that speak to live performance or around those addressing film, television, and animation. Reading cover to cover reveals Johnson's careful editing. He strategically places Louis Chude-Sokei's essay, "The Uncanny History of Minstrels and Machines, 1835-1923," in the center of the text, providing a smooth transition between the essays concerned with minstrelsy's premodern manifestations, in historical documents and performances, and its more contemporary iterations, found on film and screen. Chude-Sokei's essay mirrors the text as a whole: by drawing attention to a single performance in which an ambivalent minstrel figure is presented alongside an automaton, he shows how the juxtaposition of such contiguous "objects" and desires makes it possible for humans to understand change within a climate of impending modernity. Transition and ambivalence serve each author's argument to some degree, speaking to the immanence and necessity of these two traits to the whole black-face tradition.

Each author picks up on transitional moments in history, either when a new means of portraying blackness enters the stage or when two opposing perceptions/caricatures share the stage. W. T. Lhamon presents this opposition via the relationship between integration and separation produced by years of conflicting "Jim Crow" lore. Through cartoons, songs, plays, novels, and reviews, America had built a system of imagined referents for the Jim Crow figure, the majority of which—since T. D. Rice—have been negative. Dave Cockrell locates this tension in a single performance, a moment when, he claims, black-face changes from the presentational to the representational. Stephen Johnson examines the "exceptional normal" within the lives and documents of three men. Taking a cue from Eric Lott's Love and Theft (2003), Johnson locates the simultaneous push and pull toward the grotesquery and beauty of these men's work. For Chude-Sokei, the juxtaposition and re-labeling of human and machine mark the birth of modernity. He claims the presentation of Joice Heth as machine rather than human marks a necessary process of commodification in the coming of the machine age. Her simultaneous symbolic relationship to Africa and technology—the primitive and the modern—mitigates the pressures of change; she legitimizes the new by resembling the old. Moments such as these serve Johnson's primary goal of interrogating minstrelsy's sneaky and subversive nature and questioning: "Did black-face ever go away"? (2). Authors pick up not only on such historical transitions, but as Johnson references in his introduction, a large resurgence in the use of blackface today. Thus, Chude-Sokei's essay not only brings minstrelsy into dialogue with modernity from a theoretical vantage point, but insinuates, as Johnson does, that minstrelsy lives on. Several of the authors—including Johnson, who outlines minstrelsy's manifestations in the media, linking it to interactive videos on YouTube—bring a contemporary situation to bear on his/her historical analysis.

Lhamon's opening essay, for example, concludes with an analysis of Obama's "post-raciality" campaign. This essay marks the next phase in Lhamon's long line of work on the lore of blackface and Jim Crow (Lhamon 1998, 2003), but makes a much bolder statement at a time when, nationally, much is at stake politically. Lhamon deconstructs the present day meaning attached to Jim Crow, tracing it back to the white minstrel T. D. Rice and his integrationist and abolitionist intent. The meanings amassed by the Jim Crow figure through time—its inverted symbolism—"bind," "confirm," and "channel" America's correspondences (24). Such a fetishizing of...