- Burnt Cork: Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy ed. by Stephen Johnson
By now anyone familiar with the study of blackface minstrelsy knows of the form’s contradictory energies. White men in the nineteenth century blacked up (usually with burnt cork) and took to the stage where they mocked African Americans, commodifying black life while seeding American culture with stereotypes that blacks still face today. At the same time, however, whites in blackface were subversive and proto bohemian; they enacted a crossracial alliance and challenged the powers that be, working against the racism that structured a nation slow to honor its promise of democracy. Stephen Johnson’s edited collection, Burnt Cork: Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy, consolidates around this bifurcation, weighing the segregationist and integrative, racist and radical impulses of minstrelsy. It also hinges on a question posed in the Introduction: “Did ‘blackface’ ever go away?” (2). This is an old question, but the volume explores it, for the most part, in new and innovative ways, demonstrating the relevance of minstrelsy studies for the twenty-first century. [End Page 784]
The collection opens with “Turning around Jim Crow” by W. T. Lhamon, whose extensive writing on blackface has foregrounded its power of social transformation through racial mutuality. Impressionistic in style, this chapter whirls around and is bonded together by the biracial Jim Crow, who holds center stage, recedes a little, but never disappears—just as he never disappears from American culture. With shrewd and stylish authority, Lhamon builds upon his already long investment in this figure, who has become in his hands more than a stock minstrel type, more than a white parody of the bumpkin slave, and possibly the nation’s most radical integrative figure—so radical that laws designed to repress what he embodied would appropriate and use his name against him. Especially fresh in this chapter is Lhamon’s turn to Jim Crow innovator T. D. Rice’s play Otello (1844), which not only adapts Shakespeare to the New York racial scene but looks forward to the Obama presidency: a tenuous suggestion, one might think, but Lhamon handles it deftly. Shakespeare’s couple never bore a child. In Rice’s version, Otello and Desdemona do; and the half black, half white offspring marks a moment of transracial receptivity—an interracial release, Lhamon insinuates, we see again when Obama becomes president.
Dale Cockrell follows Lhamon, taking as his topics Zip Coon innovator George Washington Dixon, the advent of the minstrel show, and Stephen Foster. Whereas Lhamon sounds the depths of Jim Crow, Cockrell describes Crow’s counterpart Zip Coon only briefly (too briefly, I feel), emphasizing instead Dixon’s days as a scandal sheet editor who exposed the vices of elites, thus aligning him with a form of blackface street theater known as charivari, in which citizens unmask a person’s folly. Cockrell then turns to Dan Emmett and the invention of minstrelsy, when big business diluted the political energy of early blackface and the form’s “nuance, ambiguity, paradox, transgressive possibilities were all defeated” (65). Such defeat, however, may be overstated. After all, Lhamon’s contribution concludes with an appended Dan Emmett play that contains black-on-white violence that could only be seen as subversive, and Cockrell’s own essay stresses the transgressive power of Stephen Foster, whose songwriting in the 1850s began to work against racist representation.
While Cockrell uses singular people and moments to understand blackface history, Johnson’s own chapter, which examines documents related to the deaths of three minstrels, applies a microhistorical approach that turns small details into compelling stories. One such story emerges from a newspaper claim that the black dancer William “Juba” Lane’s skeleton was put on display as punishment for exceeding his station in life. The veracity of this claim is less important than what the idea suggests. Johnson shows how a playbill that isolates and frames Juba’s name as well as a daguerreotype that would have required Juba to be motionless for some time are consistent with the exhibition of...