The black-and-white facts of the once-popular, now-reviled entertainment form

 "Damn, nigger!" -- guitarist Scotty Moore, remarking on Elvis Presley's vocals during the early Sun recording sessions

The image of a current political hopeful caught "blacking up" is subject for public purview. Not the 40-year-old photograph of Mel Carnahan in a quartet of blackfaced Babbitts entertaining a Rolla Kiwanis Club gathering (probably singing Stephen Foster songs -- "Oh! Susanna," "Old Folks at Home" -- that the composer wrote for minstrel shows, inspired after listening to black laborers on the wharfs of Pittsburgh). No, this blackface performance (without the burnt cork) is more recent, hasn't been hidden in Republican operatives' files and is available in video stores. The political hopeful in question is even proud of his act, unlike the apologetic -- and pissed-off -- Carnahan.

Last summer Bulworth was released. Co-written and directed by and starring Warren Beatty (one of the Reform Party's big teases), Bulworth tells the story of a U.S. senator who, in the midst of a nervous breakdown that unharmoniously coincides with his re-election campaign, dispenses with the usual pandering political pablum. Beatty gets down and ghettoish, improvising rap lyrics from the rostrum, naming the numerous betrayers of American democracy. He attracts a grrrl posse in the process, with the stylish Halle Berry as its most significant member. Beatty eventually dons hip-hop garb and (surprise!) gains the respect and votes of whites and blacks for telling it like it is. Beatty's white man's fantasy is fulfilled when Berry pledges her romantic commitment to him by whispering, "You're my nigger."

Uncle Sam is derived from a minstrel character
Archive Photos
Uncle Sam is derived from a minstrel character

What the young Carnahan did unconsciously and crudely, the mature Beatty does consciously and with sophistication. Whatever the measure of their sensitivities, Carnahan and Beatty have each taken part in the act of minstrelsy, an American practice so ingrained that, writes scholar Berndt Ostendorf, it "has penetrated ... all facets of American popular culture." Although the blackface skits performed by Kiwanis Clubs and Boy Scout troops and high-school assemblies throughout the country disappeared by the 1970s -- and despite such aberrations as Ted Danson "impressing" his former girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg -- even without the burnt cork, American popular culture is more blackfaced than not. "Jazz-shaped" was the phrase Ralph Ellison used in a 1970 Time essay, in which he observed that "most American whites are culturally part Negro American without even realizing it."

Blackface minstrelsy (i.e., white performers literally darkening their faces to portray African-Americans) became prominent on American stages in the 1830s and '40s, although there is evidence of blackface as early as the 1770s. These early groups, such as the Virginia Serenaders, says Catherine Rankovic, who has taught courses on American comedy at Washington University, "sold themselves as being "authentic.' That was one of the keys: "These dances and songs are authentic darkie dances and songs.'" In Black Literature in White America, Ostendorf writes, "Legend has it that one white minstrel bought an entire outfit of a black puschcart vendor, learned his walk, his talk and sales pitch."

The minstrel show was hugely popular, and it wasn't long before African-American performers, for obvious economic reasons, began to blacken their own faces to play "themselves," or, more accurately -- and more perversely -- the ridiculous and demeaning white interpretation of "themselves." By the 1890s, with "coon shows," African-Americans "began to take minstrelsy over," says Rankovic, "with black composers writing the songs. They started to have "more authentic' black expression and comedy on the stage. Nonetheless, playing the black stereotypes goes on and on up into our lifetimes."

Leslie Brown, assistant professor of history and African and Afro-American studies at Washington University, notes that in the late 19th century, minstrelsy becomes more sophisticated -- "sophisticated in that the images are less ragged people in simple clothes singing simple songs. They're more linguistically sophisticated in terms of jokes that have multiple levels of meaning. They both demonstrate that African-Americans are not to be trusted by their cutting use of language, and at the same time show the silliness and denseness of the straight man. Minstrelsy is often performed by more than one person, either with two people -- one who plays off the other -- or as a whole group with one authority figure who is shown as ridiculous for having any kind of authority over this other group of supposed buffoons. It's really a very complicated strategy of entertainment."

The complexity in-creases when African-Americans in blackface perform for both white and black audiences. In such instances, W.E.B DuBois' phrase "double-consciousness" is revealed at its most extreme. "There are African-Americans acting in the way that whites think African-Americans should act," Brown says, "and they play on the stupidity of the white audience for the black audience. There's a comic genius to that, but it's also terribly sad."

The sadness, and tragedy, of minstrelsy is seen in the careers of such remarkable actors as Stepin Fetchit, Butterfly McQueen, Hattie McDaniel and Tim Moore (the incomparable Kingfish from The Amos and Andy Show) -- accomplished performers with classical ambitions trapped in the minstrel stereotype. Yet how much has changed? The artist Jean Michel-Basquiat, of middle-class upbringing, portrayed himself as a ghetto innocent for the attention of the white New York art world. How many middle-class blacks looking to enter the comedy or music fields are anxious about "blacking up"? In W.C. Handy's autobiography, Father of the Blues, he talks of how when his bands entertained in the South, they would enter and exit in formation, clad in minstrel garb and playing "Dixie" (another old minstrel tune). But Handy was careful not to leave the company's tent in his middle-class clothes for fear of inciting violence among whites who might catch him outside his accepted role. Handy observed how "upper-crust Negroes" found minstrelsy offensive and unseemly. "The best talent of that generation" Handy argued, met and earned their chops on the minstrel stage. Jazz is born of minstrelsy, in part supported by white audiences expecting music "off-key and dirty," to borrow Ostendorf's phrasing.

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