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

Nov 3, 1999 at 4:00 am
"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."

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.

By the postwar era, Rankovic notes, there was a shift in blackface entertainment. "We know that black entertainers -- who themselves were pitch-black, like Pigmeat Markam, who was very dark -- wore blackface on the stage in the '30s and '40s. It's mostly after the war when black comedians and entertainers began to say to themselves, "I don't have to do that. I am enough. I don't have to play a character anymore.' Black characters began to address the audience, to turn to the audience and address them on their own terms as themselves. This is an incredible racial development -- the taking-off of the mask and saying, "Here I am. I'm a black man, and I'm going to tell you what I think."'

Meanwhile, white fascination with black culture, which began as racist mockery, has become more of an embrace. Or, as James Baldwin defined the American racial interrelationship: Blacks go to whites for power; whites go to blacks for love.

And for liberation -- liberation of the body (dancing to Motown and Soul Train and hip-hop), liberation of discourse (Beatty speaking the truth with a black voice in Bulworth), liberation from the norms of middle-class life (Carnahan and company getting silly in ways they could not have without the mask circa 1960 in Rolla, Mo.)

"What is Mick Jagger doing trying to sing with a Southern accent?" Rankovic asks rhetorically. "How did he do that and why?" (As far back as 1903, in The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois predicted that black music would be the key tradition of American musical culture.)

"Uncle Sam, his costume is derived from a popular minstrel costume -- the long-tail blue coat, complete with striped pants," says Rankovic. "You can make excellent arguments that Mickey Mouse is derived directly from a blackface minstrel character. It's so pervasive, there's so much of it that we don't know that is still with us."

Rankovic echoes Ellison's thoughts regarding the interrelationship of black and white America. "The reason America is not a little Europe is because of the presence of African-Americans. That's what makes us American. Everybody white doesn't understand that, but they should."

In regard to the legacy of minstrelsy, Brown is less sanguine. She emphasizes how minstrel stereotypes in popular culture such as Aunt Jemima and the Gold Dust Twins rendered African-Americans "either cartoonish or brutish. It is a form of ridicule that exempts any discussion of civil rights." But she is willing to put Carnahan's 1960 blackface performance in historical context. "Blackface continued as a tradition, and every year you did one. It's so unconscious, where a tradition becomes something you do because it's just something you do, not because it means anything -- which is not to excuse Carnahan, but that's part of the context when he's in blackface in the 1960s.

"And we forget civil rights wasn't very popular. It was threatening. I was amused by the Republican response that Carnahan is doing this and the Freedom Rides are happening and the federal government has sent in the troops. Well, yeah, but the Freedom Rides are happening because there is resistance. The federal troops are going in because there's resistance. We can't read history backward; we've got to read from where it is and come forward to see this was a terribly unpopular thing activists were engaging in."

The Kiwanis Club blackface show, at a time of a rising civil-rights movement, exhibits not only crudeness and insensitivity but anxiety, a fear that America would actually become blackfaced -- which in many ways, to the culture's betterment, it has.