"It was shocking," write Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen in Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy From Slavery to Hip-Hop (W.W. Norton), "that in a city bursting with parade enthusiasts and curious tourists, a pair of European women who stayed less than an hour were the only white faces in the crowd other than ours." The passage appears in a description of the Zulu parade at New Orleans's Mardi Gras, one of the few contemporary events at which African-Americans wear blackface as a matter of course. The authors are trying to convey the manic strangeness of carnival. At the same time, though, they highlight their whiteness—and, paradoxically, their attempt to adopt blackness. In that sense, they've put on a kind of literary blackface.
That's not to criticize Taylor and Austen, both of whom have strong Chicago ties (Taylor is a senior editor at Chicago Review Press, Austen has written features for the Reader). On the contrary, their mild stumble here serves mainly to throw into relief how sure-footed, thoughtful, and perceptive they remain through most of Darkest America—no mean feat when you consider that black minstrelsy, the practice of blacks donning black greasepaint and/or performing routines associated with minstrel shows, is one of the most charged topics in American pop-cultural history.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, blackface performances by whites perpetuated the racist stereotype of the happy, lazy, stupid, watermelon-slurping darky. It seems self-evident that black Americans would despise the whole idea. And yet, as Taylor and Austen demonstrate, they've been longtime, even enthusiastic participants in the minstrel tradition. From Louis Armstrong to Flavor Flav, minstrel tropes have been central to black music and comedy.
How can that be? Is it an example of false consciousness—an oppressed group duped into adopting the worldview of the oppressor against its own interests? Or were black entertainers forced to adopt minstrelsy as the only avenue to success in a white-controlled entertainment industry?
Such explanations have been staples of a long-standing antiminstrelsy discourse among black artists that includes polemics by Richard Wright and Spike Lee's 2000 film Bamboozled. Taylor and Austen respect that discourse, but mostly reject its conclusions. Black minstrelsy, they argue convincingly, can't be explained in terms of self-deception or coercion alone. Nobody forced Paul Robeson to record "That's Why Darkies Were Born," a minstrel-style song that advises blacks to keep laboring, have faith, and "accept your destiny."
Taylor and Austen argue that black artists have used the minstrel tradition in a number of different ways. Sometimes they've deployed it satirically, as in Bamboozled, the tale of a black TV executive who pitches a minstrel variety show hoping it'll get him fired but finds himself with a hit instead. Sometimes they've subverted its racist messages through recontextualization. Robeson, for example, treats "That's Why Darkies Were Born" as a spiritual in which blacks shoulder suffering, hardship, and injustice on their way to the Promised Land, thereby turning a rationale for servitude into a dream of liberation. In a similar vein, the great black blackface performer Bert Williams undermined minstrel caricatures by injecting humanity into his characters, pathos and nuance into his performances.
But, all these strategies notwithstanding, Taylor and Austen suggest that minstrelsy has been enjoyed by blacks in much the same way it's been enjoyed by whites—as low humor and sentimental escapism. Southern hip-hop performers who gesture toward minstrelsy by clowning about chicken or watermelon do so because they find it funny and aren't going to be embarrassed about it just because various cultural arbiters say they should be. Louis Armstrong wasn't embarrassed, either, when he first sang "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" during the 1930s. The song's nostalgic vision of ease and plenty in the lazy "dear old Southland" appealed to him and other blacks during the Great Depression, just as it appealed to whites.
The southern paradise of laughter and ease is, of course, racialized in minstrelsy—a world of blackface is by definition a world in which everyone is black. Whites may regard that world as an object of ridicule. But it's also, as Taylor and Austen note (and their trip to Mardi Gras perhaps confirms), an object of yearning. For whites, to put on blackface is to be free, crazy, funny, authentic, cool. And it can mean the same for blacks. Thus, Zora Neale Hurston—who loathed white minstrelsy but used minstrel tropes extensively in her work—often spoke admiringly about black primitivism, naturalness, and spontaneity. The "white man thinks in a written language," she wrote, "and the Negro thinks in hieroglyphics."
Hurston's investment in black minstrelsy and folk traditions helped inspire her to create Their Eyes Were Watching God, one of the great American novels of the 20th century. It may have also caused her to oppose integration, fearing that black authenticity would be contaminated. Her racial pride and her racism were two sides of the same coin.
It's viscerally jarring to learn that, in notes to a white benefactor, Hurston occasionally called herself "your little pickaninny." Still, that bit of personal black minstrelsy is just a variation on the problem that confronts any minority artist working in a racist society. From well before Bert Williams to the present, black music, theater, literature, and comedy have been a glorious, seemingly limitless aesthetic treasure. And yet those riches have been produced in—and are to a degree dependent on—the marginalization resulting from segregation and oppression. To celebrate Mardi Gras or Hurston or even Paul Robeson is to celebrate the fruits of racism.
Nothing makes this clearer than black minstrelsy, a black art form built—through courage and cowardice, resistance and acquiescence—out of racism itself. In that sense, Darkest America isn't a story about an obscure and forgotten curiosity. It's a graceful and erudite rediscovery of what may be our most inspiring, shameful, and American art form.