Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Displays of Degradation I

I haven't mentioned yet that I got a fairly good response from the University of Pennsylvania Press about my book proposal. They didn't give me a contract, but they did tell me that they would send a full manuscript out to readers when I submit one.

So, now I'm working on completing a full manuscript and one of my jobs is to write a chapter on blackface minstrelsy in Philadelphia during the 1840's.

Toward that end, I'm reading William J. Maher's, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask. In the intro and first chapter, Maher's core argument is that blackface minstrelsy was more about establishing a particularly American form of popular culture than it was about African-American cultural forms or racism more generally.

Although it's a very good book, I'm not convinced.

In the first chapter, Maher convincingly argues that performers like the Christy minstrels focused more on burlesquing European imports like Italian opera than satirizing plantation life or northern black Dandies. I'm not very familiar with the operation of Italian opera in 19th century America, but I'm not very surprised that blackface minstrel performers were working with a variety of "white sources." The African-American references in the minstrel songs of the 1840's often look rather token. White performers are talking primarily about themes from white life.

But that doesn't change the fact that minstrel performers were dressing up as black men and women and that they were using European sources to portray blacks as buffoonish, lazy, dependent, and sentimentally attached to slavery. If anything, working with the European sources gives the racial imagery of blackface minstrelsy a new flexibility as white performers learned how to articulate their images of blackness through different kinds of materials.

That still leaves the question of why white performers found blackface such a compelling medium for the presentation of their own concerns about romance, family, politics, race, and masculinity. So far, Maher hasn't addressed that question.

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