Thank you to the Honors students who came tonight for my special PDP lecture on how Minstrelsy/Blackface are Baked into American Popular Culture, several of whom braving the poorly-numbered hallways of the Dow Scienceplex for the first time. A special thank you to my colleague Ben Heumann, too, who came to check it out because, as he put it, “this is why we have a University” – exposing our brains to a diversity of research topics. Also, our conversation with students afterward inspired me to record a few thoughts before they disappeared. I figured that I would share them as a companion piece to the lecture, in case anybody is interested. If you are reading this and would like to see the recording, please reach out.
First of all, I thanked my colleague Bryan Whitledge from the Clarke Archive, who contributed some references to Minstrel shows at CMU in the 1920s and 1950s(!) that added a crucial local connection to the lecture, such as this image from the 1924 Chippewa yearbook:
Second, I referenced the Australian comedian Aamer Rahman in passing, but I should have given him a more explicit tribute in influencing critical ideas about hip-hop and white privilege when these posts circulated nine years ago. One thing I mentioned when posting a slide featuring Vanilla Ice, Elvis Presley, Iggy Azalea, Eminem, and Yung Gravy was that I wished I could have split the lecture up into two class periods to invite a deeper discussion. Rahman was hardly as diplomatic with his words about Iggy Azalea at the height of her “Fancy” chart success, and I’m grateful his thoughts are still easily accessible.
Third, one student commented that she appreciated that someone who teaches classes in Geography and Environmental Studies would deliver a lecture on such a differing topic. I was grateful for her saying that, but the deeper I plunge, the more I find in common between Minstrelsy/Popular Culture, environmental justice, gender studies, and other topics. When racist caricatures get “baked in” to pop culture, we run the risk of forgetting their context just because the ingredients aren’t distinct anymore. We fail to address the racist origins of (way more) American Popular Culture (than we want to admit) for similar reasons that we fail to address racist/classist reasons of why and where toxic waste is buried. A refusal to openly address feelings is a hallmark of toxic masculinity. I wish I had thought of this for my concluding statement, but will definitely include it whenever I present on this subject again.
Fourth, I told those in attendance that it originated as a unit in my Popular Culture class at Tennessee and I was eager to dust it off, but I didn’t say how I wound up preoccupied with the Minstrel show as an academic focus.
The preamble is that when I was in undergrad, at least one “blackface incident” happened every year somewhere in the campus community. The public response was typically a tepid “well that guy was dumb, but he’ll get his what-for and let’s move past it.” This was a decade before Justin Simien satirized the phenomenon in Dear White People (2014), and so many of my cohort had no idea about the history behind blackface and what specifically made it offensive. There’s also a much larger conversation about segregation, and how the neoliberal University reinforces it, somewhere in there.
In the mid-2010’s, once I began doing archival research into old/extinct theaters Ben Irving played, I noticed an increasing prevalence of these collar-pulling photos. The more I learned about Jewish entertainers like Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and George Burns (the latter of whom remained extremely relevant until his death in 1996 at age 100), the less I could avoid learning about minstrelsy. I would inevitably turn a page in some book about Eddie Cantor, and YIKES I DIDN’T NEED TO SEE THAT. Similarly, in a recent lecture about the film industry’s transition to sound, some students googled The Jazz Singer and recoiled at a variety of images of Jolson in blackface. To omit minstrelsy from the discussion about vaudeville, particularly from any focus on the rise of Jewish performers, would be irresponsible at best and ignorant at worst. To not confront that reality and ask difficult questions about how far we’ve come (or not) in discussing race would be similarly irresponsible of me as a teacher.
Finally, in updating my lecture for Thursday, I completely overlooked one highly contentious pop culture icon in embedded minstrelsy that landed in my lap courtesy of the riotous Nathan Rabin (who also happens to be Jewish) in his fantastic collection The Joy of Trash (self-published 2022):
As the millennium ended, [George] Lucas was still drawing inspirations from old movies, rather than an outside world that seemed to scare him. It’s not surprising, therefore, that his first film as a director in over two decades traffics extensively in antiquated racist stereotypes.
There is no such thing as benign racism. By its very nature, racism is malignant. But there are gradations of racism. There’s the harsh, brutal racism of Nazis, the KKK, and the Alt-Right. There’s also a softer version that angrily insists that a moderate amount of racism and bigotry is not only acceptable but necessary for society to function.
White people love soft racism because it replaces an honest, deeply challenging, and unflattering narrative of institutionalized anti-black racism with a dishonest, but more flattering, fantasy of endless Caucasian benevolence.
To quote Trav S.D.’s blog disclaimer whenever his research unearths an image of a white actor in blackface: “Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.”
[To wit: someone, somewhere in the USA is probably lobbying some school board to prevent their kid from being taught about this because white people’s feelings or something.]