Well we jumped right ahead into that form of racial masquerade known to many as blackface performance. We will have occasion to return to Othello next week, particularly in reference to another tragic hero of African descent, Brutus Jones. For the moment I just want to underscore the fact that our study of minstrelsy traffics in highly volatile cultural substances and of necessity confronts head on a compelling and painful past which is fraught with contradictions. What we’re going to plunge into, then, is the history– one history, a history– of what Paul Gilroy has called the Black Atlantic: a transnational space of cross-racial and cross-cultural affiliations and desires.
Try to imagine what TD Rice saw when he looked along the street of the 7th Ward in New York at a street artist (a busker) performing for pennies and plaudits. He must have seen something exciting: a gesture, a move, a phrase which seemed to him to be fresh and alive. Something with charisma and style. Those informal repertoires were to be lifted and reworked for popular consumption on the stage. A white boy “acting black” for other (working-class) white boys– b’hoys in the slang of the day– and their girlfriends. Contrary to the claims of those who would rather ignore blackface minstrelsy because of its often grotesque and abhorrent characteristics, “blacking up” was not a weird anomaly, a cultural dead end better left unvisited. Racial masquerade was and continues to be absolutely integral to the development of US American Popular Culture. Eric Lott’s essay in the reader will be useful in understanding this dynamic.
And look at this: