(Note on terminology: After struggling with it awhile I opted to use the n-word once in this essay because it is literally part of the name of the object discussed. This single use of the term was placed in quotes to indicate that fact, as well as the fact that I would never use it otherwise.)
The characters and events described by Charles Chesnutt in The Marrow of Tradition give dramatic form to Black people’s experience of racist discrimination and violence during the Nadir of the Negro. Deprived of many civil rights, targeted by lynch mobs, and subjected to daily indignities, African Americans struggled to survive the Nadir as best they were able.
Some things we failed to mention. The montage sequence from Bamboozled not only gathers blackface tropes from US pop culture. Note also the amazing score by Terence Blanchard laid over that clip. I would argue that the music functions as a melancholy yet dignified solvent, cutting through the visual sludge of minstrelsy with the sound of one of Black America’s most signal cultural achievements: Jazz.
The invocation of the minstrel figure continues to exert fascination and provoke explosive responses, from Wesley Brown’s novel Darktown Strutters (the title of a film and a song as well) to Little Brother’s 2005 album The Minstrel Show to American Apparel’s ill-advised ad “Sweeter Than Candy, Better Than Cake” (see below).
There are also abundant scholarly studies of blackface performance. Off the top of my head: WT Lhamon’s Raising Cain, Louis Chude-Sokei’s The Last Darky, Robert Toll’s Blacking Up, and Donald Bogle’s Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks, all of which I recommend.
The image below is a photograph of Justin Trudeau– who is currently the Prime Minister of Canada– from 2001. 2001 seems awfully late to wear blackface to a party, even if it is one themed “Arabian Nights”– which is, in any case, an example of what Edward Said termed Orientalism. (If you don’t know who Edward Said is, then go to Cesar Chavez Student Center and look at the mural depicting him. Definitely someone worth meeting.)
This recent and embarrassing revelation about Trudeau’s party foul comes at an opportune moment for students of Arts and American Culture. In a week, we’ll be reading Charles Chesnutt’s gripping novel The Marrow of Tradition, which dramatizes the Wilmington Riot of 1898. Among the strange and interesting aspects of that story is the crucial presence of racial masquerade, otherwise known as blackface minstrelsy, in the form of the cakewalk.
I think I can safely assume that most of the class will have heard something about Rachel Dolezal by the time we meet again on Tuesday. Please take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the basic facts, because I think this could be a great opportunity to discuss the issue of social power and visuality. Clearly, race is a category tied very closely to the visual register: the meaning of race, its presence, is– we’ve been taught– largely a matter of appearance and visibility. I can recommend Gary Younge’s very brief commentary as a place to begin:
Really enjoyed the conversation in class. Maybe one way to attempt to sum it up would be to note that the image (in all its forms) in functioning as a sign becomes a means of asserting and constructing identity. However you feel about Iggy’s performance in “Fancy” her voice works as a signifier which evokes concepts (signifieds) such as 1) musical genre 2) cultural tradition 3) class/ gender/ racial identity practices.
You’ll recall that I mentioned in class that there is a history of the Asian detective in US cinema, one that includes fictional characters such as Mr. Moto, Charlie Chan, and Mr. Wong. All of these figures were played by white actors in a form of “racial masquerade” that has deep roots in US culture. Here is the first film in the Mr. Wong series– Mr. Wong, Detective— starring Boris Karloff of Frankenstein fame. If you’re interested in the cultural politics of Hollywood representations of Asians and Asian Americans you can consult The Slanted Screen (2006), a great documentary on the subject, or Robert Lee’s seminal study Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (1999).