This Q&A with critics, musicologists, and academics such as Mel Watkins and Eric Lott covers some of the basic questions surrounding minstrelsy. Worth checking out.
For next week:
Monday: we’ll take a quiz on Bamboozled and discuss the first essay in Angela Davis’s Women Race & Class.
Wednesday: discussion of chapter 2 of WRC.
Friday: discussion of chapter 5 of WRC.
To the uninitiated, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might seem rife with racist caricatures of what we can, for the purposes of discussion, call black vernacular speech. Certainly there is a history of attempting to “transcribe” (i.e. invent) African-American colloquial language, most notoriously perhaps with the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris. Yet the attempt to give voice to the double-consciousness experienced by those for whom the designations African and American do not always rest easy together extends beyond white ventriloquism of black characters and was central to the project of such cultural movements as the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts. Compare any of Jim’s speeches in AHF with the language of Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (here).
The speech quoted at the link above brims with racial and racist epithets, yet for Claude McKay it represented something vital and alive in the experience of the black working class. Taken out of context, it seems crude and hurtful; yet Home to Harlem is easily one of the most accomplished novels to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural upsurge of interwar urban negritude with profound influences on artists as disparate as Miles Davis and Aime Cesaire.
If we are to take a sensitive and critical posture with regard to Mark Twain’s novel in order to better understand the fraught history and immensely fertile terrain of race in the United States, then we will need to think deftly, analyzing the text not only for what it communicates but how it communicates it. The notion of ventriloquism, for instance, can be useful to us. Huck is the speaker of AHF. and in representing Jim’s speech he is effectively ventriloquizing him. The same tactic of adopting the voice of an Other to utter one’s own concerns and sentiments is at play in the work of Eminem and various white rappers. The question such performers and performances raise is crucial: what IS it about the grain of a “black voice” that suits the demands of expression? Why do some artists put on the mask of black performative culture–or, in the idiom of minstrelsy, “black up”?
I want us to take such questions seriously and approach this unit of the course in a measured and engaged fashion. In other words, reading AHF is not simply a means of entertaining you. If you find the text hopeless antiquated and virtually indecipherable then you will need to commit yourself to undertaking the difficult work required to make sense of it.
Above: Famed racial masquerader Bert Williams.