W.T. Lhamon Jr
Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop
Harvard University Press
BESIDES THE INFAMOUS "N-word," probably the most enduring source of disgust for the older black community is minstrelsy, that performance style in which white performers sang and danced with their skin painted black, acting out overly simplified (and stereotyped) black characters. While it has been a long time since someone had the nerve to practice blackface in its purest form (how many years ago was the Ted Danson debacle?), the ideology of blackface is still a persistent thorn in the side of many African Americans, and any would-be "coons" that gain mainstream acceptance are usually quick to incur the wrath of the NAACP. Just ask Martin Lawrence, whose boorish behavior on his television show earned him a place in the hall of vilification right next to Stepin' Fetchit and Jimmy Walker. Dy-No-Mite!
In his new book, Florida State University professor W.T. Lhamon seeks to look beyond the shukkin' and jivin' of minstrelsy to delve into its roots and its historical import--not just to blacks, but to all Americans. In doing so, he provides an in-depth history of blackface performance that begins with New York Negroes dancing for eels and porgies in that city's Catherine Market, takes us through the development of the now maligned Jim Crow character, and examines those modern performers who unwittingly carry on the blackface performance legacy (Hammer time!).
According to Lhamon, the widespread popularity of minstrelsy was based on the fact that disenfranchised white masses found a kind of class-liberation in the antics of Jim Crow and other assorted blackface characters. And Lhamon expands from this thesis to suggest that the study of blackface performance can help us understand the thought patterns of 19th-century Americans on topics ranging from race to working conditions. Blackface, he reports, is the lone voice of that century's "lumpen proletariat youth"; that the songs and skits were inaccurate portraits of African American culture is of no consequence.
Regrettably, the author's grasp of the nuances of modern blackface performance is woefully inadequate. Lhamon examines hip hop in a few pages, and discusses MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, as though they were the embodiment of hip hop. So too, Lhamon misses an opportunity to examine the minstrelsy in the global community (like the stereotypically depicted black characters present in many Japanese Anime cartoons).
Probably the most unfortunate aspect of this tome, though, is its stiff, academic delivery. Challenging theories are shrouded in turgid prose, and weak attempts at editorial wit are buried beneath pages of high-minded scholarly conjecture. Lhamon introduces some of the most inflammatory racial stereotypes imaginable in the language of a high-school science textbook.
However, this small problem should not discourage our country's race men and women from adding this book to their libraries, giving them plenty to discuss the next time they hit the links.