WHEN RIDING THE BUS to the University of Texas campus a few years back, I became suddenly conscious of the fact that the cover of the book in my hands depicted a stark white fist clutching a hammer against a black background. And the title: The Wages of Whiteness. It was enough to raise a few eyebrows. At the time, I was delving through the available literature on blackface minstrelsy, as part of my exams for the Ph.D. program in American Studies. Looking back on this brief bit of extreme self-consciousness, I think my gut feeling was right, because — at best — the topic of minstrelsy in America is a discomfiting one, not typically broached in public.
David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness — not, of course, a racist tract — is one of several academic studies about the idea of “whiteness” that first emerged among the nineteenth century American working classes. Roediger’s book, along with Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White, Eric Lott’s Love and Theft, and Alexander Saxton’s The Rise and Fall of the White Republic, expanded on what is known as New Labor History (Herbert G. Gutman et al.) by taking race as central for understanding the working class. They study blackface minstrelsy as a way to ascertain how immigrants and others fresh from the farm were indoctrinated into the discipline of industrial wage labor during the antebellum period. They assume the wealthy and powerful had an interest in distinguishing, for this audience, how wages that barely provided subsistence in the burgeoning industrial economy of the North differed in a substantive way from the enslavement of blacks in the South. Hence, the creation by white performers in blackface of so many stereotypes of African-Americans as lazy, sensual, libidinous — traits recently arrived immigrants were encouraged to disavow in order to ascend into the ranks of “whiteness” and its promise of dominion over the Other: the black, the Chinese, the Hispanic, the unassimilated.
This was the argument 20 years ago, and in its wake followed a reinvigorated scholarly discussion of the politics of black commercial entertainment in America — which, though it takes many forms, cannot be disentangled from its origins in those first black performers who, witnessing the success of their white forebears on the stage, donned the burnt cork both for whites and for fellow African-Americans.
Like Roediger’s book, the cover of Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen’s Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop employs a similar high-contrast image, though in this case the mano blanco is less reminiscent of a “power” salute than Mickey Mouse’s glove — a not-wholly-inappropriate association, given the very early Disney cartoons. In a blurb on Darkest America’s back cover, James Galvin states, “Before [. . .] this important book, the minstrel era had regressed into vague and dusty African American history; its aftereffects were felt but little understood,” ignoring decades of work by black cultural critics (and some historically-minded artists) and academics in labor history, film studies, and popular music. Some of the academic texts on this topic are, in reality, fairly well known; Lott’s book apparently impressed Bob Dylan enough that he copped the title for a 2001 album. And while Galvin may not be aware of this work, Taylor and Austen ...read more