Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The White Minstrelsy of American Politics

[By Jerry Ward]

Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen’s aptly titled Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip Hop (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012) is a smart and timely book.

It is smart because Taylor and Austen chose not to ape Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993) or to mimic Robert C. Toll’s Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (1974).  Instead they focus on the centrality of minstrelsy in cultural expressions and suggest we should care about that expressive tradition because American “culture wouldn’t exist without minstrelsy” (5).  Take their exaggerated claim with a grain of pepper: American culture would be duller and safer without minstrelsy, but it would exist.  Nevertheless, their attractive work should have a companion volume entitled Darkest America: White Minstrelsy from Colonial Conquest to Social Pathology.

Taylor and Austen’s book is timely because it enables a reader to have a moment of enlightenment, an epiphany.  Read against the grain of how modern historiography uses the term polis (city-state), the book can be interpreted as a cutting treatment of polis (nation-state) and some of its spectacular characteristics.  Such displacement allows us to discover the red liberal/blue conservative binary is not the only reason for finding ourselves in a post-election swamp to be navigated between now and 2016. The swamp was made by white minstrelsy.  White political minstrelsy daily nurtures the swamp.

Since colonial days, white minstrelsy has been a practical art used by pink people of color.  These pink people distort their collective ethnic identities by smearing white paint over their imagined bodies. The audible and visual mask denies the biological verification of ultimate African origins.  The paint invades the nervous system and manifests itself as random Gestalts, which in turn produce dedicated scripts for the grand stage of American politics.  The white minstrels take orgasmic delight in performing these scripts to frustrate and misinform non-painted citizens. The scripts are spin-driven histories; the comic deliveries block any clear vision of the real political actions and policies that often prove fatal.

Just as the charm of black minstrelsy pivots on “indefinite talk” routines, the thrall of white minstrelsy depends on the 24-7 broadcasting of “definitive trash-talk.”  Long usage has made this kind of discourse seem “normal” and has rendered white minstrelsy indistinguishable from what is not theatrical.  It is merely insane or absurd to argue that American politics is not a child begot from a strange marriage of black and white minstrelsy.

Taylor and Austen open the closets of polis in Chapter 3, “Of Cannibals and Kings: How New Orleans’s Zulu Krewe Survived One Hundred Years of Blackface” and Chapter 10, “New Millennium Minstrel Show: How Spike Lee and Tyler Perry Brought the Black Minstrelsy Debate to the Twenty-First Century.”  Rather than spoil the unique pleasure of discovery in those two chapters, and indeed in the book as a whole, I will leave you with the refrain of white minstrelsy’s theme song:  There is a bomb in Gilead that kills the sin-sick soul.

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