The New Millennium Minstrel Show

In Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled (2000), we get a powerful close-up of a visibly distressed black performer applying blackface. The tears are unscripted. Lee said that the actors dreaded blacking up: they felt it was dehumanizing; it tore out their souls. Recently, as part of a performance at Danspace Project at St Mark’s Church, a white performer blackened her face, declared herself black, and stated quite simply, “I have been waiting my entire life for this.”


Robbert Copper, “Strange Fruit.” Black paper on white paper. 24 × 24". Courtesy the artist.

Danspace Project, a leading space for experimental contemporary dance, just finished a two-month program that examined the meaning of black dance. Curator and choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones asked, “[D]oes ‘Black Dance’ even exist? And assuming it does, what defines it?” Thirty years ago, Houston-Jones first examined how a new generation of black artists existed “in the parallel worlds of Black America and of new dance.” He reprised his eponymous 1982 program, Parallels, and brought in many of the same choreographers, now luminaries in the dance world, as well as a younger generation: from Jawole Willa Jo Zollar to Ralph Lemon to Nora Chipaumire. The series was routinely reviewed and recommended, and garnered attention and acclaim.

On February 18, 2012, in a program that examined the intersections of black dance and postmodernism, choreographer and multidisciplinary artist Dean Moss presented his vision to an overflowing house. Moss invited three younger artists to stage their work; he stated, “None of them [are] African-American, but all of them are Black.” Moss was attempting to de-essentialize black as a biologically determined category, to look for its meaning elsewhere. This is nothing new. There is a long genealogy of thinkers—among them W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall—who have defined blackness through its emergence in society; it’s an historical and political consciousness that produces resistant narratives to histories of oppression, slavery, and colonialism and fights for a future of equality and freedom. Blackness—race—is counterintuitive; it exists because it is a response to the brutal fact of racism.

What an opportunity to present serious meditations on questions that deeply undergird our society; however, as Houston-Jones clearly understood, Moss’s program could also cause controversy should any of the performers show up in blackface. Quite predictably one of them did, challenging her audience: “I am doing something that could be offensive, right?” Yes. But why? Did the performer know? Did her audience know?

That evening at Danspace Project, Ann Liv Young, a performer notorious for her irreverent exhibitionism, entered in a flamingo pink dress, a black afro, and a face painted black. The “post-dance” performance was mostly a dialogue between performer and audience. The back and forth was banal. A microphone in hand, the performer engaged audience members. She asked, “Who are you?” and received such stock responses as: I am German, Italian, black (here the participant was not as exuberant). Young said she was black because she had soul, and someone retorted that her backside was black, though in more colorful language. She asked for a show of hands of people who were gay, because as she told us, if you are gay, you are black. Many in the audience, which was predominantly white and young, thought all of this to be hilarious. Some of us thought differently: it was mindless and inept. More disturbingly, the minstrel show restaged the very categories it was supposedly seeking to trouble: it trafficked in racist stereotypes and behavior. If blackness is a revolutionary consciousness, we were a far cry from its liberating potential.

For a while, in the small space of St. Mark’s Church, the performer stayed away from us, a critical mass of people of color (three), whose faces registered disapproval, disgust, boredom, and embarrassment for her. We had a choice: Do we leave, do we stay mute, do we play along (which was not going to happen), or do we say something even when we did not want to become part of the act and its mechanical exploitation?

Halfway through the performance, the performer saw me saying something to my friend and approached us, demanding to know what I had said. So I asked, “Could you please tell us what the history of minstrelsy is in the United States?” Needless to say, she did not know; she balked at the question and became hostile. What ensued could not have taken place in the streets or any other place, I imagine. She screamed at the top of her voice: “This is my performance, get out! Get Out!” One friend of mine said we would be more than happy to, but we would like our money back. That didn’t happen, nor did we leave.

Her attention was now fixed on us. She became (enacted the role of?) a raging and racist lunatic. She came within an inch of our faces and hurled obscenities at us. There was no more laughter. A few people walked out. Most people said or did nothing; the audience was silent. We never raised our voices, never swore back. She told me I was ugly and needed to look in the mirror. I said, “I do, everyday, and I see a black woman.” She said she looked in the mirror everyday too. “Yes,” I said, “and you see a white girl.” And the tables turned. She now invoked her Native American bloodline; I think it was her great-great grandmother who was Crow. And then, yes, her best friend was black, or maybe it was her neighbor. Someone was black. She began asking for testimonials from her friends in the audience. These she received, as we were assured that all was well, the performer was not a racist. In a moment of blinding insight, one young man told her: “They’re old, and they don’t understand what you are doing.”

The performance ended and two people came up to us (two young men of color). One simply gave me a flower, and the other reiterated what we had already heard: “I know her; she’s really not a racist.” Perhaps not, but by attempting to bamboozle her audience by manipulating images without skill or knowledge, those images boomeranged and we were all caught in a virulent web of hate and racism.

The performer was, one imagines, trying to shock. If so, shock whom and to what purpose? “Epater la bourgeoisie.” Flaubert’s dictum to the avant-garde. Yet, was this minstrel show shocking or rather acceptable to a liberal bourgeois audience in the East Village? I am certain the performance could not have occurred in Harlem with a predominantly black audience—bourgeois or not, liberal or not. Why? Why does this matter? The New York Times review of the performance sanitized and sanctioned what happened. In a vanguard space, such antics were deemed appropriate and having “purpose.” Historically, the avant-garde understood shock as a pact between the aesthetic and the political: shock is a radical technique to propel revolutionary consciousness and engagement. But if shock has no other purpose than to shock, it can and does harm. In such cases, there is no interruption, no rupture; rather, it both enables and perpetuates the violence of the state, the very thing avant-garde art attempts to critique and displace. If this was an occasion to show different visions for black dance, what occurred was a profound failure of the political and aesthetic imagination.

Undoubtedly, in a program that examines black dance, minstrelsy and blackface have a role. In his catalog essay, Houston-Jones explains that black dance has important roots in this tradition, with 19th-century black dancers, such as William Henry Lane, performing in blackface. The blackface minstrel show was America’s first mass entertainment industry and one of the earliest forms to expropriate black culture. In the mid-19th century, when the beginnings of a lucrative public entertainment sector began to take shape in this country, the emerging class of white professional entertainers gravitated to the culture of the largely enslaved African population. The dynamic entertainment value inherent in African performance traditions—styles of movement, rhythm, dance, song, and West African musical and oral traditions of speech and language—were incorporated to invigorate European forms. (Even today, only imagine what American popular music would sound like without a black presence.)

This kind of cultural appropriation could be seen as a form of admiration, were it not for the pernicious racist denigration in which it was cloaked. When imitating and performing black material, these white performers discovered a desperate need to disguise their indebtedness behind the veil of contempt represented by blackface. Not content merely to appropriate the culture for profit, they created a number of devices and performance conventions—alive and present among us to this day—for the systematic humiliation and dehumanization of the owners and creators of the culture on which the entertainers’ careers were based. Later black artists seeking the public stage to perform their own cultural heritage would be forced to parody themselves and compromise their people’s dignity as the price of their admission. Civil rights activist and scholar Ekwueme Michael Thelwell writes: “What blackface gave rise to was a sustained, protracted psychological assault on the spiritual and intellectual life of an entire people. Its origins, the manner and means of this assault (while indeed compounding its long-term destructive effects in the black community), reveal something truly horrifying and instructive about the nature and extent of the historical racism which deformed the soul of white America.” It was a veil through which black America encountered itself.

This is an understated account of the cruel reality of blackface; more so, when we understand that blackface served as the handmaiden to both slavery and later Jim Crow. Even through such a schematic history, the concept of black dance is more clearly grasped. Houston-Jones asked if black dance exists. We know the answer: black dance must exist. The question then becomes how does one responsibly present such material? Certainly not with the arrogance to think that one could trump a long history of divisive race relations in this country by performing in blackface without any knowledge of its history.

Spike Lee resurrected the medium of blackface in Bamboozled. Through meticulous research on and an understanding of the history of minstrelsy, Lee gives a searing critique of the ways in which stereotypical images of black people have never stopped circulating in our society. In the film, the dubious protagonist, a black television writer, creates Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show. The show becomes a runaway hit through the presentation of dancing and cooning figures, such as Sleep ‘n’ Eat, Aunt Jemima, and Little Nigger Jim. In the end, Lee poignantly shows how such images harm everyone who comes into contact with them as the film finishes with a literal dance of death, and afterward, a montage of film clips of blackface that breaks one’s heart.

In his analysis of Bamboozled, scholar W. J. T. Mitchell writes: “The virtuosity resides in the performances of the actors, in their ability to move us from stereotype to caricature to character and back again.” The New York Times critic says of the Parallels performance that it is best for the audience to realize that the performer—“Sherry”—is a character and not risk getting caught up in it. However, “Sherry” never reached the level of character in her performance. Entirely the creature of Young’s exhibitionism compounded by astonishing bad judgment, she was always hovering between caricature and racist stereotype. The critic was wrong when she said, “Sherry always emerges unscathed.” What’s sad is that even if we didn’t all realize it, we all emerged scathed. As Mitchell states: “In the world of the stereotype, everyone is both judge and judged, victim and executioner. Putting on blackface […] is a dangerous game that burns the flesh, and draws a divisive color line not only around facial features but between persons, and through the split psyches of the characters themselves.”


Post Script

In 1993, a quarter century after the civil rights movement, Ted Danson performed in blackface at the Friars Club, a space in the city known for its risqué entertainment and comedy. There were enough people in the audience (many black) who were offended and angered, and an apology was issued from the club. We are now almost a half-century after the civil rights era, living in a supposedly “post-racial” society. In an experimental dance space—where Judy Hussie-Taylor, the executive director of Danspace Project, invokes the importance of an ethical practice in the introduction to the Parallels catalogue—the clumsy, vulgar performance of blackface to a mostly white audience seemingly needs no discussion or apology. We are living in a climate of permissive and willful ignorance, and what occurred is symptomatic of a larger trend in society. There are a set of tendencies and attitudes that are gaining currency not only in art, but throughout the United States that are denigrating black people—and not only black people, but women, minorities, and other vulnerable communities. We need to choose if we allow them to flourish or if instead we responsibly, ethically, hold them up to scrutiny—beginning in those very spaces of art. There was once a time when the avant-garde imagined the world otherwise and worked to create an ethical and just life. Can we afford to lose that?

Contributor

Tanya Jayani Fernando

TANYA JAYANI FERNANDO (tjfernan@english.umass.edu) is an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is completing a book on the avant-garde concept of shock. She has written a play on dance, patronage, and race, called Dance, Salome! Dance!

ADVERTISEMENTS