The Scottsboro Boys musical, Tyler Perry and rappers have all been accused of promoting modern-day minstrelsy. But with real minstrel shows long gone, can’t black performers act dopey these days without an outcry?
The protesters, who complained that the play reduced the tragic case of nine black young men who were wrongly convicted of raping two white women to “a Step n Fetchit comedic, minstrel exhibition,” were missing the point. The minstrel format was being used as an indictment of whites’ behavior during the Scottsboro episode, as well as an indictment of minstrel shows in general.
I was actually struck by something else about the minstrel part, seemingly innocent at first. Namely, the play’s program provides an explanation of what a minstrel show was (that is, white men made up as blacks and engaging in dopey hijinks and dippy dialect), including its format, with the Interlocutor supervising exchanges between “end men” Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones, and so on.
We hear much in our times about how this show or that music or this movie is recapitulating the minstrel show. And yet as I read the dutiful program notes, some questions came to me. How many people now living saw minstrel shows? They started in the 1820s and were largely extinct by the 1940s. Or: How many people today of any color know who Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones were? Or Dan Rice? Or how “Jump Jim Crow” went?
Important: My point is not that to the extent that anyone doesn’t happen to know these things, it’s a knock against them. These things are obscure points of history. In a way, we shouldn’t expect a large number of people to know them, any more than we expect people to know who Lillian Russell was or to know how many daughters Eddie Cantor had.
Here’s why those questions have stuck with me: If minstrelsy is so far in the past that it has to be taught as history, then what exactly do we mean when we condemn something a black entertainer does as bringing us back to minstrelsy? How can we be brought back to something most of us never saw and never will?
The problem with keeping the minstrel image alive as an object lesson is that it ends up meaning, basically, that black entertainers aren’t allowed to smile big and be silly. I’m not sure that makes sense, and I’m not sure it’s fair.
Take poor Tyler Perry. It seems as if it was 10 minutes ago that the mantra was, even if there were plenty of black movies, that wasn’t good enough — there weren’t enough black people in the position to decide when and whether they would get made. Now we have Perry churning out plays, movies and television shows all year, every year — but apparently this isn’t good enough, either, because Perry’s work isn’t deep. Or more to the point, because his works don’t seek the profundity of August Wilson or the sepia solemnity of The Cosby Show, they are “minstrel shows.” The charge has been leveled and explored endlessly (here is a handy representation of how the argument goes).
But is there really anything wrong with people laughing at some salty nonsense now and then and getting a dose of God along with it? Yes, the dopier moments in Perry opuses compare quite closely to the kinds of things blackface figures used to do onstage. But does that mean that Perry and his performers should be holding back in order not to parallel a stage practice generations dead? Does it mean — we must be clear — that for black people and black people only, being silly onstage or in film is not allowed? If white people act the fool, that’s hijinks. If Latinos do it, it’s “authentic.” But if black people do it, it’s “a minstrel show”?
The same goes for rappers. It’s a standard knock on many of them that the exaggeration, lingo and antics are minstrelsy for the 21st century. But that particular comparison is one that I, despite my critiques of rap, have never had much interest in. Again, why can’t a young black rapper get goofy or exaggerate? Is the rapper supposed to censor himself so as not to seem too much like long-gone minstrel characters he couldn’t even name and that barely anyone under age 80 ever saw in performance? Isn’t it part of being human to get goofy and enjoy watching other people do so?
It has been for black people, at least, for a very long time. Black audiences have long had a fondness for broad humor — as pretty much all humans do. Early black leftist Hubert Harrison wrote in an essay way back in the ’20s (collected here) — when minstrel shows were still playing, including ones with black performers — about black audiences getting a special kick out of eye rolling, broad “blue” jokes and exactly the kinds of things audiences at black stand-up-comedy shows eat up today. Were these people wrong?
Yes, I think we should know that minstrel shows existed, for the purposes of writing the history of race, racism and also American popular entertainment (incidentally, photos are one thing, but check out this Al Jolson film for the most accurate contemporary film depiction of an actual minstrel show taking place). However, I am wary of a certain puritanical air in telling black entertainers they are being minstrels when they get silly.
Or is it that black performers have a special responsibility not to smile big or act silly because whites might get to thinking that we’re primitive, because that’s what they thought in 1902?
As far as I’m concerned, let them think what they want.
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root. He is the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.