Theft or Cannibalism

Long quote from account of T.D. Rice performance as “Jim Crow” in Pittsburgh from Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, 18-19.

“Rice prepared to take advantage of his opportunity. There was a negro in attendance at Griffith’s Hotel on Wood Street, named Cuff–an exquisite specimen of his sort,–who won a precarious subsistence by letting his open mouth as a mark for boys to pitch pennies into, at three paces, and by carrying the trunks of passengers from the steamboats to the hotels. Cuff was precisely the subject for Rice’s purpose. Slight persuasion induced him to accompany the actor to the theatre, where he was led through the private entrance, and quietly ensconced behind the scenes . . . . Rice, having shaded his own countenance to the “contraband” hue, ordered Cuff to disrobe, and proceeded to invest himself in the cast off apparel . . . . [Onstage] the extraordinary apparition produced an instant effect . . . . The effect effect was electric . . . .

Now it happened that Cuff, who meanwhile was crouching in dishabille under concealment of a projecting flat behind the performer, by some means received intelligence, at this point, of the near approach of a steamer to the Monongahela Wharf. Between himself and others of his color in the same line of business, and especially as regarded a certain formidable competitor called Ginger, there existed an active rivalry in the baggage-carrying business. for Cuff to allow Ginger the advantage of an undisputed descent upon the baggage of the approaching vessel would be not only to forget all “considerations” from the passengers, but, by proving him a laggard in his calling, to cast a damaging blemish upon his reputation. Liberally as me might lend himself to a friend, it could not be done at that sacrifice. After a minute or two of fidgety waiting for [Rice’s] song to end, Cuff’s patience could endure no longer, and cautiously hazarding a glimpse of his profile beyond the edge of the flat, he called in a hurried whisper: “Massa Rice, Massa Rice, must have my clo’se! Masa Griffif wants me,–steamboat’s comin!”

The appeal was fruitless. Massa Rice did not hear it, for a happy hit at an unpopular city functionary had set the audience in a roar in which all other sounds were lost . . . . [Another appeal went unheeded, when, driven to desperation and forgetful in the emergency of every sense of propriety, Cuff, in ludicrous undress as he was, started from his place, rushed upon the stage, and laying his hand upon the performer’s shoulder, called out excitedly: “Massa Rice, Massa rice, gi’ me nigga’s hat,–nigga’s coat,–niggas’s shoes–gi’ me nigga’s things! Massa griffif wants ‘im,–STEAMBOAT’S COMIN’!!

The incident was the touch, in the mirthful experience of that night, that passed endurance.”

Like W. T. Lhamon, Jr. in Raising Cain, Eric Lott is fascinated by the way Rice, other blackface performers, and white audiences were drawn to ante-bellum black culture. Lott sees blackface minstrelsy as a “theft” of blackness but views whites as having a “love” for black culture that powered the impulse to steal.

My argument is somewhat different.

Two points

Lott’s idea is that Rice stole from black culture when he put burnt cork make-up on his face, hands, and feet, donned a “woolly wig” to simulate black hair, spoke in dialect, and delivered a blizzard of malapropisms in his “Jim Crow” character.

But I view T. D. Rice much more as creating a white fantasy of blackness and insisting it was the reality of black people despite black churches, taverns, businesses, and artists of the 1830’s. The imperative that white fantasy have social and symbolic priority over black reality has been an element of practical white supremacy ever since.

Also, there’s a strong element of cannibalism as well as theft in blackface performance. In other words, T. D. Rice wasn’t just influenced, borrowing from, or stealing black culture when he put on “Jim Crow,” he was consuming fantasized blackness in a process that transforming his person and audience into a different, less anxiety-ridden kind of white person. This process of white identity having powerful roots in the consumption of racial fantasy went far beyond Rice and remains an element of white racial identity today.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s