A Different Kind of Otherness

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With the “Jim Crow” act of T. D. Rice, black people became one of the dominant figures of “otherness” in popular culture. Before 1830, black people in Philadelphia were not acknowledged as having enough status to be defined as the other. Women were defined as a physically weak, vulnerable, and penetrable “other.” Seducers, drunken sots, and immigrants could also be portrayed as the “other,” but black people were portrayed primarily as being outside the “self-other” relationships by which society was constituted.

That changed with Rice and Jim Crow.

In the picture above, Rice’s “Jim Crow” includes many features that whites at the time viewed as “degrading” about black men. That includes their dark skin, the worn hat, “wooly” hair, rumpled jacket and shirt, pants ripped in several places. and shoes so worn that his left foot was sticking out the front. Jim Crow also s+poke in “black dialect” and had the “loose” kind of gait associated with black people.

In the idea of women as the “other,” any association with female qualities was felt to be deeply humiliating and strenuously avoided. The workingmen had felt especially degraded when representing their own bodies as feminine in the sense of being seduced or subject to vampires and incubuses.

Rice’s version of “Jim Crow” was a full figure of black “otherness” to white men. But instead of avoiding association with the “degradations” of blackness, Rice completely “embraced” blackness, eagerly “displayed” himself as a full black man for his performances and sang songs, told jokes, and danced as a “black” man. The performances of Rice were “displays of degradation.”

Black “otherness” in “Jim Crow” was more complex than previous forms of otherness in the popular culture of white laboring men. Otherness in the case of both women and black people was created out of stereotypes, but instead of avoiding “blackness,” Rice internalized the full range of black stereotypes and employed those stereotypes to transform himself into a different kind of man and performer–“Jim Crow.”

Given that Rice built the “Jim Crow” character out of racial stereotypes, he internalized “fantasies of blackness” rather than the diverse reality of black people in cities like Philadelphia and New York. At the same time, blackface fantasies of blackness became important enough to the popular culture and identity of white laboring people that the blackness existing outside the fantasy became a serious threat to white stability.

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