Further Thought on Black “Otherness”

I am still focused on the ways in which whites view black people as “the other.” Once again, this is highly concentrated and written without much context.

1. Before the 1830’s, whites in Philadelphia were very reluctant to portray blacks as “the other” because they refused to recognize blacks as having enough status to engage in “self-other” relationships. Doing so would recognize black people as part of “society” and that was a basic gesture of respect whites refused to extent.

2. With the “Jim Crow” act of T.D. Rice, whites articulated a full concept of black otherness based primarily on the fantasies of blackness articulated by Rice and other minstrel performers. Whites consumed and internalized a commercially developed “fantasy of blackness” from blackface minstrelsy and then opposed themselves as “the self” to that (fantasized) black “other.”

3. Given the internalization of such fantasies of blackness, white people experienced the racial self-other opposition primarily as a dimension of white self-awareness and only secondarily in relation to any contact they had with black people in the social world. This created a number of complications because whites insisted of the realism of blackface fantasy in opposition to the realities of their encounters with black people

According to W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, ” the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness . . . ” But early blackface makes it necessary to reconsider this pronouncement. Given that early blackface minstrelsy created a white identity predicated on fantasies of blackness, it may have been that the white world was itself so heavily veiled that it was unknowable to both black people and white people themsleves.

4. During the mid-1830’s and early 1840’s, the minstrel performers who emerged after Rice deployed racial stereotypes in a way that defined “blackness” as a form of “comic substance.” On top of the “Jump Jim Crow” images of black skin, dialect, poverty and hair, the newer minstrel performers developed images of misshapen and absurdly phallic black hair, noses, lips, feet, and heels. For performers like J.W. Sweeney (pictured above), black people were the “other” in the sense of being a fantasy of comic substance.

5. White popular culture accompanied the fantasy of blacks as “comic substance” with an idea of enjoying the suffering of black people from disease, death, dismemberment, grief, and being sold further South. Laughter had always been a dimension of blackface, but the laugher took on even more of a leering, sadistic quality once black otherness was conceived in terms of comic substance.

6. With black otherness being defined as comic substance, the enjoyment of black suffering a primary mode of bonding and group solidarity in white popular culture. There were many ways in which being white was contingent on enjoying the suffering of black people.

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