I have 40 pages drafted on a chapter on early blackface minstrelsy in Philadelphia. There are in Introduction and three sections on the “Jim Crow Act” of T. D. Rice, the Clay lithographs, and Second Generation blackface performers like J. W. Sweeney, the Pelham Brothers, Frank Brower, Dan Emmet, and Jim Sanford. Blackface bands like the Virginia Minstrels will be addressed in a later chapter.
The secondary literature on blackface minstrelsy is the best historical literature I’ve seen on the period from 1785-1850 and includes outstanding works like W. T. Lhamon’s introductory essay to Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture (2003) and Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993). These writinga are far better than anything else I’ve seen on popular culture in late 18th and early 19th century American cities and much of the reason for that is the facility of Lhamon and Lott with the history of American theater, pre-Civil War American fiction, and the vast array of theoretical frameworks that apply to popular culture.
Here, I want to formulate my understanding of some basic terms from Lott’s Love and Theft.
- Ventriloquism. Eric Lott views blackface minstrelsy as a form of ventriloquism in which white minstrel performers speak the “blackness” of every day black singing, dancing, and speech. But who’s the speaker and who’s the dummy? For Lott, the idea of “ventriloquism” speaks to the fascination of white performers and audiences with informal black culture. In this sense, white black performers would be “speaking” the street, tavern, dancing, and performative culture of black people in both urban areas like Philadelphia and cities. But modern ventriloquism is about a performer throwing his or her “own” voice through a dummy. If minstrelsy was performing black culture, the ventriloquism would be black people throwing their voices through the dummies of white performance. But Lott does not go so far as to view white performers as ventriloquist dummies. It’s more like white performers make THEMSELVES into blackface dummies to express a white fantasy of “blackness.” Early blackface performer were both ventriloquist and dummy. What then was the significance of black people in early blackface. One way to look at it was that the cultural labor of black people was appropriated by early black face performers like T. D. Rice and then refashioned according the the pressing cultural needs of white laboring men. In this context, it was crucial for white identity that black people be strictly limited and controlled in ways that were aligned with the minstrel fantasy of blackness. Black people define blackness on their own was a danger to white identity.
- Fear of the Black Other. The concept of black “otherness” is very interesting and Lott believes that images of the “Black Other” were pervasive in minstrelsy. “The black maskoffered a way to play with collected fear of a degraded and threatening–and male–Other while at the same time maintaining some symbolic control over them. Yet the intensified American fears of succumbing to a racialized image of Otherness” were everywhere operative in minstrelsy” (Lott, 25) Lott initially focuses his attention on blackface obsession with the black penis represented by images of the “long tail blue,” pictures of banjos being held in phallic positions, and “gizzards” as white as corn. But minstrelsy’s racial ambiguity of white men performing as black men and women raises the question of whether blackface performers were obsessed with black penises, their own, or both. As Lott states, blackface involved a very public kind of phallic presence– “Bold swagger, irrepressible desire, sheer bodily display; in a real sense, the minstrel man was the penis . . .” (Lott, 25). In many ways, blackface minstrelsy enabled white men to revel in public about their own penises or their about their penises anyway.
- The Universal Polymorphous. In the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, there was a concept of “polymorphous perversity” which postulated that young children had oral, anal, and other forms of sexual pleasure and only began to limit sexual satisfaction to their genital areas after the age of five. In the 1920’s, Melanie Klein updated the idea by focusing both on the oral desire and aggression of very young children below the age of one and the very real fears of retaliation by their mothers or material figures. What Lott finds in 1840’s blackface was such an enormous amount of “polymorphous perversity” that it defined. There was the enormously pleasurable racial transgression of wearing blackface, cross-dressing as black women, eating, dancing, hunting, and showing their backsides. There was also the enormous pleasure in the representations of humiliating, punishing, killing, torturing, and dismembering black that was found in blackface. If blackface allowed whites to represent their full range of infantile pleasures being satisfied, it also allowed whites the pleasure of seeing black people gruesomely punished for satisfying those pleasures. For whites, blackface minstrelsy was a universe of polymorphous perversity.