Having started writing once again on the blackface bands of the 1840’s, I am now re-starting the writing journal part of “Early Blackface Writing, etc.” Life happened in the form of the holidays, my wife’s retirement, a family brush with Covid, a couple of academic papers, and the process of getting a book contract. But I restarted this part of the book manuscript on Monday and have been pushing at it hard.
The first of the blackface bands was the Virginia Minstrels which I discussed back in February when I addressed some of the phallic dimensions of this classic picture from 1843. One of the convenient aspects of doing research on the popular culture of the 1840’s is that the image has not changed even if my interpretation is constantly challenged. White performers liberating the white penis by attributing a fertile universality to the black penises of their blackface selves is still a difficult concept for me to even articulate let alone grasp in its full context.
But I’ve also moved forward and have indeed worked my way through more than three pages of writing this week in relation to “Ol’ Dan Tucker,” the most prominent song of the Virginia Minstrels. Here’s several verses found in the online Lester Levy Songsheet Collection at the John Hopkins University Libraries.
What I find troubling and interesting about 1840’s minstrelsy is the celebration of black men suffering and dying. In this version of “Ol Dan Tucker,” Tucker “swallowed a hogshead molasses down/the molasses worked de hogshead bust/And he went up in a thunder gust.” An 1847 version has Tucker riding ” a steam engine/One night he laid across a track/An de locomotive cum an’ brake his back.” There were other verses on the humiliation of Ol’ Dan Tucker but these stanzas on Tucker’s spectacular death strike me have a revolting happiness and joy about them.
Which makes them hell to write about.
Researching blackface is stressful and I felt so polluted during my first six weeks on the topic in 2010 that I wanted to take a shower every time I emerged from the archives.
Sometimes I think I did.
But researching blackface is not as painful as writing about it. I had brain surgery as an infant, grew up in an abusive family, and have been in therapy most of my adult life. When I first started therapy, it was because of the eye pain symptoms, I experienced almost any time I tried to read during my first year of grad school. But dreams of my father torturing me soon followed and lasted for close to 20 years before abating in the later 1990’s while my daughters were little. What writing about minstrelsy does is put me back into a state of intense vulnerability where my normal sense of my body and the environment is disturbed and discomfited enough that I have to stop writing and usually take short naps to recompose myself so I can get back to work.
My situation is certainly not the same as Harry Potter’s in the Prisoner of Azkhaban. I’m not being attacked by a dangerous, magical creature like the dementors and I haven’t fainted like Harry Potter did when the dementor attacked him on the Hogwart’s Express. But Harry began to hear his mother’s screams as his lessons on repelling dementors advanced with Professor Lupin and that is what I’ve started to hear as I take little breaks from my writing on blackface–a screaming from no place of which I know and directed to no one I’m aware of.
Just screaming .
Perhaps that screaming will continue to occur. Perhaps it won’t. Perhaps the episodes where I hear screaming will take shape and direction. Then again, maybe they won’t. And perhaps there’s a connection to the pain and anxiety I experienced growing up, the dreams of being tortured by my father, or the various panic attack and depressive episodes I’ve gone through. That’s likely the case but those connections might remain opaque and indiscernible as well.
But I do know that my writing on blackface minstrelsy does have a vital connection to my mental history as a whole.