An Incident of Virulent Racism

On Monday, this video of a blonde white woman doing two minutes of racist ranting appeared on twitter. It’s ugly, bigoted stuff and I have a hard time imagining that it was not emotionally harmful to many of the black people sitting in the same subway care or seeing the tirade on twitter. That’s the purpose of hate speech–to wound, damage, discourage, and depress. I’m white and I felt discouraged and depressed listening to that garbage.

From Luci

At the same time, I grew up in an abusive family, am writing a couple chapters on 1830’s/1840’s blackface minstrelsy, and see some familiar mechanisms at work. In blackface songs like J. W. Sweeney’s “Whar Do You Come From” and “Jonny Boker,” the “n-word” was used to humiliate and degrade black people while simultaneously providing white audiences a crescendo of shared pleasure. Every refrain would highlight the n-word as if it was the secret to salvation Shared racism has long been a foundation stone of white culture and my father tried to socialize me into racism as part of his effort to make “a man out of me” while I was a teen in the 60’s.

But the audience for the blonde woman in the subway car was overwhelmingly black and her pleasures in racism didn’t seem to be shared with other white people. Instead, the blonde woman was waging a one woman race war that she was determined to dominate through insulting black people, first by using the n-word 7 times–n-word, n-word, n-word, n-word, n-word, n-word, n-word. I’m not familiar with any writing on the ways in which insults are important to conservative discourse in the United States but white conservatives have been working overtime since the 2020 election to apply new insults like “woke” and “groomer” to intimidate and discomfit their liberal opponents. For the blonde racist, openly using the n-word and other insults like the c-word, “mental retard,” and “Black Vagina” are all ways to aggressively attack her enemies.

Another part of the oppressive power of the blonde woman’s racist speech is the transgression of the widely held norm against openly using the n-word in the U.S. Much of the original power of early blackface came from the transgression of white performers dressing up as black men and black women and the blonde racist relies on the transgressive power of the n-word to pursue her race war against the rest of the subway car. People in the car objected, called her “crazy,” and indicated that the video was going viral but they lacked the legal ability to either enforce the norms against hate speech themselves or access to any kind of police power to enforce the norms on their behalf. Unable to silence the blonde racist, they had to listen to her respond to each of their points by yelling more insults and screaming at them to “SHUT UP.”

I don’t have any solutions in which I’d have confidence. As someone who grew up in an abusive environment, I would conceivably have the ability to yell back. But I generally freeze when these kinds of ugly situations erupt and a reasonable black person might think that responding forcefully to these kinds of racist fanatics just makes the situation worse. So I don’t know what could be done about it.

But I still think it important to take note.

Arresto Momentum

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I’ve a long-time fan of the Harry Potter novels, started reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 1999, and still think fondly of the books despite the offensiveness of J.K. Rowling’s transphobia. My oldest daughter was five when we both read The Sorcerer’s Stone and both my daughters grew up reading Harry Potter books, watching Harry Potter movies, and engaging in constant Harry Potter chat about Hogwarts, Gryffindor, brooms, wands, spells, and magical pets. And I grew up as a father while sharing Harry Potter materials with them, racing the oldest to see who could first finish The Order of the Phoenix, and watching the movies again and again as family ritual. I had a couple Harry Potter wands and would use them in my classes to explain the concept of labor in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. Harry Potter tapes still help keep me awake and focused on long drives from Eastern Kentucky to Upstate New York and Florida.

What was especially affecting about The Prisoner of Azkaban was the idea of Harry’s father as a patronus who could be called on to protect Harry from the “demontors” who attacked Harry on many occasions. Dementors were creatures nourished by sucking on the happiness of their human prey and they could suck out human souls by performing the “dementor’s kiss.” Harry was attacked several times by dementors in The Prisoner of Azkaban and gradually began to hear his mother screaming at Voldemort while he was preparing to attack her. To protect himself, Harry learned to conjure a large silvery image of a patronus which chased the dementors away. When Harry’s father James Potter was in school, he regularly changed into a large stag for adventures with his friends and Harry’s patronus was also a large stag, representing the protective, nurturing spirit of his father within him. Harry’s father was killed by Voldemort when Harry was one, but his spirit lived within Harry helping him fight off dementors the same way Dumbledore provided paternal guidance to Harry even after his own death.

When I first read The Prisoner of Azkaban, I was in Clarksville, TN preparing to deliver a history paper at Austin Peay State University. What was inspiring about the book was the pervasive “spirit of the father” that had been so long lacking in my own life. Having grown up in a family with such an abusive father that I changed my name in 1995, I had a yearning for a “real” father extending back to my childhood and appreciation for television shows like “Father Knows Best,” “Bachelor Father,” “My Three Sons,” “Bewitched,” and “Bonanza.” In all these shows, fictional fathers evinced a supportive interest in their children, sense of proportion in relation to their children’s issues, and ability to be helpful that seemed much more real than the spasmodic terrorism of my own father. Indeed, far from feeling my father as a guardian spirit, I had just emerged from a 20-year period of him torturing me in my dreams. What Prisoner of Azkaban brought out in me was a sense of for once having a fatherly figure as a guardian spirit and I was inspired by the feeling for several days if not several weeks.

But what’s sticking with me now is the annoying arresto momentum spell that wasn’t in the book but was used in the Prisoner of Azkaban movie as Dumbledore broke Harry’s fall from his broom after his second dementor attack. I’ve always viewed the movie’s arresto momentum spell as a dumb sacrilege on the book but now I feel like my own momentum has been arrested by my travel to my ancestral homeland in Upstate NY and yesterday’s colonoscopy procedure. The writing had been going well. I was writing two posts per week and have been developing a nice mix of daily political commentary and insights into the basic cultural mechanisms of American politics. I’ve also been making progress on my book manuscript. Much of my current work for Ch 10 on 1840’s blackface has been on the famous “Ol’ Dan Tucker” and I’ve been putting together my themes of white identification with black suffering, comic substance, the attribution of infinite phallicism to black male characters, the equally infinite potential for torturing black male characters, and the underlying dynamics of labor. I was up to 3000 words a week but now I’m starting over again.

Arresto Momentum indeed.

Phallic Play, Theft, and Ownership in 1840’s Blackface

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The appearance of the Virginia Minstrels represented a signal shift in early blackface minstrelsy.  The members of the band—Dan Emmett, Billie Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower—were all well-known blackface performers before joining forces in New York. Brower had been performing in Philadelphia since arriving from Baltimore as a 13 year-old dancer in 1836 and had travelled with Emmitt, a Mount Vernon, Ohio native, in the Cincinnati Circus. Billy Whitlock was established as a co-author of the popular “Lucy Long” along with T.G. Booth while Pelham was known for composing and performing “Massa is a Stingy Man” with his brother Gilbert. The Virginia Minstrels mostly sang established songs like “Lucy Long” and “Jenny Get Your Hoe Cake Done,” but also added new numbers like Dan Emmett’s “Ol’ Dan Tucker.”  What made the Virginia Minstrels distinct from T. D. Rice’s “Jim Crow” and the other solo acts and duets was the way they combined music and comic antics.  When in their classic semi-circle, Whitlock and Emmitt played the banjo and fiddle in the middle while Brower and Pelham performed as comedians and play the bones castanets and tambourine. Brower and Pelham were known primarily as dancers but it was their jokes, commentary, stunts, and pratfalls that infused the Virginia Minstrels with the manic energy for which they became famous.  After a sensational first run at the Chatham theater in New York, the group sailed east for tours of Ireland and England where they were joined by J.W. Sweeney for several performances while also splitting off with duos of Brower and Emmett and Sweeney and Emmett performing on their own. The Virginia Minstrels broke up in 1844 but their success inspired other blackface performers to form bands like the Virginia Serenaders, Ethiopian Serenaders, and New Orleans Serenaders.

The above picture of the Virginia Minstrels had a pervasive phallicism. The phallicism wasn’t limited to the little penis showing between the splayed legs of Frank Brower on the group’s left, Brower’s feet are also portrayed as erect penises. So are Emmett’s feet and Dick Pelham has a penis foot showing as he prepares to punch his tambourine. The Edward Clay lithographs portrayed the feet of black men and women as phallic with their exaggerated size and extra-long heels also giving black feet an animalistic effect. But it would be more accurate to say that the the cover illustrator substituted erect penises for feet with the Virginia Minstrels. That is except for one of Emmett’s feet where the front of the penis foot is deflated as if it is going flaccid. There is also a flaccid penis effect with the tongues of Emmett and Whitlock as they play their fiddle and banjo which imparts somewhat of an opposition between erect and flaccid penises to the whole picture with the erect penises including one of the castanets held by Brower and Emmett’s banjo. Eric Lott noted in Love and Theft that banjos were often pictured in phallic ways and argues that blackface had an obsession with “the black penis.” Such an obsession could be there but it would be part of a general play of penises in the picture. The Virginia Minstrels were white men performing as black men and the pictures could also be seen as representing white penises through the vehicle of blackface performance. By picturing penises as feet, the picture also represents penises as being detached from their ascribed place on male bodies. There’s a sense of endless play with penises in the picture of the Virginia Minstrels but also a kind of vulnerability that can be seen in the picturing of Brower’s blackface penis with his legs being splayed.

Penises being detachable raises another possibility in relation to early blackface minstrelsy, the historical literature on blackface minstrelsy portrays white blackface performers as stealing black folk figures, dance styles, clothes, skin, hair, musical instruments, and dialect for the purpose of entertaining white audiences and enabling white men to sustain a functional identity during the hard times of early industrialization. It might be that the Virginia Minstrels were aiming to take black penis as well and that the fascination with “the black penis” was something that accompanied a determined effort by white performers and audiences to steal black penises and use them for white purposes.

A general thesis from this consideration would be that the Virginia Minstrels viewed white identity as demanding that whites possess everything blacks have, everything blacks are, and everything whites could ascribe to them. In other words, they demanded an insanely high level of cultural ownership.

Clay Lithographs: Adding Men to the Mix

In his pictures of Black men, Clay uses racial stereotypes to signify blackness as degraded and animalistic while also employing a language of “blackness” to demean black people.

In the case of the man at the cellar door, his pretensions to gentility are mocked by his attempt at courtship. The man is dressed as a gentleman with a blue coat, top hat, and a cane and formally addresses a servant when he asks “Is Miss Dina at home?” The appearance of gentility is already subverted when the man asks for a “Miss Dina” which marks the object of his attraction as a black woman. The appearance becomes farcical when “Miss Dina” is revealed as a domestic servant “potickly engaged in washing de dishes.” The lesson of the lithograph is that gentility on the part of black men is strictly a pretense and that black men are just as much servants by nature as “Dina.” By substituting the African dialect of “potickly” for the term “particularly,” the servant opens to door for malapropisms signifying her blackness and the Man at the Cellar Door regrets that he “cant have the honour to pay my devours to her” before leaving his card.

The Clay lithographs had a variety of ways to represent the “blackness” of black men in terms of being misshapen and animalistic. With the man at the cellar door, Clay portrays him as having enlarged and rounded buttocks. In the exchange between Caesar and Chloe on Plate 4, “Caesar” is not only represented as short but as having a body that resembles a chimpanzee in the way it is short with a thick chest, shoulders and arms with a small waist.

Library Company of Philadelphia

In the picture of the woman trying on the poke bonnet, Clay portrays “Frederick Augustus as having such an enlarged backside that it looked like Clay drew a pillow back there. At the same time, Clay gave “Frederick Augustus” a facial shape, beard, lips, and hair that had an ape-like appearance. In this sense, Clay was not just ridiculing the aspirations of Frederick Augustus and Caesar to the genteel status advertised by their clothes, he was portraying them as a kind of monstrous combination of the human and animal with genteel pretension giving the concoction a particular absurdity. The black men in Clay’s pictures had money and taste, but their monstrous blackness meant that they had no real place in either the human or animal kingdom. Even Frederick’s dog turns away from him.

With the "Dark Conversation" picture, Clay brings together several of his themes concerning black men. All the men in Dark Conversation have a genteel affect of top hats, waist coats, gentleman's trousers, and umbrellas. The man in the green jacket is wearing boots and carrying a crop for riding horses. But most of the men in "Dark Conversation" have the same rounded buttocks as the man in the cellar door and Frederick Augustus with the absurdity enhanced by the group effect of having several black men in the picture. As was the case with T.D. Rice and Jim Crow, the rounded buttocks were a stereotype of blackness, but Clay added to the half human connotations of blackness by giving almost all of the men extra large feet with heels extending well to the rear. The men conversing with each other each has ridiculously large feet that extend far out of both the front and the back. In this sense, Clay's lithographs portray black men and black women as being monstrosity of nature as well as ridiculous in their aspirations for upward mobility.

In “Dark Conversation,” Edward W. Clay also began using the term “black” as a way to demean black men and women. The set up for Clay’s joke was the man in the green jacket saying “berry black looking day this” with the man in the blue answering that “the blacks flying around so make it polikly disagreeable.” Along the same line, Clay’s “The New Shoes, has a black shoemaker admit that black is “not handsome to look at” when a black woman asks for pink or white shoes because black “is such a berry dirty color.” The power of the humor lay particularly in Clay’s putting his own demeaning of black people in the mouth of a black man. From Clay’s point of view, his portrayals of black people as misshapen misfits were enhanced by attributing them to black men and women.