Early Blackface and Discourses on Blackness

George Christy as “Lucy Long,” about 1848

This is a highly condensed version of my early blackface material written for the Midwest Popular Culture Association in Minneapolis last weekend. Citations are still in development.

This paper concerns developments in blackface minstrelsy from the emergence of T.D. Rice and his “Jim Crow” act in the early 1830’s to the months just before the founding of the Virginia Minstrels in 1843. My research mostly concerns Philadelphia, but blackface was a massive cultural phenomena in the northern and western parts of ante-bellum America. My narrative approach will be to start at the end of the period with “Lucy Long” and then move backward to discuss other minstrel performers going back to Rice. By the time “Lucy Long” was published in 1842, several discourses on “blackness” had been incorporated into blackface performance, including blackness as exposure and vulnerability, blackness as criminality, blackness as sickness, blackness as comic substance, and blackness as femininity. One questions addressed in early 1830’s blackface minstrelsy was the extent to which black people could be viewed as having a “place” in society. By the early 1840’s, the question was decided in the negative as blackface songs became celebrations of the torture and humiliation of black people. In the minstrelsy view, black people had no legitimate place in society except as an object of white voyeurism and sadistic enjoyment.

According to blackface performer Billy Whitlock, he originally wrote the music for “Lucy Long” in 1838 with T. G. Booth providing the lyrics. The song seemed to have become prominent by 1842 when two versions were published, one by George Wittig and a second by black bandleader Frank Johnson. Costuming as a black woman represented an extension of the cultural logic of blackness and femininity that had been part of Philadelphia popular culture since before Rice and Jim Crow. Workingmen’s writers of the late 1820’s had represented themselves as being attacked by creatures like vampires and incubi that preyed sexually on women and, thus, they attributed a stereotyped femininity to their own male bodies. When Rice dressed up in blackface and rags to perform Jim Crow, he embodied an image of slavery that had even more feminine connotations of vulnerability and weakness. That was part of the transgressive thrill with “Jim Crow.” When a performer like Whitlock costumed as a black woman playing “Lucy Long,” he enhanced the identification of blackface “blackness” with femininity even further.

“Lucy Long”

I’m just from old Warginny,/ To sing a little song, ‘T is all about by sweetheart/De lubly Lucy Long,/Oh take your time, Miss Lucy,

“De way dey bake de hoe cake,/In warginny neber tire,/ Is to stick de dough upon de foot,/And hold it to de fire/ Take your time, etc.”

“Yes Lucy is a pretty girl,/Such lubly hands and feet/When her toes is in de market house, Her heels is in Main Street,/ Take your time, etc.” (My emphasis)

Ostensibly, “Lucy Long” is about the romantic hesitancy of an attractive young black woman, “My Lucy is a pretty girl,/ My Lucy’s berry tall.” But the idea of “Lucy Long’s” attractiveness was subverted by her gigantic feet stretching from the “market house to Main Street.” The length of Lucy’s feet made her a monstrosity rather than a “pretty girl,” in fact making a cruel joke out of her pretentions to be pretty. The “unnaturalness” here is not just a matter of Lucy having poorly apportioned body parts but that she seems to be a combination of recognizably human and completely inhuman qualities—a kind of abomination. The exaggerated size of Lucy’s feet also had a phallic quality which conveyed the further abomination of being a male appendage attached to a female body. The image of black women having unnaturally long heels went back at least as far back as Edward Clay’s “Life in Philadelphia” lithographs (1828) which represented the feet of black women and men extending at length both forward and backward from the heel.  Along with hyper-extended feet, Clay portrayed black people as having ape-like faces and furry arms, chimp-like teeth, and large, rounded derrieres that identified them as deformed amalgamations of human and animal. This raises questions about the implications of Clay’s pictures for black people fitting into society. Before the 1820’s, black people were 10-15% of the Philadelphia population but were so little represented in popular culture that they were not even seen as “the other.” To the contrary, the focus of Clay’s lithographs is on black people buying clothes, talking about weather, courting, and drinking tea, but also as absurd kinds of beings because of their misshapenness and monstrous mixture of human and animal. From Clay’s point of view, black people were a comic substance living in society but definitely not belonging there.

Clay, Plate 14, 1830

Despite appearances, the discourse on blacks as comic substance was an element in the early blackface performances of T.D. Rice as “Jim Crow.” Contrary to Clay, T. D. Rice represented blackness in terms of the poverty and vulnerability with which white laboring men viewed themselves. Not only did he black up his skin, Rice wore shoes full of holes and ragged, patched clothes to represent the poverty associated with blackness and enhanced the racial effect by adopting black dialect.  The figure of “Jim Crow” represented everything laboring men in Philadelphia saw in blackness and feared in themselves—encompassing poverty, vulnerability, slavishness, and degradation.” The popular culture of laboring men in Philadelphia was sprinkled with images of men facing hydras, falling into delirium tremens, and partially “occupied” by cork legs taking them to their deaths. However, instead of seeking out ways to overcome the fears over his body, Rice embraced that degradation and displayed it in public as a white man performing the black figure of “Jim Crow.” As a result of performing this racial transgression and embracing the degradation involved, Rice represent himself as having a super-charged masculinity and an unshakable sense of male bodily integrity.

T.D. Rice as Jim Crow

In the hands of Rice, “Jim Crow” was the master of an environment so full of danger that other men could hardly avoid death or disaster. Far from perceiving vulnerability, “Jim Crow” affirmed an exaggerated masculine power and punctuated each story of his dominance with the laughing refrain: “Weel about and turn about and do jis so/ Eb’ry time I weel about and Jump Jim Crow.” Far from following Clay in representing “blackness” as comic substance, T.D. portrayed “Jim Crow’s” “blackness” as a degradation that needed to be “embraced” for white men to embody a full masculinity as men and citizens. However, it is very likely that Rice and his audiences incorporated Clay’s views on blackness as comic substance into their appreciation for the figure of “Jim Crow.” Clay’s lithographs were popular in Philadelphia and continued to be reproduced for a decade. Likewise, Rice himself was aware of Clay’s work, did a “lyric commentary” on “Life in Philadelphia” in 1833, and included material from Clay in his 1835 play Bone Squash Diavalo.  Lhamon argues that Rice viewed Clay’s lithographs as a satire on black dandies but Clay’s claims were about blackness being deformed and absurd by nature. What’s fascinating and horrible here is that Clay’s portrayal of black otherness in terms of abominations would have added an even more degradation to the representation of “blackness” and made the embrace of blackness an act of even more transgressive symbolic power than dressing and performing in blackface alone. The same can be said for the stigmatizing of blackness as criminal and disease. A reviewer argued in 1833 that Rice could have done without performing blackface “for we should have supposed that the “infected district” and the Mayor’s Court room, exhibited quite a sufficiency of the “African variety.” Lhamon’s Jump Jim Crow argued for an expansive perspective on the black influences on Rice. The same should also be the case for all the demeaning representations of blackness that would have pervaded Rice and his audience. By comprehending “blackness” in such demeaning ways, audiences may have understood the racial transgressions of blackface in a manner even more powerful than Rice.

After 1835, blackface minstrelsy became a two-tier music and entertainment field for much of the next decade. T. D. Rice continued to dominate the field and expanded his repertoire by writing plays like The Virginia Mummy, and Bone Squash Diavalo. At the same time, a second generation of blackface artists gradually gained prominence and were given prominent billing in Philadelphia venues. Performers like W. Myers, Jim Sanford, J. W. Sweeney, and the Pelhams continued some motifs from Rice, but also developed their own version of blackface. Largely forsaking Rice-style improvisation, newer performers employed standard popular song format, and danced recognizable jigs. But the biggest departure was the younger performers following Clay and identifying blackness as a “comic substance” of monstrously misshapen bodies and gross incompetence. There was also a shift in the focal point of blackface entertainment as newer performers oriented their songs around the ridicule, humiliation, and physical suffering of black people. As a result, reveling in the (fictional) pain of black people became a second discourse through which blackface reinforced white masculinity

This combination can be seen first in songs like “Jim Brown” (1836) and “Jim Along Josey” (1838).  Like “Jim Crow,” the characters of “Jim Brown” and “Josey” were former slaves whose talents triumphed over everybody and everything. “Jim Brown” impressed the girls with his banjo tunes, the opera audience with his fiddle, and the Mayor and Corporation as a band leader.  With “Josey,” it was his dancing—“Dey try it on at de chalky whites ball/But de independent nigger beat dem all.” But where the talents of Rice allowed him to portray “Jim Crow” with an enhanced masculinity, “Jim Brown” and “Josey” draw heavily on the ideas of black otherness in Clay’s lithographs. In the case of “Jim Brown” the songbook’s cover sheet represents him as both ludicrous and monstrous. “Jim Brown” was drawn so big that he wouldn’t be able to stand in his apartment, and his left hand is given a fur-like appearance which is reinforced by his wife and daughter also being drawn with furry arms and legs. In “Jim Along Josey,” a friend was exaggerated in an inhuman way that harmed him: “My one berry good fren was Romeo Prescott/Him Heart so warm set fir to him wescot.” “Romeo Prescott” is thus represented as having an inhuman kind of body that generates a dangerous heat and therefore begins to consume him when it sets fire to his waist coat. Other forms of torture included curing a tooth ache by filling another man’s jaw “wid cob sause and wid oil/Den sat upon de fare until he make it boil.”  “Jim Along Josey” portrayed black men as being the comic substance of extended heels, overheated hearts and lack of perspective and common sense with a super-human ability to bear the pain of something like boiling sauce in his jaw. With “Jim Along Josey,” the comedy of “black nature” was extended from the enjoying the awkward amalgamations of black body parts to deriving pleasure from the inordinate amount of pain that could be inflicted on black men and women.

      

With the 1840’s, the setting for minstrel songs began to shift towards Southern plantations. In “Massa is a Stingy Man,” the plantation owner’s stinginess served as a pretext both for humiliating black people and satiating white audiences. The plantation image of “We’ll drink whisky all de week/and buttermilk o’ Sunday” can be seen as primarily motivated by the longing of laboring white men in the audience for an alcohol utopia where their depression-era vulnerability and anguish could be drowned out by the constant pleasures of the bottle. In this way, “Massa is a Stingy Man” encouraged the white audience to identify with an image of black men being satiated by whiskey and buttermilk. In this way, “Massa is a Stingy Man” provided a basis for white laboring men to identify with images of blackness. [i] 

“Sing come day, go day, We’ll drink whisky all de week, And buttermilk o’ Sunday . . .Hoe cotton, dig corn, Den we feed de niggies, An oh, lord Moses, What a luscious time for niggas.”

In two of J.W. Sweeney’s songs, the basis for white identification with blackface images of blackness was everyday work tasks, managing oxen in “Jonny Boker” and mowing a corn field in “Whar do you cum from.”  At the same time, there was also a humiliation of black men that provided a second type of masculinity charge. “Massa is a Stingy Man” contained several examples. Pelham put the derogative term of “nigger” in a diminutive form that rhymes with “piggies” and made the feeding of black slaves into burlesque entertainment. Deploying the word “nigger” had a similar effect in the songs of Sweeney.    In “Whar did you cum from,” the phrase “Knock a Nigger Down” was employed as an emphatic refrain to every verse the same way that “Ketch that nigger” and “Help that Nigger” were used in “Jonny Boker.” One of the consistent elements in the blackface of the late 1830’s and 1840’s was the constancy, forcefulness, and versatility with which performers used the term “nigger” as a source of pleasure. Much as a laboring man in the traditional culture could instantaneously “drown his cares” and reconstitute a sense of themselves as independent men simply by drinking alcohol, a white laboring man could enjoy a miniature celebration of black degradation by using the word “nigger.”  For a performer like Sweeney, the term “nigger” defined bla ck men like “Jonny Boker” as objects of racial entertainment while allowing white men in the audience to define their white masculinity against black humiliation.[iii] When the blackface singer intoned “Hoe cotton, dig corn/Den we feed de niggies,” the feeding of black slaves serves primarily as a form of comic or burlesque entertainment for whites with the comic dimension reinforced by the last two lines “of Oh lord Moses/What a luscious time for niggas.” If the masculinity of white laboring men was enhanced by the racial transgression of blackface, it was enhanced yet again by the humiliation of black characters in the newer minstrel songs of the late 1830’s.