Comic Substance

Two important points for my argument on minstrelsy:

  1. Blackface performers adapted a concept of black people as “comic substance” whose humiliation, torture, and dismemberment could be enjoyed.
  2. The shared enjoyment of black humiliation and suffering became an anchor point for white identity.

There’s an example of the concept of black people as “comic substance” in “Lucy Long” which was written before the formation of the Virginia minstrels but was the most popular minstrel song of the 1840’s

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.

There was a stereotype that black women had large heels and feet–in this case that her feet extended 30 feet or more. The stereotypes themselves are what Patricia Hill Collins called a “controlling image” but minstrelsy multiplied the stereotypes concerning black hair, size, lips, and noses to the extent that they conveyed a general idea of black people as comic monstrosities, or “comic substance.”

A Contemporary Note:

When conservatives complain about being condemned for racist language, they express a longing to treat black people as comic substance and rage over current taboos on the n-word, racist jokes, etc. The ability to use and enjoy racist language has long been a significant part of being white and they feel the loss.

The State of Things

This is a journal blog on writing the two chapters on early blackface minstrelsy that I’m writing for a book manuscript entitled Displays of Degradation: Cultural Transformations in Philadelphia, 1785-1850.

When I started hunting down sources for these two chapters, I had overwhelming feelings of disgust for the topic of blackface minstrelsy, so overwhelming that I can’t really discuss in other places. So, these seemed like the place to express myself.

I may also use this blog for my short-form political commentary and have yet to determine how the two things will balance.