Part 1 of 5. Under the cut.
When the people who do these things get around to creating the definitive list of the greatest Americans who ever were, Frederick Douglass will be somewhere in the top three. A slave turned publisher, celebrated orator and advisor to pillars of government, his contributions to the moral, political and lettered life of the nation are quantifiably great: without his brave and difficult actions, the civil rights gains that unfolded later across the board would have been a longer time coming.
The day after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Douglass attended a memorial service at Rochester City Hall. Despite his years-long, complex relationship with the president he had not been invited to this event, nor was he put on the official speakers list by the mayor. So Douglass simply merged with the overflowing crowd, sat toward the back, and listened to one officially sanctioned white man after another pontificate. When those on the podium finished, the crowd was unsatisfied. Word passed that Douglass was among them, one voice after another called for him to stand and testify, and the event organizers had no choice but to acquiesce.
Understand: It was a primarily Caucasian crowd, people just coming of the Civil War, people who, through the privilege of power granted by the pale of their skin, had already begun constructing the authorized myth of what the recent Troubles were about. (More and here.) But when they needed someone to put heart and mind together and get to the truth of their collective trauma over Lincoln's murder, they turned to the former slave sitting in the back who was not thought worthy enough to offer an official invite to begin with.
Pieces of Douglass' extemporaneous speech can be found in books about the two of them and in some newspaper reports from the time, but I have never been able to find the entire thing. Reports say that during it he quoted from memory a lengthy passage from the inaugural speech Lincoln delivered a few weeks earlier.
To give a sense of the might of his abilities, it's not out of line to extrapolate a bit. Eleven years after the assassination, Douglass delivered a eulogy for Lincoln as part of the dedication ceremony for the Freedman's Monument in Washington, D.C. Unlike Rochester, the full text for that one is widely available. While it is enormously difficult to choose one single excerpt to share, I'm going to pick up from the part after he has explained why Lincoln was preeminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men who was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country, and was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states if that's what it took to save America.
Those words he spoke about his friend were not a blanket condemnation. One of Douglass' gifts was the ability to hold tight to multiple truths when trying to explain the whole with clarity. He rarely flinched from what was uncomfortable just because people didn't want to hear it.
To you it especially belongs to sound his praises, to preserve and perpetuate his memory, to multiply his statues, to hang his pictures high upon your walls and commend his example, for to you he was a great and glorious friend and benefactor. Instead of supplanting you at his altar, we would exhort you to build high his monuments; let them be of the most costly material, of the most cunning workmanship; let their forms be symmetrical, beautiful and perfect, let their bases be upon solid rocks, and their summits lean against abundance of your wealth, and in the fullness of your just and patriotic devotion, you do all this, we entreat you to despise not the humble offering we this day unveil to view; for while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.
Again, that's not what he said at Rochester, but it's not going too far afield to guess that whatever he did say was probably a version of the above. What is known for sure is on that day in Rochester, Douglass talked from the top of his head and gave the people what they wanted, and needed.
What did he think a few days later, when the death train carrying Lincoln's body came through New York City, and he was forbidden from attending the official viewing and service? No blacks were allowed at that event, not even one who knew the honored so well that he was a welcome guest at the inaugural ball.
Step back a little bit.
The abolitionist movement in America and England was a marvel of social justice action. It involved simultaneously attacking the spheres of public policy and finance, often using the rhetoric of morality and the tools of religion, in an attempt to break through the walls of fear and indifference. In a way the abolitionists had to go up against the very institutions critical to establishing Western slavery to begin with, using the very same tools that built slavery in their attempt to reverse what had been done. To put it in the most simplistic terms, slavery would not have ended had the power structure not decided it was time. This is why the abolitionist effort was largely a movement of white middle class and above people lobbying their peers.
There were very few black people working the abolitionist circuit. Douglass, the Crafts, W.W. Brown, "Box" Brown, Equiano, a few others. Over and again, each of them ran into the issue of authenticity. Even as their narratives flew off the shelves, people questioned if these former slaves had the mental capacity to write such a thing all by themselves. (Of the group mentioned here, Equiano is problematic in a strict accuracy sense.)
Despite a track record of eloquence, it was not uncommon for Douglass' white abolitionist peers to encourage him to change his approach for their speaking engagements. Throw in a plantation accent. Don't use all those large words. Adjust your body language to something more humble. Be more authentic, is what they advised him. They said this to him in America, in England, in Ireland. They paid him to come speak about the cause, yet wanted him to put on a show of being something other than he was to make him more palatable to the target audience.
This was all because of minstrelsy.
Duke Ellington arrived in England on tour right about the same time the BBC, a state-run news and entertainment service, began its many decades long relationship with blackface, promulgating the form on radio and television airwaves right up into this current day. British jazz fans were thrilled Ellington was finally making an appearance, and going by media reports of the time, the general populace was pretty excited, too. When they took the stage at the Palladium - the band in crisp suits, Ellington in white tails - the crowd thundered. There are no reports indicating if the crowd found anything incongruous about this highly-celebrated jazz master having to perform in front of a backdrop decorated with large pictures of banjo-toting minstrels. On the other hand, unlike at home, Ellington and his band members had no problems finding hotel rooms while touring England.
Step forward a little more.
If you like to read interviews with accomplished creator types, itâs hard not to notice how the brown ones from Europe describe their strife upon encountering the application of the word wog upon themselves as individual beings as often as the brown ones from America lament their encounters with the term nigger.
Nigger, you know. Wog is derived from Golliwog, a blackface doll created during the Victorian era by a white woman who, we are told, meant no harm.
Let's go back.
It cannot be emphasized enough just how ubiquitous minstrelsy was in the pop culture fabric of America and England. Though academics are still narrowing down the precise year of origin, it is generally accepted by scholars that minstrelsy was formalized sometime in the mid-1800s. Some of the best English resorts offered minstrel shows as part of the attraction. Minstrels were a mainstay in the music halls, theaters and even the drawing rooms of the monied class in Victorian and Edwardian England. Though Americans didnât go so much for the drawing room minstrel presentations, they were in cultural lockstep with their cousins overseas as far as loving this stuff in the theater.
Minstrelsy was considered good, clean, acceptable and in most cases family-friendly entertainment, while the emerging musical styles that would become jazz was considered a morally corrupt wasteland for the lower classes.
Much to the dismay of a certain people at the time, the audience also consumed minstrelsy as a news outlet of sorts. Though sympathizers (and others) got their information about the realities of slavery from published slave narratives, the white populace mostly got their information about how black people were through the constructs presented to them through minstrelsy. They thought the lazy, dumb, criminal, drunken, razor-wielding, sex obsessed types being presented to them on stage embodied near absolute truth. They often thought the skits being presented to them were recreations of factual events. Much of this was because they found the funny, nostalgic, nonthreatening mirage presented to them on stage and in living rooms comforting. Minstrelsy affirmed their desired memory and their current status in the hierarchy.
So when Douglass’ abolitionist peers advised him to minstrel-up his presentations, they were trying to be helpful. They were concerned his insistence on being the man he was would muddle the message and damage the cause. These were the same type of people who, in the wake of Lincoln’s death, turned to uninvited Douglass in heartache, begging him to speak upon the man who brought the nation through strife and war intact if not yet whole. And he did that for them. Yet they couldn’t understand why he refused to be more 'authentically nigger' so as not to confuse, upset or offend the audiences they wanted to sway to the abolitionist cause.
Douglass’ first autobiography was such a commercial success that he had to get the hell out of the country for a while out of fear of recapture. He went on a two-year speaking tour of England and Ireland. His visit coincided with the tour of a popular American blackface troupe that seemed to be covering the exact same route. He was displeased. It was like he was being hunted by bearers of the cork.
And yet, he noted on that tour the suffering of the Irish and their efforts to free themselves from the yoke. He saw how that population was using minstrelsy as protective cover in their criticisms against their oppressor.
There should be an origin story.
To make a minstrel, take a face, cork it black, exaggerate the space around the lips and the eyes (sometimes the lips are red), add jazz hands. Dress in outlandish high-falutin clothes, else cartoonish rags if that type of character is needed. Kick up the ethnic dialect, cadence and speech patterns. To make a minstrel show, throw in music, vaudeville-type skits predicated on extreme ethnic humor, mix in a bone-deep nostalgia for a zip a dee doo dah era that never was. And you’re done.
You also have a package that can be easily altered for use against any group outside of the the one in power. So while blacks were the first targets, the form was quickly adapted to ‘suit’ Irish, German, rural or poor urban whites, and (in America at least) Chinese, all for the entertainment of the majority culture. This portability is one of the fascinating elements of minstrelsy.
Just as with the abolitionists, most performers on the minstrel circuit were white. (In fact the structure of the live minstrel show evolved to build in stage time to *prove* to the audience that the actors were white.) There were black performers, some of them also became huge stars, but their lives were harsher in comparison. Unlike the white minstrels, they had to worry about sundown towns. Nor were they free to walk away from the psychic weight of blackface at the end of a show.
A minstrel show was highly structured. There was the emcee, a person who spoke standard English, trading riffs with the anchors, usually two men on either end of the group on the stage who were corked up. Variety and musical acts came at regular intervals. The structure, combined with how vocals were arguably more important than the visuals, might be one of the reasons this form transitioned so well from stages and the drawing rooms of the monied-class and onto the radio.
Radio gave minstrelsy its second wind.
America began its airwave relationship with minstrelsy almost 10 years before the BBC did the same. There were hundreds of minstrel shows on radio stations throughout America, reaching from metropolis to one-horse towns. (This was back when radio was not ruled by a handful of corporations all playing the same programs.) They were cheap to do, easy to mount, and there was a huge pool of talent to pull from. Because these shows were popular, they also made money for the advertisers.
If the hope was minstrelsy would die a natural death, providing a little breathing room for something beyond overt racism as entertainment to take its place, radio smashed that to bits. Now, instead of having to get to a show or wait for a troupe to come to town, anybody could take in a plethora of minstrel offerings at pretty much any time of the day with the flick of the on switch. Though in the states broadcasters eventually backed off on airing overt minstrel performances about 20 years before the BBC did the same, the combined impact was to spread the form even wider throughout the world. The protests of those most victimized by the content were ignored.
Technically, it was pneumonia and heart disease that killed Bert Williams. But I can’t help but to think that what really happened was more along the lines of what one writer said about Dorothy Dandridge – it was a murder that took a lifetime.
Academics, entertainment historians and performers say Williams was quite possibly the funniest man to ever walk the planet. He was one of the first black international superstars, a pioneer in vaudeville when blacks were unwelcome, the first black person to star with the Ziegfeld Follies. His presence at Ziegfeld infuriated the white performers, but the producer, realizing who was bringing in the crowds and their money, told them to suck it up. He wrote the bulk of his own material with his stage partner George Walker, and their stuff shined.
Williams, a West Indian immigrant to America portraying a black American minstrel stereotype, spent his career buried beneath the cork. He tried to get out from under it; he wanted, as Douglass wanted, to stand on his own as a human and not as someone else’s construct. I believe his entire career was one of combat against the system, done in full view of all (and getting paid for it to boot).
He did a cycle of songs – Nobody, Everybody, Somebody Lied – that are astonishing. They can be read as the crystallization of his long attempt to turn the humor he drew from audiences into empathy enough to allow him his freedom. You know how there’s a difference between you laughing at your own and somebody else laughing at your kind? Zora put it my people, my people as in yeah, that’s how we are sometimes. But Williams knew that the vast majority of his audience stopped at yeah, that’s how they are. No qualifier.
Still, he tried, because he had hope. Williams, like (occasionally) Douglass, Booker T., W.W. Brown, DuBois and so many others who had to come to terms with going through life while blackface pranced along in the bright sunshine, he hoped that his performances could be a way to help build bridges and break down prejudice.
It didn’t work. Even though died on stage to gales of laughter – the audience thought it was a bit – in the end he lost. Nothing changed. I bet he knew the score.
W.E.B. DuBois said that Williams had a smile that hovered above blood and tragedy, the light mask of happiness that hid breaking hearts and bitter souls. We’ll never know the full strength of what he could have done had he been allowed to wash his face and still keep his career. His potential was limited from the outset.
When the Martians began their attack during the clever remix of War of the Worlds, the only thing Mr. Hyde could think to say as an expression of his immediate shock and fury was You sky-wog bastards!
In context it was very funny.
Traditional minstrelsy can be enormously entertaining. But it, and the elements of blackface they are also tricky for use. I’m going to get into that a bit more down the road. For now, it’s necessary to state the obvious.
Fundamentally, blackface has more to do with the perceptions of one group at the expense of another. The thoughts, feelings and input of the other group does not factor into it at all.
You can say it this way: In the blackface myth, there is a white fantasy which posits whiteness as the norm. What is absent in the blackface stereotype is as important as what is present: every black face is a statement of social imperfection, inferiority, and mimicry that is placed in isolation with an absent whiteness as its ideal opposite. … The blackface stereotype, by deforming the body, silences it and leaves room only for white supremacy to speak through it. (Diawara)
Or this way: British blackface minstrelsy was, from the start, not so much an imitation, involving any strict fidelity of reproduction of black cultural expression and practice, as a caricature based on white conceptions of Africans and African-Americans. These conceptions in Britain were in turn shaped by a racial conceit and national chauvinism which increased as the nineteenth century advanced. Along with other forms of Victorian popular culture such as adventure fiction, travel writing and advertising, 'nigger' minstrelsy appeared to confirm the racial superiority of white people over others, and over Blacks in particular, and not least because many people accepted it as an authentic representation of black subjectivity and culture. Throughout the period of European colonialism and imperialism, images of Africa and black people were generally the negativised opposite of white cultural identities, and the conditions and characteristics attributed to that continent and its dehistorised inhabitants thereby constituted a ready yardstick of European progress and civilization. (Pickering)
Or this way: White people believed the counterfeit … often, in the minds of many, blackface singers and dancers became, simply, negroes. One of minstrelsy's functions was precisely to bring various class fractions into contact with one another, to mediate their relations, and finally to aid in the construction of class identities over the bodies of black people. Emerging splits within the working class (between artisans and proletarianized workers, for instance, or between "natives" and immigrant Irish) were often made manifest in terms of these groups' differential relations to racial privilege, even as the formation of a northern working class depended on a common sense of whiteness. (Lott)
Or this way: The filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens. (Douglass)
No matter how you put it, that’s the landscape. Minstrelsy was unhidden. Blackface was both a tool and a weapon. The products that emerged from this form stem from a source that is morally, politically and socially corrupt. In this present day, if you choose to toy with this construct, and if you ignore the big picture, you do so at your peril.
Next: Let’s talk about those three white women and their minstrel-inspired creations.
*** Bert Williams, Nobody, 1906.