Shadow Dance
By Sikivu Hutchinson

Bert Williams is dead, long live Bert Williams.  In an era of virtual gratification, when images of cartoonish buffoonish blackness are at our fingertips 24/7, the politics of American minstrelsy has become a fitting metaphor for the role racial stereotypes play in commodity capitalism. Lurking behind the scowls, the gratuitous ghetto lore, and the macho swagger of sultans of gangsta rap like 50 Cent is the distorted legacy of the minstrel tradition. In December, on a bare stage at the KAOS performance space in Leimert Park, writer/performers Jason and Aaron White staged a piece called “The Dance,” a bracingly astute satire on the history of minstrelsy.  Using broad accents, props, and “ethnic” costumes, White and White critiqued the cultural and historical legacy of the minstrel tradition, highlighting the connection between the performance of black stereotypes and early caricatures of Mexican, Asian, and Native Americans as symbolic of the project of white identity formation.  First introduced to the U.S. in the late eighteenth century by white actor/musicians, minstrelsy was initially performed as popular entertainment for exclusively white audiences.  During the antebellum period, minstrelsy became a medium for disenfranchised white immigrants to establish “ethnic” solidarity with the dominant Anglo population.  Disdained by Anglo-American society as a “wild” culturally backward people, first and second-generation Irish-Americans used minstrelsy as an aesthetic form of bootstrapping.  Minstrelsy was an attempt to articulate Irish affinity with Anglo-American ideals of morality, individuality, and reason. By caricaturing the “primitive” ways of the black Other, Irish minstrels could squarely locate their people within Anglo-American models of liberal humanism and civilization.  

In one sequence, White and White commented on the use of European American music as a backdrop for minstrel performance, hinting at the strategic nature of the aesthetic choices made by white minstrels who were no doubt seeking to “protect” their audiences from the potentially subversive rhythms of music made by African American artists.  The sentimentality and romanticism of white Southern plantation culture was chillingly evoked by Aaron White in a dead-on lip synch rendition of Al Jolson’s infamous “Mammy” song.  That Jolson’s blackface performance in the Jazz Singer was the first “talkie” motion picture in the history of American film is a powerful reminder of the absolutely signal role that the black Other played in the articulation of nineteenth and twentieth century white subjectivity.  White and White ably illustrated the grotesquerie of minstrelsy by bugging their eyes and contorting their faces, alternating between frenetic outbursts of choreographed movement and robotic gestures.  Their channeling of black minstrel artists conveyed the deep pain and spiritual angst that both performing and watching minstrelsy elicited in blacks, whose bodies were literally used as vehicles to enact the rites and entitlements of a nascent post-bellum American empire.

In this respect, minstrelsy was not just a racially offensive “entertainment” but a powerful political tool that allowed whites to know what it meant to be white.  The grotesque bumbling of the blackface minstrel let whites in this relatively new republic know that they were, to paraphrase Toni Morrison, civilized and not savage, rational and not primitive. In short, Anglo America and its emergent white “ethnic” immigrant population was indeed the exemplar of a New World Enlightenment-fashioned beacon of democracy and individual liberty.  And just as nineteenth and early twentieth century white culture could only “see” itself when set against the projected backdrop of the abject black racial Other, so twenty first century white culture can only see itself through the lens of black hip hop commodification.

In one of the more problematic scenes of the performance, White and White reenacted the hip hop shuffle (or buck dance), gyrating to a misogynist hip hop rant while maintaining the servile posture of the minstrel.  While this offensive soundbite accentuated how destructive misogynist hip hop is to black femininity, the absence of commentary or exploration of the inclusion of this specific song excerpt was curious.  Nevertheless, the association of the hyper-masculine nihilistic bravado of mainstream hip hop with minstrelsy is relevant in several senses.  In one ribald sequence Jason White seized a Marilyn Monroe cutout, whose face is covered with a piece of cloth, and begins maniacally dry humping it, evoking the history of white racist propaganda about black male rapaciousness.  Yet it soon became evident to the audience that the joke is on White’s hapless minstrel, for the Monroe cutout actually had the face of Aunt Jemima—the polar opposite of the virginal, innocent, eminently desirable blonde white femininity that Monroe iconography signifies.  White America’s projection of rapaciousness onto black masculinity is also being carried out in an insidious way with the global export of the hip hop empire.  The nineteenth century’s bug eyed chicken eating malapropism-spewing black sexual predator has morphed into the twenty first century’s sub-literate ghetto hip hop entrepreneur pimping a bankrupt mafioso version of “black” lived experience for white suburban consumption; beholden to no one except his white male corporate benefactors at Time/Warner, Sony, Interscope, and the rest.  Indeed, by deploying stereotypes of black male perversity and hypermasculinity, a subtext in both of these traditions is the degradation of black femininity.   For, be they cast as bitches, hos, Aunt Jemimas, Sapphires or jezebels, black women’s bodies become serviceable props for patriarchal male ego gratification and identity formation.   Just as gangsta rap cannot establish its legitimacy without the bitch/ho/demanding baby mama literally and figuratively positioned in the representational foreground for ridicule and abuse, so minstrelsy was dependent upon the projection of hypersexual immorality and emasculating matriarchal tendencies onto black women.  As the cutting insights of “The Dance” suggest, the script of minstrelsy continues to pervade mainstream perceptions of blackness and black cultural production, despite the dominant culture’s belief in colorblind meritocracy.  Resplendent in its blackface, corporate America shadow dances all the way to the bank while pumping yet another model of black pathology down the hungry throats of the masses.

Contact info for Jason and Aaron White:

KAOS Network
4343 Leimert Blvd, Los Angeles, CA