Du Bois and the Minstrels

By Herring, Scott | MELUS, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Du Bois and the Minstrels


Herring, Scott, MELUS


W.E.B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk is not a book that can be read in ignorance of its historic milieu; to focus exclusively on the text would be to cripple it. First published in 1903, it was written in an America in which the white majority only grudgingly accepted the idea that black folk even had souls. The images most white Americans had of blacks were stereotypical; blacks were a demonized group which had to be controlled by terror or an idealized group of self-sacrificing Uncle Toms and Mammys; they were seen as embodying a sexual potency and promiscuity secretly envied by whites, or they were represented as primitive, laughable clowns. All these stereotypes were given form and (for many Northerners) largely brought into being by the century-old tradition of minstrelsy, in which white comics blackened their faces with burnt cork and performed an imitation of black life for a (usually delighted) white audience. It is this tradition and its effects that Du Bois seeks to subvert in The Souls of Black Folk; he removes what Houston Baker calls the "minstrel mask" (17) from his entire race, taking back from the black-face theater the characteristic art form of his race, its music, which the minstrels had appropriated for their own purposes.

I read The Souls of Black Folk as a political text, embedded in its historical environment and at odds with the dominant culture--a reading shaped by some of the insights of new historicism. New historicists, such as Stephen Greenblatt, have posited "transactions" or "negotiations" between components of a society (Greenblatt's term is "exchanges" in his essay on Shakespeare and the exorcists, to which my title pays an oblique homage). This essay will use the term "appropriation" for the process of cultural exchange, because the exchange that motivates The Souls of Black Folk is less a transaction than a theft. The blackface theater appropriated black music and transformed it to suit its own ends, the fairly straightforward ones of getting laughs and making money. Not all but a significant number of whites adopted the images of the minstrel fiction and applied them to the African American reality, seeing in the streets characters from the stage; blacks very quickly learned, in their dealings with whites, to put on the mask. For Du Bois, the mask is a Veil to be rent. In Souls, he addresses two audiences: for white readers, he wishes to demonstrate the worth--even the humanity--of the race many have imagined the minstrel comedian to adequately represent; and to blacks, especially young black artists, he communicates the richness of their heritage. The latter project is accomplished largely by the re-appropriation and rehabilitation of the music that minstrelsy had deformed, music being a vital form of expression for a people only recently literate (and, in 1903, still only partly so). After considering some of the implications of minstrelsy's variegated appropriation and distortion of black culture, and popular response to it, this essay will examine Du Bois's project of retaking black American music.

The long, long run enjoyed by minstrel acts on the stages of America (comics blacking their faces with burnt cork to perform "darky" roles has been traced back at least as far as 1795 [Leonard 159]) is a phenomenon familiar to anyone reasonably conversant with the history of the nineteenth century, as is the great love of so many Americans for this curious distraction. What is not as well known is that this love affair is not a simple or straightforward matter; neither was the form itself consistent. Minstrelsy changed frequently throughout its evolution, starting as a forum for a single performer, most famously Thomas Dartmouth Rice, originator of the Jim Crow routine. It changed in the 1840s, after the advent of the Virginia Minstrels, to a highly ritualized two- or three-part show by four musicians/ comedians / acrobats, shifting again in the 1850s with the popularity of "Tom shows" (minstrel versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin), and again after the war, with blacks entering the business and white troupes swelling to form massive traveling spectacles. …

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