Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930

By Watts, Jill | The Historian, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930


Watts, Jill, The Historian


Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930. Edited by W. Fitzhugh Brundage. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. 392. $65.00.)

This volume is a rich synthesis of the history of African Americans and mass culture from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s. Although it is hard to do justice to the collection's thirteen essays, all compellingly demonstrate two primary themes when taken together. The first is that blacks, like other Americans responding to the changes in post-Civil War America, embraced mass culture. The second, and most potent, is that African American participation in popular culture was a political act.

The sampling of African American mass culture is wide ranging and introduced by W. Fitzhugh Brundage, who notes the limited options for even classically trained black artists. The essays that follow are broken into four "codas." The first coda surveys black attempts at constructing positive public images both before and after the Civil War. Stephanie Dunson explores how African American blackface performers challenged blackface minstrelsy's degrading stereotypes by juxtaposing their "real" image against the disparaging representations appearing on sheet music. John Stauffer argues that African Americans sought to redefine black images and challenge slavery through the art of daguerreotypes.

The second coda focuses on the relationship between black popular culture and the early twentieth-century preoccupation with realism. David Krasner explores the era's black-rooted dance crazes, which drove white Americans to seek out African American authenticity. This obsession with genuineness also drove the white appetite for ragtime, which, as Susan Curtis reveals, resulted in the reductionist view of black music that perpetuated racism.

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