Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture

By Susan Gubar | Go to book overview

2 SPIRIT-MURDER AT THE MOVIES.
Blackface Lynchings

The disaster of the man of color lies in the fact that he was enslaved.

The disaster and the inhumanity of the white man lie in the fact that somewhere he has killed man.

-- Frantz Fanon

The return of the dead is a sign of a disturbance in the symbolic rite, in the process of symbolization; the dead return as collectors of some unpaid symbolic debt.

-- Slavoj Žižek

A still from Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn ( 1942) encapsulates the point of this chapter, even as it provides a reminder of the longevity of blackface as America's favorite form of racechange (Fig. 2.1). Wearing burnt cork, Crosby here dances the part of (a now "African-American") President Lincoln with his companion appearing as a parodic pickaninny complete with cornrows, pinafore, and pantaloons. As is often the case late in its history, the use of blackface has presumably only been justified by the need for a disguise: In an earlier scene, a jealously possessive Crosby broke out the "bootblacking" so as to hide his attractive dancing partner from his rival, Fred Astaire. But as also often happens, an excess of meaning attends the assumption of burnt cork, in this instance after the blond-haired dancer bemoans the make-up as a "punishment" visited upon her for dreaming about "how pretty" she would look at the Inn on the occasion of Lincoln's birthday. Not at all a mimetically realistic disguise, her racechange contrasts black skin with white wig to make her look like a singular anomaly.

Shades of the prisonhouse of American history close upon the subsequent production number (which is supposed to parallel Fred Astaire's firecracker hoofing on the Fourth of July in the same movie). For Crosby's part-plantation minstrel, part-Lincoln struts a dance of emancipation to celebrate the liberation presumably effected by the Civil War. But the very assertion of black freedom supposedly in

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