Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture

By Susan Gubar | Go to book overview
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Myths of Racial Origin in the Harlem Renaissance

Can the Ethiopian change his skin
or the leopard his spots?
Then also you can do good
who are accustomed to do evil.
-- Jeremiah 13:23

Whereas men affirm this colour was a Curse, I cannot make out the property
of that name, it neither seeming so to them, nor reasonably unto us; for they
take so much content therein, that they esteem deformity by other colours, de-
scribing the Devil, and terrible objects, White.

-- Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica

Just a few years ago, two scholars at Kenyon College excavated evidence that the Confederate anthem "Dixie Land", popularized by the white minstrel Dan Emmett (who claimed authorship), was actually composed by two black musicians, Ben and Lew Snowden. 1 The controversy typifies debates over scholarly evaluations of minstrelsy as a popular art form tapping authentic African-American traditions or as one reflecting the sexual repression and negrophobia of whites. 2 Could minstrelsy be effectively adopted and adapted by African-American artists or would it prove inexorably debilitating, even demeaning to them? Though, as Houston Baker has declared, "it is, first and foremost, the mastery of the minstrel mask by blacks that constitutes a primary move in Afro-American discursive modernism" ( Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, 17), the answer to both these questions remains a resounding "yes" in the cultural achievements produced during the oddly named Harlem Renaissance; that is, in a period of astonishing productivity for African-American artists, one that never remained bounded by Harlem and that should not be considered a rebirth (re-naissance) because there simply was no earlier opportunity for comparable creativity.


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Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture


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