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

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

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

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

Synopsis

This collection of thirteen essays, edited by historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage, brings together original work from sixteen distinguished scholars in various disciplines, ranging from theater and literature to history and music, to address the complex roles of black performers, entrepreneurs, and consumers in American mass culture during the early twentieth century.
Moving beyond the familiar territory of blackface and minstrelsy, these essays present a fresh look at the history of African Americans and mass culture. With subjects ranging from representations of race in sheet music illustrations to African American interest in Haitian culture, Beyond Blackface recovers the history of forgotten or obscure cultural figures and shows how these historical actors played a role in the creation of American mass culture. The essays explore the predicament that blacks faced at a time when white supremacy crested and innovations in consumption, technology, and leisure made mass culture possible. Underscoring the importance and complexity of race in the emergence of mass culture, Beyond Blackface depicts popular culture as a crucial arena in which African Americans struggled to secure a foothold as masters of their own representation and architects of the nation's emerging consumer society.
The contributors are:
Davarian L. Baldwin, Trinity College
W. Fitzhugh Brundage, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Clare Corbould, University of Sydney
Susan Curtis, Purdue University
Stephanie Dunson, Williams College
Lewis A. Erenberg, Loyola University Chicago
Stephen Garton, University of Sydney
John M. Giggie, University of Alabama
Grace Elizabeth Hale, University of Virginia
Robert Jackson, University of Tulsa
David Krasner, Emerson College
Thomas Riis, University of Colorado at Boulder
Stephen Robertson, University of Sydney
John Stauffer, Harvard University
Graham White, University of Sydney
Shane White, University of Sydney

Excerpt

To appreciate the challenges and expectations that African American entertainers had to contend with in the early era of twentieth-century mass culture, we must initially turn our attention back to the antebellum decades that saw the rise of the blackface minstrel tradition—when white men in black face paint entertained northern audiences with songs and skits meant to represent black culture. In truth, no music played a more central role in nineteenth-century American culture than the melodies generated by blackface minstrelsy, from the 1820s, when individual blackface performers popularized routines that were meant to reproduce black dance and music for white northern audiences, to the end of the century, when Tin Pan Alley songwriters cranked out “coon songs” for consumers who took racial stereotypes for granted.

But in positioning blackface minstrelsy as the historical backdrop for our larger consideration of African Americans and early mass culture, we must move beyond the protestations and maneuverings of scholars who characterize the tradition as something other than the “mere” practice of racial disparagement. The erasure of black identity as a historical fact, perhaps even a psychological necessity, is a precondition for the American tradition of blackface minstrelsy. Thus disparagement lies in the cultural system of privileging representation over reality and in the systems of power and oppression that allow such privileging to become the standard. The matter is more profound than the mere question of racial disparagement as popular entertainment; at issue is the work that blackface performed in a society that essentially felt compelled to evict black people from their own skin and then allow pretenders to take up residency there. This is the requisite backdrop against which the national fascination for minstrelsy was performed . . .

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