Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels & Stage Europeans in African American Performance

Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels & Stage Europeans in African American Performance

Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels & Stage Europeans in African American Performance

Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels & Stage Europeans in African American Performance

Synopsis

In the early 1890s, black performer Bob Cole turned blackface minstrelsy on its head with his nationally recognized whiteface creation, a character he called Willie Wayside. Just over a century later, hiphop star Busta Rhymes performed a whiteface supercop in his hit music video "Dangerous." In this sweeping work, Marvin McAllister explores the enduring tradition of "whiting up," in which African American actors, comics, musicians, and even everyday people have studied and assumed white racial identities.

Not to be confused with racial "passing" or derogatory notions of "acting white," whiting up is a deliberate performance strategy designed to challenge America's racial and political hierarchies by transferring supposed markers of whiteness to black bodies--creating unexpected intercultural alliances even as it sharply critiques racial stereotypes. Along with theater, McAllister considers a variety of other live performance modes, including antebellum cakewalks and contemporary stand-up comedy by solo artists such as Dave Chappelle. For over three centuries and in today's supposedly "postracial" America, McAllister argues, whiting up has allowed African American performers first to appropriate artistic products of a white imagination and then to fashion new black identities through these "white" forms, therefore enhancing our collective understanding of self and other.

Excerpt

This book is about a dual Afro-Diasporic tradition of whiteface minstrels and stage Europeans that has operated for centuries just beneath America’s representational radar. From their earliest days in the New World, enslaved Africans and free blacks have carefully studied and re-created Euro-American culture in semiprivate social gatherings, illegal late-night cabals, and conventional theatrical spaces. I define whiteface minstrelsy as extra-theatrical, social performance in which people of African descent appropriate white-identified gestures, vocabulary, dialects, dress, or social entitlements. Attuned to class as much as race, whiteface minstrels often satirize, parody, and interrogate privileged or authoritative representations of whiteness. Stage Europeans can be defined as black actors appropriating white dramatic characters crafted initially by white dramatists and, later, by black playwrights. Rooted in conventional theatrical practice, this component emphasizes physical and vocal manifestations of whiteness, often relying on visual effects such as white face paint and blonde wigs.

During the past two decades, a handful of scholars have produced historically grounded and theoretically rich work on performed whiteness, and this study builds on their scholarship. However, whiting up has never been systematically analyzed as a coherent and sustained performance tradition until now. Ideally, this academic study will contextualize and popularize a unique brand of cross-racial performance with the potential to rehabilitate racial cross-dressing in American theater and expand representational opportunities for artists of all colors. Beyond historicizing an underappreciated African American tradition, this history harbors an ulterior motive, an ambitious, perhaps quixotic desire to influence the present and future of live performance.

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