Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture

Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture

Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture

Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture

Synopsis

When the actor Ted Danson appeared in blackface at a 1993 Friars Club roast, he ignited a firestorm of protest that landed him on the front pages of the newspapers, rebuked by everyone from talk show host Montel Williams to New York City's then mayor, David Dinkins. Danson's use of blackface was shocking, but was the furious pitch of the response a triumphant indication of how far society has progressed since the days when blackface performers were the toast of vaudeville, or was it also an uncomfortable reminder of how deep the chasm still is separating black and white America? In Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture, Susan Gubar, who fundamentally changed the way we think about women's literature as co-author of the acclaimed The Madwoman in the Attic, turns her attention to the incendiary issue of race. Through a far-reaching exploration of the long overlooked legacy of minstrelsy--cross-racial impersonations or "racechanges"--throughout modern American film, fiction, poetry, painting, photography, and journalism, she documents the indebtedness of "mainstream" artists to African-American culture, and explores the deeply conflicted psychology of white guilt. The fascinating "racechanges" Gubar discusses include whites posing as blacks and blacks "passing" for white; blackface on white actors in The Jazz Singer, Birth of a Nation, and other movies, as well as on the faces of black stage entertainers; African-American deployment of racechange imagery during the Harlem Renaissance, including the poetry of Anne Spencer, the black-and-white prints of Richard Bruce Nugent, and the early work of Zora Neale Hurston; white poets and novelists from Vachel Lindsay and Gertrude Stein to John Berryman and William Faulkner writing as if they were black; white artists and writers fascinated by hypersexualized stereotypes of black men; and nightmares and visions of the racechanged baby. Gubar shows that unlike African-Americans, who often are forced to adopt white masks to gain their rights, white people have chosen racial masquerades, which range from mockery and mimicry to an evolving emphasis on inter-racial mutuality and mutability. Drawing on a stunning array of illustrations, including paintings, film stills, computer graphics, and even magazine morphings, Racechanges sheds new light on the persistent pervasiveness of racism and exciting aesthetic possibilities for lessening the distance between blacks and whites.

Excerpt

After a dignified wasp medievalist from an Ivy League university confided in an airport bar that her eminent husband spoke "black talk" to their dog, I began to expect white people to respond to a description of my project with some kind of confession about the prominence of clandestine racial parodies in their own lives. An Irish-Catholic college administrator exhibited his perfected Stepin Fetchit shuffle; an Italian physician whispered his secret black nickname, intoning it á la Kingfish; a Jewish friend from college expressed delight that her dark complexion and kinky hair led Parisians to fete her (since her looks had only incited wary glances in the segregated neighborhood of her native Bronx); still another Jewish friend explained how bewildered (even abandoned) she felt when her sister -- who socialized only with the black friends of her African-American husband -- began identifying herself as a person of color and echoing the street cadences of the Harlem neighbors among whom she resided. "Zi Zigga ZUMbah ZUMbah ZUMbah, / Zi Zigga ZUMbah ZUMbah ZAY!": After months spent writing about the centrality of cross-racial mimicry in twentieth-century culture, I found myself less shocked, more bemused at a wedding reception when an ersatz "Zulu Warrior Chant," presumably taught to the paterfamilias of a Southern family by General Patton during the Second World War, was performed, accompanied by rhythmic hand-clapping and foot-stomping, by all his sons, sons-in-law, and grandsons.

That white people often engage in silly, sexy, sleazy, and sometimes sinister cross-racial masquerades was made manifest by impersonations that were often rendered within my extended family as well. White kids who went to inner-city schools on the East Coast did not necessarily get a better education than those who went to lily-white, small-town midwestem schools in the heart of Hoosier heaven except in one area, or so it seemed to me, comparing the extensive multiracial experiences of my friends' children with the more limited ones of my own.

Ugh! Ungowah! Your Momma needs a shower, Your Daddy needs a shave!

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