Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture

By Susan Gubar | Go to book overview

PREFACE

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!

-xiii-

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