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White, black and blue

Cultural echoes of minstrelsy, blackface get overdue look


When discussing what it is we can't discuss in modern America, religion and politics are usually the bugbears that draw all the heat. Often, though, there's another elephant in the room, even for places like Idaho (perhaps especially places like Idaho): racial matters. One of the hottest historical fuses on that powder keg is blackface, which was the practice of using burnt cork or other sooty material to darken one's face, then performing as a caricature.

Discussing such a topic requires a combination of honest scholarship, passion for people and near-foolhardy courage. Brooklyn-based author John Strasbaugh manages to combine all these traits and more in his latest book, the flawed but illuminating Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture.

For a lot of people, that title's just the beginning of trouble. Americans are so sensitive about struggles over race that a common knee-jerk reaction to this book may be to condemn Strasbaugh simply for writing it. Such a reaction would be unfortunate, because Strasbaugh's work does have several good points, not the least of which is the admirable clarity which he brings to historical trends and influences of not just blackface, but whiteface and minstrelsy as a movement. He points out that while white people have often appropriated from black culture, the reverse is also true, and that the end result is a common quilt of influences and ideas that are more similar than not. One example Strasbaugh cites is the stylized dancing of minstrels, often known as the soft-shoe, which the author argues descends not only from tribal dances but Irish door dancing and jigs, which blended over centuries into a form practiced by black and white performers. Another example would be the song styles minstrels performed, which grew from native songs of Africa, Scotland, and Ireland were filtered through the skills of men like Stephen Foster, transmuted into gospel into blues into jazz into hip-hop, it most popular descendent.

Not all of Strasbaugh's arguments are as well-phrased or backed up. While he successfully argues that rap and hip-hop contain many of the same thematic elements as minstrelsy, he does not strongly show the present-day effect of minstrelsy on whites and blacks or the obverse developments. And, Strasbaug's bias against modern intellectuals and artists such as Amiri Baraka is clear, which does not help his extrapolation of some cultural trends into modern times.

Still, Strasbaugh makes an admirable effort to pull the pieces in and make them tell a story of cultural change, and he does it in a smooth, professional, enjoyable style. It's not light reading, nor is it for those unwilling to face the twisted and violent history of American racial matters. But for those willing to suspend their unspoken prejudices and fears, or for those who have managed to free their minds from such things, Strasbaugh's work is one worth reading, thinking about and discussing.