Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock & Roll &

Darkest America

Yuval Taylor's zeal to do battle with the forces of infinite regression must daunt even his closest allies. Having undertaken 2007's Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music with British musician-author Hugh Barker, why else would he switch collaborators in midstream by enlisting rockzine editor Jake Austen to pitch in on Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop? True, Austen's superior craft is one reason Darkest America is the more valuable book. But the main one is that the particulars of the infinite regression it tackles are more manageable and less familiar.

"Authenticity" is a philosophical black hole as deep as the closely related "self" itself, and although Taylor and Barker are right to claim that "the quest for authenticity" has long been "a dominant factor in musical taste," they don't come near to doing the concept justice. Compare Marshall Berman's 1970 The Politics of Authenticity, a repurposed doctoral thesis on Montesquieu and Rousseau that begins by pointing out "authenticity"'s conceptual centrality to both the liberalism of John Stuart Mill and any Marxism that emphasizes "alienated labor," not to mention existentialism--instances he cites primarily to clear the path to his chosen sliver of the concept. I'm not blaming Taylor and Barker for how narrowly they construe "authenticity"--just suggesting that in their noble attempt to demolish it as a term of musical approbation they bit off more than they could chew. Authenticity is a fantasy every early rock critic was sucked in by, and some never escaped. I finalized my mature position in 2003: "Personally, I think authenticity is a crock." But I'm obliged to add that the rock convention in which a singer emotes songs of his or her own devising was designed to signify self-expression, and that it is sometimes difficult and occasionally quite dumb to account for the power of such songs without referencing their sincerity, depth of feeling, autobiographical relevance, and so forth. That's what black holes are like.

The reason for this preamble is that Faking It and Darkest America are almost sequential. Authenticity issues are at the very heart of the outraged rhetoric that has surrounded blackface minstrelsy since 1848, when Frederick Douglass branded its burnt-cork practitioners, in a famous quote Taylor and Austen don't cite, "the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature." As rhetoric, this was brave and brilliant--a black man in slavery days averring that whites envy his skin color! And ever since, African-Americans bent on racial improvement and their loyal white allies have shared its underlying assumption: that blackface minstrelsy--white performers darkening their faces for purposes of musical hijinks, social satire, slapstick tomfoolery, shambling dumbshow, and outright racial derogation--was nothing less than a theft of identity, of black selfhood.

Taylor and Austen don't deny this. Chary of joining such historians as W.T. Lhamon and Dale Cockrell in illuminating the bright side of white minstrelsy, they heap preemptive slopbuckets of shock and disgust on the grotesque distortions of minstrel caricature--the white-rimmed clown eyes, the watermelon lips, the outsized clothes, the shoes bigger than a man's head. But in the long, powerful title chapter, subtitled "How Nineteenth-Century Black Minstrelsy Made Blackface Black," they tell a story absent from the many minstrelsy studies to arrive since Robert Toll's Blacking Up in 1974. Most of these emphasize the pre-Civil War period, when--spurred first by Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice circa 1830 and then by Dan Emmett's Virginia Minstrels in 1843--white blackface minstrels invented American show business. Taylor and Austen, however, bear down on post-Civil War minstrelsy as performed by African-Americans. Their credibility isn't improved by their failure to footnote. But despite a few shaky passages, their polemic is convincing.

It's well-known that in the decades following emancipation, most black Americans with theatrical ambitions worked as minstrels, and that most of these wore the makeup Douglass despised. It is less well-known that, as Taylor and Austen point out, even Douglass, in an 1849 description of an early black minstrel troupe, could see some advantage in any African-Americans "appear[ing] before a white audience," with the proviso that these performers nonetheless "must cease to exaggerate the exaggerations of our enemies; and represent the colored man rather as he is." But "as he is," of course, is a tendentious authenticity trope; for countless African-American worthies, only an idealized "realism" starring Negroes like them would qualify. The major exception has been Mel Watkins, the former New York Times editor who in 1994 published a monumental "History of African American Comedy" tellingly entitled On the Real Side. Watkins also contributed an introduction to Darkest America, with which he's in basic agreement about what's real and what isn't-his own book praises the "pointedly realistic" performances and "sincerity and authenticity" of screen mammies Hattie McDaniels and Louise Beavers and the "down-to-earth reality" of such pioneering African-American comedians as Tim Moore and Pigmeat Markham, both of whom began by blacking up.

Watkins agrees that blackface makeup served black comics as "a safety valve, a gimmick that distanced the performer from the performance." But where for him the gimmick was transitional, Taylor and Austen see it as foundational. Their argument that most 19th-century black entertainers chose to don the cork--where they could instead have essayed straight drama like one of the many touring Uncle Tom's Cabin troupes or embraced musical refinement like Black Patti or the Fisk Jubilee Singers--holds water, although it ignores the fact that few African-American performers back then had the training to go legit. Even solider is their argument that blackface constituted a liberated zone in which black characters work little if at all and need not "worry about what white people think" or assume "the lofty manner" talented-tenthers sought to impose on them. Granted, there are always comedians who dream of playing Hamlet. But there are always more comedians for whom laughing well is the best revenge.

Having constructed this foundation, Taylor and Austen transport it into the 20th century. Maybe by then, they allow, the minstrel show proper was sinking into self-caricature. So instead they chronicle the Zulu Krewe, which began in 1910 as black New Orleans's blackface parody of white Mardi Gras bigshots, gradually grew bolder and rowdier, lost face so literally in the '60s that for a few years it abandoned cork altogether, and then became a respectable community organization led by African-American worthies who black up to honor krewe tradition. They indignantly remind Bert Williams's biographers that the widely admired blackface superstar insisted that blackface was his active artistic choice. They recount the complex histories of the ambitious, hard-bargaining Lincoln Perry, screen name Stepin Fetchit, and of the white and black funnymen who created and perpetuated Amos 'n' Andy, the ideological back-and-forths of which are recounted with equal respect by Watkins. And more problematically, a chapter called "Dyn-O-Mite" tries to explain "How Cosby Blew Up the Minstrel Tradition and J.J. [Walker, that is] Put It Back Together."

What's problematic is that the closer blackface gets to the present, the twistier and more multilayered its regressions become. To what extent do its white practitioners love what they steal? Its white fans respect what they enjoy? Its caricatures reflect African-American "reality"? Its routines entertain legitimately as tomfoolery always has? Its masks--and its professional opportunities--liberate its black practitioners as Taylor and Austen claim? The longer these questions and their many cognates are batted around, the further they spiral out of reach. As black Americans both gain autonomy and schismatize, DuBois's double consciousness turns into a hall of mirrors and who's zooming who becomes ever harder to sort out. In 1991, for instance, the militantly Afrocentric rappers Public Enemy fostered a younger rap group called the Young Black Teenagers. All of its members were white, and its debut single was called "Proud to Be Black." Taylor and Austen mention this story only to call it "confusing"--and to signal that they have an inkling of what they're up against.

By then they've detoured for two chapters from comedy into music and immediately doubled their trouble. What is and isn't funny when and to whom is suprarational enough. But mix the somatic and formal mysteries of musical pleasure and signification into straight sociocultural analysis and prepare to get good and lost. One of Faking It's biggest flaws is that it avoids hip-hop, which makes "keeping it real" its byword. Since anti-rap zealots' favorite trope is that rappers are minstrels, that's not an option here. But although Taylor and Austen know music a lot better than Watkins, their "Eazy Does It: How Black Minstrelsy Bum-Rushed Hip-Hop" is quite the mess.

I agree that the equation of rappers and minstrels is cheap and often ignorant intellectual sensationalism, and credit the authors with one clean hit on that score: minstrels were funny, gangstas aren't. But it's patently illogical to claim gat-flaunting gangstas don't qualify as modern minstrels after insisting in your previous chapter that the razor-toting "coons" of the circa-1895 coon-song craze updated the circa-1850 originals. In both cases, the criminal danger posed by urban blacks is libelously exaggerated in relation to the social realities of the time, and for the same reason--except that now African-Americans get a vastly bigger share of the profits. And Darkest America's argument that the commercial vogue of Dirty South hip-hop was somehow post-gangsta has more holes in it than the dead people on a Hot Boys album. Knocking the stuffing out of straw men, outing minstrel shtick with reckless disregard for how conscious or meaningful the historical echo is, alighting on clear-cut cases like Schoolly-D and Goodie Mob while flying clear of thorny ones like KRS-One and OutKast, the chapter flitters hither and yon, ending its journey marooned in Clinton, Iowa, where Public Enemy's highly confusing Flavor Flav once tried to open a fried-chicken joint.

Then it's on to a valuable discussion of Zora Neale Hurston, whose minstrel affinities were explicit and decisive and whose gifts were often derided by the worthies as a result, and a finale wrecked by infinite regression. "The screen has never seen as bold, as powerful, or as angry a response to the black minstrel tradition as Spike Lee's 2000 feature Bamboozled," it begins. Bold and angry, OK; powerful, not really. The flick flopped for a reason--mostly that, as Taylor and Austen forthrightly acknowledge, Lee doesn't seem to know much about minstrelsy and is of two or more minds about how to represent it. He posits a purposely terrible TV show and stocks it with magnetic performers. He lets two of these performers undermine the "indefinite talk" routine Watkins identifies as a pinnacle of black comedy. He distorts the achievement of post-minstrel master Mantan Moreland. He brands as minstrelsy anything in contemporary black culture he doesn't like. And so forth.

Taylor and Austen are right enough to hold that many modern black performers, including Lee himself, have generated an "African American low comedy [that] comes from sources other than minstrelsy," although one wonders just how separate, historically, "oral traditions, toasts, street/pimp culture, [and] storytelling" were from the 19th-century minstrelsy the authors extol. But like Bamboozled itself, their final analysis, which co-stars Tyler Perry, can't avoid doubling back on itself. Their penultimate sentence concludes that black minstrelsy has "spawned impressive works of both hilarious, shameless abandon and poignant, deliberate condemnation." Oh. Then they add, after a paragraph break: "The black minstrel tradition is funny that way."

Infinite regression is funny that way too, only most of us forget to laugh.

Barnes & Noble Review, August 24, 2012