Activism: A Rant on Music, Minstrelsy, New Orleans, and Today’s Racism

“Minstrelsy is thing of the past!” my old high school teacher once told me. Is it actually a thing of the past? Just because it is no longer featured and accepted in mainstream media it does not mean that the racism in the United States has ended. It has only evolved. We still hear remnants of this racist entertainment culture in sing-along songs that have been played to many children growing up. There are still references made to minstrelsy through the use of costumes in cartoons such as Mickey Mouse. Have African-Americans, or minorities in general, ever been put first when it comes to economic and emergency aid from the United States government or population? If so, why did Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King, Jr. ever have to step on that soapbox to put minorities first themselves?

Martin Luther King. Jr. Quote

Is it a cultural norm for the United States to be considered a nation that puts their people last? Unlike the Swiss and Germans, who have helped their people in times of need, New Orleans says a lot about the reality of the United States and the government’s attitude towards affirmative action aimed at minorities, specifically African Americans.

“While Swiss and German governments have paid reparations to Holocaust survivors and those killed in the Holocaust, black intellectuals have pointed out that there has been no such concentrated effort by the United States to repay African Americans for the unpaid labor required under slavery” (The American Mosaic: The African American Experience).

Looters make their way into and out of a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005. Flood waters continue to rise in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina did extensive damage when it made landfall on Monday. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed over 1,800 people and changed the lives over millions of others. One of the cities most affected by this hurricane was New Orleans, LA. The majority of the people affected by this disaster were African-Americans. According to DataUSA.io, the 75.8% of the New Orleans population is Black, 18.9% is White, and 5.3% is Hispanic.

New Orleans, LA Population Bar Chart of Ethnicity

“The problems that plague the urban poor, who are disproportionately African American, were tangible throughout Louisiana—especially in New Orleans, which sustained the most damage—and in Mississippi near where the storm made landfall. The catastrophic storm only amplified ways the black urban and rural poor in the American South had been ignored” (The American Mosaic: The African American Experience).

It is clear that a disproportionate amount of African-Americans in this part of the South were left without sufficient aid by the US Government emergency systems. According to the article about “New Leadership,” Sanders states that there are many African American intellectuals today drawing on evolving conversations about black identity to “reignite a debate on the need for reparations to African Americans” (Sanders). This debate is similar to that of minstrelsy in the context of African American reparations. What can the United States offer to African Americans as reparations in a post-slavery world? Does the United States do enough for African Americans today? This question is complicated because we must define “United States”. The United States as in: government, citizens, immigrants, and companies. There are many different ways the United States can act as an entity.

The Black Law in Missouri, 1861

Minstrelsy poses the same concerns because it requires reparations in its own context. The question posed with regard to minstrelsy is, “Should minstrel songs and culture be erased from history or should we educate our following generations on its history?” For lack of a better way to state this, I will say it as it is: The United States as a whole is not doing everything it can do to owe reparations to African Americans today.

 

Sources:

  1. Sanders, Joshunda. “New Leadership, 2001–2008.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Accessed March 7, 2018. https://africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Topics/Display/39.
  2. The Black Law in Missouri. The National Era (Washington D. C., United States), Thursday, January 26, 1860; pg. 15; Issue 682 (224 words (1860/01/26/): https://goo.gl/P7Ahw6
  3.  https://datausa.io/profile/geo/new-orleans-la/#ethnicity
  4. Simpson, George. “Disney race shock: Mickey Mouse ‘was based on blackface minstrels’.” Express.co.uk. February 3, 2017. Accessed March 7, 2018. https://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/films/762722/Disney-racist-Mickey-Mouse-gloves-blackface-minstrels-Vaudeville-The-Opry-House.

Jim Crow: Song, Character, and Symbol

The character of “Jim Crow” has had a long and varied life. Most commonly known as the term for racism and segregation in the American south post-emancipation, the Jim crow was first popularized in the early nineteenth century through song and minstrelsy. Coming out of the song “Jump Jim Crow,” the character was physically manifested in blackface minstrelsy by white male performers. The exact origins of Jim Crow within the song are fuzzy, yet that did not seem to matter to Thomas Rice, the “father of minstrelsy,” who created a caricature out of Jim Crow.1

Although there are variations on the tale, the story goes that Thomas Rice, a white actor originally from New York City, had the idea to create the blackface character of Jim Crow after hearing a black man singing “Jump Jim Crow.”2 In a grotesque impression, Rice integrated the song and character into his traveling show. This early version of Jim Crow had one primary purpose: to make a profit for Thomas Rice by capitalizing on the willingness of white Americans to laugh at racist stereotypes. Despite the role that Jim Crow, and the song “Jump Jim Crow” played in perpetuating stereotypes by becoming the face and name of racism, the original intent was to make money by capitalizing on the social situation that already existed.

As a song written before Emancipation, Thomas Rice’s version of “Jump Jim Crow” is not especially remarkable in terms of its stance on race. Sung in a stereotypical “black” dialect, it tells the story of Jim Crow’s journey through the south from his perspective. He is presented as a violent man, who hits other people at least twice, and as a crazy man, who sits on sits on a hornet’s nest, and eats an alligator.3 The tune is jaunty and catchy, and the chorus is repeated frequently. Typical of its portrayal of black men by white men for the time, “Jump Jim Crow” provided an effective combination of catchy tune with an easily replicable character, making both the song and the blackface character financially profitable for Thomas Rice. Due to the success of this song and persona, Rice became one of the first blackface minstrels, touring the country with other productions such as “Ginger Blue” and “Jim Crow in London.” Rice commercialized and standardized the transfer of a little-known song into a profitable product that radicalized the racial stereotypes already present, and set the precedent for blackface minstrelsy characters and songs to come. From a character in a song, Jim Crow grew into a cultural marker of all that was wrong with white Americans’ attitudes and treatment of black Americans. Today, “Jump Jim Crow” is being re-appropriated without blackface. In the first clip, above, a man sings “Jump Jim Crow” without any “dialect” and without some verses. This version is much more languid than a modern instrumental version, linked below. The question remains of how much weight should be given to the connection between the song, the character, and the legacy of blackface minstrelsy.

“Jump Jim Crow.” History of Minstrelsy: From “Jump Jim Crow” to “The Jazz Singer.” http://exhibits.lib.usf.edu/exhibits/show/minstrelsy/jimcrow-to-jolson/jump-jim-crow/

2  Burns, James. “Thomas Rice.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Accessed March 8, 2018. https://africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1606088.

3 Jump Jim Crow, C Major. Viking Press, 1937. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cscore%7C771896. 

Masculinity and Minstrelsy: Intersectional Issues in Blackface Performances

As long as the entertainment industry has sought to reach the masses it has caused controversy. Minstrel shows, the first form of mass entertainment in the United States,1 is one of the most prolific examples of this. Minstrelsy relied heavily on songs and dances performed in blackface, the act of covering one’s face in burnt cork to give the illusion that the actor or actress is black themselves. Characters that were in blackface were played as caricatures of stereotypes in the African American community.

Thomas Rice as the original Jim Crow

These performances not only relied on racist notions of identity but also gendered ones. White male performers could experiment with identity and commodify it by playing on the entertainment quality of challenging racial and gendered notions of identity.2 Thomas Rice, the actor who created the Jim Crow character, is one example of these performers.3 The Jim Crow character was modeled as a former slave who wished to return to the way things had been during the antebellum years. During and after reconstruction real, living, breathing black American men lived in fear and persecution due to racist beliefs that created a scary and wild image of them. Minstrel shows furthered these images by showcasing them as stupid and brutish. The Jim Crow character was an emasculating and oftentimes pitiful version of the African American man.4 This portrayal stood as a stark contrast from the expectations of white men during this time period. A poster from a five person minstrel show shows this contrast. In it you can see through their difference in posture, clothing, and personality the inferiority of their African American characters.

The cover to sheet music for a five part piece designed for a blackface minstrel show

Jokes at the expense of the African American men were the real cherry on top. For example, the Jim Crow character’s wish to return to plantation life also included his desire for the protection of his master. This falsely portrayed wish for domination says more about white men than it does about their black counterparts. It exhibits the racist and sexist values of the United States and the too slow change in societal acceptance. Minstrelsy was a popular and important part of the American entertainment industry. Like many forms of entertainment, though, it helped to fuel the fire of hate a prejudice and that cannot be forgotten.

1 Weiner, Melissa F. “Minstrelsy.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.

2  Locke, Joseph. “Blackface.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.

3 Burns, James. “Thomas Rice.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.

4 Nuruddin, Yusuf. “Jim Crow Racial Stereotypes.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.

Minstrelsy and the Impermeable Permeable Color Line

In the first chapter of his book, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Eric Lott argues that although “cultural appropriation was the minstrel show’s central fact”, there may be more to the story than first meets the eye. Despite being blatantly racist and demeaning towards African Americans, Lott argues that minstrelsy potentially served more positive roles that are often overlooked.1

The first page of The Anti-Slavery Bugle, February 18, 1980.

One example of Lott’s argument comes from a little article that appeared in a New-Lisbon, Ohio abolitionist paper, The Anti-Slavery Bugle, on February 18, 1860. The newspaper’s self-proclaimed role was to “sound the bugle-note of Freedom over the hills and through the valleys” and it therefore contained a mixture of news about the anti-slavery movement, opinion pieces, essays, and stories like this one.2 Perhaps unsurprisingly, the article bears the dramatic title “A Negro Minstrel Sold into Slavery” and recounts a trial that took place in Galveston, Texas.3 Both the events that unfold in the story and they way that they are described suggest that perhaps minstrelsy and its music could provide a means by which a black man might gain better opportunities in the Antebellum South.

Ultimately the story tells of an affidavit and the subsequent rulings pertaining to “a free negro” who came to town, “calling himself Joseph Vincent Suarez, and passing himself for a white man”. This plays into another point of Lott’s, the idea that many Americans did not really know whether the minstrels entertaining them were black or white. In fact, the article describes that for the trial to commence, multiple doctors were called upon verify that Suarez was, indeed, a person of color. Suarez was therefore able to effectively blur the color line because his race was not immediately apparent.

Additionally, it is probably a fair assumption to say that Suarez’s minstrel act afforded him a better opportunity than would have otherwise been available. Suarez was able to capitalize on a popular form of music at the time and therefore advance himself economically and potentially socially.4

A caricature of a blackface minstrel performer around 1850-1860. 

Furthermore, it is important to discuss Suarez’s punishment. While it is undoubtedly strict to modern readers, it is not as dramatic as the article’s headline makes it out to be and not as severe as what punishments could be for black men in the slave-holding South. Suarez was sentenced to be hired out for labor for six months, the profits from which were to go to his expenses during the time and then to his departure from Texas at the end of the term. What also bears consideration is the last line of the article: “It is proper to remark that this Suarez came to this city as a negro minstrel, and he has, therefore, the merit of passing himself off in his professional character for precisely what he is”. Again, Suarez’s minstrel profession furnishes him with benefits he might not otherwise gain. In this case, an excuse for a lower sentence.

Minstrelsy is certainly one of American history’s more embarrassing artifacts. But, as Lott discusses, perhaps even this very negative aspect of the popular culture provided some individuals with positive opportunities. If nothing else, like other forms of American music, minstrelsy helped in some places to blur the color line and throw into question the notion of separate racial cultures.

1Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Introduction and Chapter 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

2Harris, Glen Anthony. “Anti-Slavery Bugle.” In Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World, by Junius Rodriguez. Routledge, 2007. Accessed March 7, 2018. https://ezproxy.stolaf.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/sharpeeman/anti_slavery_bugle/0?institutionId=4959.

3From the Galveston (Texas) News. “A NEGRO MINSTREL SOLD INTO SLAVERY.” The Anti-Slavery Bugle, Issue 27 (1860). Accessed March 7, 2018.
<http://find.galegroup.com/sas/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=SAS&userGroupName=mnastolaf&tabID=T003&docPage=article&searchType=&docId=GB2500047906&type=multipage&contentSet=LTO&version=1.0&relevancePageBatch=&docLevel=FASCIMILE>.

4Henderson, Clayton W. “Minstrelsy, American.” Grove Music Online. Accessed March 7, 2018. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000018749.

Minstrelsy: Connecting Blackness to the Body and Whiteness to the Mind

White people putting on blackface and dressing up as black people for entertainment and comedic purposes is disturbing and upsetting on many levels. To me, an aspect of this that is particularly horrific is the effect it had on the body, particularly the black body, that is so often deemed invisible, expendable, dangerous, or hypersexual. Minstrelsy contributed to these stereotypes and beliefs about the black body by controlling how others perceived it. Minstrelsy allowed white people to take ownership over the black body by literally putting it on as a costume through blackface. They were then able to “prove” an amount of stereotypes through this, especially on account that many of the audience members did not know whether the people on stage were actually black or not.

Tying blackness to the body is something that has been done to justify colonialism as well as slavery. Much of this ties back to ideas that began to form during the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment marked the mind, reason, and individualism as core values; values that were used to distinguish between the “savage man” and “civilized man”. This was then used as reason to justify that the “savage” individual’s ideal role is physical labor, thus justifying slavery. The savage man was also believed to lack the intellect that the civilized man had. This idea was used justify the belief that people of differing races were of different species, and was also used to prove the need for savages to be “civilized” by Western/white society. These ideas reduced black people to merely a body, and deemed whites to be better because of their supposedly superior intellectual capabilities. It must be noted that this idea of connecting blackness to the body is deeply rooted in the belief that the body is sinful and dirty, as opposed to the purity of the mind. This is an idea which certainly can, and should, be questioned. But for the purpose of this blog post, it will be assumed that association with the body is going to be perceived by people as a negative thing.

Minstrelsy further emphasized this association of blackness with the body. This is particularly evident in this advertisement for a Minstrel Show in 1899. This ad depicts black women as hyper-sexualized and alludes to the “Jezebel” stereotype, an idea rooted in slavery which labels black women as promiscuous and sexually aggressive. Referring to a black woman as a jezebel has often been used to blame the infidelity of white men on the black women they had relations with. This hyper-sexualization further associates black people to the body, and implies an inability to control bodily instincts. The men depicted in the advertisement also emphasizes the association of blackness with the body as opposed to the mind. This is done through their childlike reaction to the woman in the advertisement. Their facial expressions mimic childlike amusement with the female body, while simultaneously depicting black men as out of control of their sexual desires. By connecting blackness with sexualization and desire, it again implies that black people are not capable of putting mind over matter, thus emphasizing the dichotomy of whiteness as associated with the mind, and blackness with the body.

Between the use of blackface, contributing to stereotypes, mockery, and misrepresentation of black culture, minstrel performances clearly have a a lot of racist elements within them. That being said, there are nuances to it. After all, it did allow black performers to have their first opportunity to perform in front of a white audience, and it could be argued that it helped popularize a variety of black music including spirituals. However even with these nuances, most aspects within minstrelsy perpetuated racism, sometimes in ways that are not as explicit as blackface, specifically strengthening the association of blackness with the body. Through this, minstrelsy reasserted this underlying justification behind treating black people as lesser that dates back to slavery and colonial times. 

Sources:

  • “Gideon’s Big Minstrel Carnival Advertisement.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Image. https://africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1612309.
  • Marisa J. Fuentes, “Jezebel.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. https://africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1750376.
  • “Minstrel Music with African American Jim Crow Caricatures.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. https://africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1612304.
  • Peter A. Schrom, “The Enlightenment and the Origins of Racism” State University of New York at Albany, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2016.

Performing Jim Crow: Stereotyping a People

Williams Clay, Edward. “Mr. T. Rice as the Original Jim Crow”. In Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture by W. T. Lhamon, Jr. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003).

In 1828 a New York City native, Thomas Rice, created the character of Jim Crow while performing in Louisville Kentucky. Performing in blackface, Rice presented the character of Jim Crow as a ragged, lazy, child-like, and irresponsible black man. Rice’s performance turned him into a celebrity, igniting the popularity of blackface minstrelsy throughout the United States.1

Blackface minstrelsy perpetuated and exaggerated stereotypes of blacks and thus served as a means of justifying slavery. Jim Crow was no exception. Jim Crow or the Sambo character quickly became the stereotype of black men. Depicted as ignorant, lazy, childish, and completely dependent on their master, minstrel performers justified slavery by implying that blacks were incapable of taking care of themselves. Spectators preferred this depiction of black men as loyal to their masters rather than the alternative stereotype of the Savage who was rebellious and would attack white women.2

“Minstrel Music with African American Jim Crow Caricatures.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Image. Accessed March 6, 2018. https://africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1612304.

Published in 1847, the cover of the Jim Crow Jubilee sheet music, “a collection of Negro melodies” promotes the Jim Crow caricature and blackface minstrelsy. The cover mirrors the staging of a minstrel show: one central figure surrounded by three other performers with a fiddle, mandolin, and bones. The crowd of people in the background also suggests that this image is set on a plantation and that this characterization of black people’s appearance and behavior is representative of the black population.

The central figure of Jim Crow greatly resembles the original image of Jim Crow that advertised for Rice’s performances. Both feature a smiling black man with exaggerated and comical facial features and ragged clothing, including torn pants and shoes. While we discussed in class that performers often wore fantastical clothing on stage, the earlier characterizations of Jim Crow highlighted this disheveled appearance. In both images, the Jim Crows also strike a similar pose as if they are in the middle of dancing to the blackface minstrel music.

The origins of Jim Crow in black face minstrelsy highlight how a character’s name came to be a symbol of black people as a whole, discrimination, and institutional segregation across the South. Depictions of Jim Crow and other black characters demonstrated to audience members that blacks were inferior to whites in their appearance, speech, intellect, and general behavior and personality. This characterization reaffirmed color boundaries and led to the establishment of Jim Crow segregation laws.

Burns, James. “Thomas Rice.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Accessed March 6, 2018. https://africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Sear ch/Display/1606088.

Nuruddin, Yusuf. “Jim Crow Racial Stereotypes.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Accessed March 6, 2018. https://africaname ri can2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1407153.

William Henry Lane “Master Juba”

William Henry Lane, know as “Master Juba” on stage, was the most renowned black stage performer prior to the 1850’s. William performed with minstrel shows (Ethiopian Serenaders) and toured not only in the U.S. but to Europe. He was the first African American to perform in England. He was a famous performer and is arguably a main attributer and constituent to what we now call tap dance.

1848 Portrait of William Lane.

From Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class we know that African Americans dressing up and putting cork on their faces was a known thing, but Lane had done this in a time that was a prequel to thus. Lane had seemingly found success in the minstrel circuit.

Lane was a huge success over in England and the rest of Europe. An English critic after seeing Lane perform said:

Juba’s whirlwind style [was] executed with ease and “natural grace.” “[Such] mobility of muscles, such flexibility of joints, such boundings, such slidings, such gyrations, such toes and heelings, such backwardings and forwardings, such posturings, such firmness of foot, such elasticity of tendon, such mutation of movement, such vigor, such variety . . . such powers of endurance, such potency of ankle. (Conway)

Lane Performing in England.

Many viewers had a difficult time describing Lane’s style of dancing. It was upbeat and followed closely to the percussion of the music. It is argued whether the inability of others to describe his dancing style was do to his African background and whether he brought pieces of African dance into his style or not. Regardless, Lane became a sensation.

Lane and his style of dancing was so renowned that he had been mentioned in the works of Charles Dickens. He lived a hectic and short life, “records indicate Master Juba lived the intense life of a touring performer, giving shows every night. He also opened a dance school in London” (Peters). Unfortunately, Lane passed away in his late 20s in England.

Works Cited:

Conway, Cecelia. “William Henry ‘Master Juba’ Lane.” The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018, africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1591808. Accessed 7 Mar. 2018. 

Lott, Eric. Love and theft: blackface minstrelsy and the American working class. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Peters, Paula. “Lane, William Henry/Master Juba (1825-c. 1852).” Lane, William Henry/Master Juba (1825-c. 1852) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed.

 

Walt Minstry: Jungle Book’s Blackface Performance

Disney’s The Jungle Book, released in 1967, was a huge box office success. The film was praised highly for its attention to voice casting as a primary identifier of character’s personality and animation. Unfortunately, it is this exact quality which creates some problematic issues.

The monkeys of the jungle are racially coded as black, a problematic choice of animal characterization, and further worsened by aural stereotypes. In their essay “The Movie You See, The Movie You Don’t,” scholars Susan Miller and Greg Rhode note that “Jungle Book frequently relies on verbal class and gender stereotyping for its “innocent” fun, displacing the visual black and white of Song of the South onto aural stereotypes.” While the animation of monkeys would clearly not be racist, specifically representing those monkeys as African American puts the innocence of intentions a little more into question.

The very lyrics and style of the song King Louis sings become quickly controversial in light of the black coded nature assigned to his character. The famous song, “I Want to Be Like You” which King Louis and the monkeys sing, is all about the desire they hold to be human. The refraining chorus states: “Ooh, ooh, oh! I wanna be like you, I wanna walk like you, talk like you, too ooh, ooh. You’ll see it’s true, ooh, ooh! An ape like me, ee, ee. Can learn to be Juoo ooh man, too ooh, ooh.” Writing an entire song about the monkeys desiring recognition as humans, and clearly coding those monkeys as black poses an incredibly racist issue in the film, highly inappropriate for a children’s animation.

Next, the issue of the black coded nature becomes further problematic by the fact that they are once again played by white actors. Just as Jim Crow in Dumbo was voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards, so King Louis is voiced by white actor Louis Prima. While it would clearly be racist to choose African American voices to present these stereotypes, it is in many ways worse to choose a white actor to play a clear racial stereotype as this is the exact premise behind blackface minstrel performances.

Even within the plot of jungle book itself, the idea of minstrelsy is promoted by the fact that Baloo dresses up in monkey attire, and proceeds to imitate and sing the same song as King Louis. Baloo, as a non-monkey, donning “monkeyface” and performing in exaggerated style, his perceived understanding of what that means, is a close parallel to blackface in which a white, dons “blackface” and proceeds to imitate a black coded performance based on offensive stereotypes.

Comparing the images of Baloo in monkey attire, with images of blackface performers, once again the similarities are disturbingly similar. The hair, large lips, cartoonish body language, Baloo is clearly putting on a blackface performance with King Louis.

jungle bookblackface

The images and parallels, promotion and reinforcement of blackface minstrel performance in today’s society is still present and alive in areas many don’t realize. Perhaps more disturbing is attempting to understand how to respond to such images in our culture. It is difficult to determine the intentionality of these types of images and stereotypes present in The Jungle Book. Are the creators deliberately placing racist material in their films, or are these simply embedded structures that people promote without realizing or understanding the implications of their meaning? Would boycotting any film which presents these stereotypes prove helpful in any regard? Ultimately, the only way that a society can change is through each individual influence on it. Becoming better educated in historical traditions, mistakes, and problems can help us become more aware of them in today’s society and prevent us from incorporating them into our own productions of art, actions, or words. By understanding the history of traditions such as blackface and minstrelsy we can become more aware of their presence in films such as The Jungle Book and make better judgments and criticisms of their problematic issues and hopefully prevent the continuation of them in future films.

Works Cited:

Miller, Susan, and Greg Rode. “The Movie You See, The Movie You Don’t.” From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture.” Ed. Bell, Elizabeth, and Lynda Haas, Laura Sells. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. 86-103. Print.

 

Walt Minstry: Dumbo’s Jim Crow

Disney’s feature film Dumbo, released in 1941, tells the tale of a loveable baby elephant born with unnaturally large ears which he is consequently able to use for flying. One of the scenes presented in the film presents some highly problematic material however. Halfway through the film, Dumbo runs into a group of crows who assist in motivating, encouraging, and teaching him to fly. By aid of the “magic feather” the crows give him, Dumbo is then able to return to the circus and perform a revolutionary new act which crazes the nation.

Unfortunately, the crows Dumbo runs into are presented as African Americans. The very fact that Disney chose the particular characterization of crows to display black-coded stereotypes is questionable, but to make matters even worse, their leader’s scripted name is Jim Crow. The blatant reference to the offensive term of Jim Crow, the stereotyped language given to the crows, the voice casting of African Americans as the crows they’re playing, the animator behind their creation, and the role they play in the film’s plot all pose large problems which can’t be overlooked.

“Jim Crow” is a term full of racial connotations most often associated with the Jim Crow laws of the early 1900’s. Historian C. Vann Woodward notes that while, “The origin of the term ‘Jim Crow’ applied to Negroes is lost in obscurity. Thomas D. Rice wrote a song and dance called ‘Jim Crow’ in 1832, and the term had become an adjective by 1838.” The origin and etymology of the term comes specifically from a minstrel performance by Thomas D. Rice from the early 19th century. Although the exact origins of Rice’s inspiration for the Jim Crow character are unknown, it quickly became a sensational performance phenomenon. In his book Jump Jim Crow, W. T. Lhamon Jr explores the history and characteristics of the Jim Crow craze. He states that “No other American cultural figure stirred a legacy that endures such widespread censure as well as continual appropriation.” Such a widespread cultural figure can’t be referred to without indicating the negative racial stereotypes associated with it. A visual comparison between the two characters confirms the similarities between T. D. Rice’s representation of Jim Crow in minstrelsy and the animation of Dumbo’s crows. Even the poses, dance, and body language of Dumbo is a direct tribute to the original minstrel tradition.jim crowjim crow dumbo

Having already established a problematic visual representation of Jim Crow, the song “When I See an Elephant Fly” next adds a disturbing linguistic stereotyping of African American language. The main line of the chorus uses speech reminiscent of early minstrel songs: “But I be don’ seen ‘bout ev’rythang, when I see an elephant fly” It’s interesting to note that the lyrics of this song in current Disney songbooks have changed the lyrics to “But I think I will have seen ev’rything when I see an elephant fly.” The removal of dialect from the printed sheet music seems to reflect a recognition of the racist implications to it.

The controversial visual and linguistic stereotypes presented in Dumbo’s crows are further complicated by the voice casting. Jim Crow is voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards, while the rest of the crows are voiced by the African American choir Hall Johnson. (The same chorus Disney used in the racially controversial film Song of the South.) Whether it’s more problematic to have African American actors voicing racist stereotypes or to have a white actor voice a caricature of Jim Crow is difficult to determine. To have a white actor giving a racially black coded performance, even if animated, is the same act as a blackface minstrel show. And if the animated character being performed is Jim Crow himself, what makes this any different than T. D. Rice’s own performance a century prior to Dumbo’s release?

Works Cited:

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. Print.

Lhamon, W. T. Jr. Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003. Print.

Disney Productions: The New Illustrated Disney Songbook. New York: Abrams, 1986. Print.

The Great Hope of Whitewashing in 1890s ‘Ethiopian Song’

“Would you Paint All the Colored People White?”

The titular question of what the sheet music claims is “Walter Dauphin’s Great Ethiopian Song” sounds simultaneously hopeful and skeptical. One on hand it seems to be pleading to God on high to make the ‘Colored People’ white, easing their lives of trial and hierarchical suffering. On the other, it seems to be asking, “if you could, would you?”

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A closer look at the text of the song affirms that the desired emotion of the song is hope, as the idea of painting them is a scheme for the speaker to do the things he’s been “dreaming” about. Presumably, becoming white would allow this individual greater freedoms previously unable to them. This seems like a truthful sentiment coming from a black person in 1893, but of course thats not really the case. The title page also says “Sung with Great Success by ‘The Eldridges’ and all the Leading Minstrels”, confirming that this was definitely a piece associated with blackface performances, though this doesn’t change the fact that this music is surprisingly and spiritually tender.

On the other end of the spectrum is “When the Black Folks Turn White”, a jaunty tune by Ragtime composer Joe Haydn (Not Franz Joseph). This 1898 composition has an extremely different tone from the Dauphin, with a text stating that God’s creation of African Americans was an accident. The ‘joy’ of the piece then, emerges from humorous impossibility of Blacks ever achieving a better life status.

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While their is a hope for salvation with the coming of the millennium, it doesn’t make sense for this idea to be taken seriously with the light nature of the sheet music, especially compared the religiosity latent in Dauphin’s composition. Instead, the significance of both these pieces is that they deal with the idea not of blackface, but of whitewashing. What does this say about blackface performers that they would be willing to adopt blackface in order to sing about wishing they were white? Is it possible they were actually grateful for the life they were given based on their skin color? Or were they just rubbing it in?


Haydn: http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hasm_b0188/#info

Dauphin: http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hasm_b0215/

E.P. Christy’s Minstrel Troupe

American composer and performer, Edwin Pearce Christy, was an influential person in the history of Minstrelsy and theater in American history. His career in minstrelsy began in New York in the 1840s and from there he became a sensation. He and six other performers performed around the country in black-face and eventually he began composing his own minstrel songs and sketches. In 1855 he retired as a performer, but he continued to be involved in the theater as he managed his original group Christy’s Minstrels. This early form of minstrelsy was surely racist and prejudice, as slavery was still legal in the southern states. Here are a few examples of his work (note the cherubs are in black face surrounding Christy’s portrait… narcissistic racism at its’ finest.):

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The tune in the image above, “Happy Are We Darkies So Gay” is yet another false portrayal of the African American sentiment. Slaves were not happy to be enslaved, and the minstrel shows went out of their way to satirically demonstrate a falsehood among white audiences that African American individuals liked doing menial work on plantations. Stephen Foster, a colleague of Christy but more well-known, created similar portrayals of plantation life through music and sketches. However, Foster was perhaps more admirable in that he sought to ‘eliminate objectionable lyrics’ that didn’t serve any purpose but to degrade that African American race. This was either a tactic to gain more supporters, thus a social and political move to further his career or maybe he truly had a kind(er) heart.

Fun fact: Christy committed suicide during the American Civil War for fear of money troubles…

 

Bibliography:

Saunders, Steven. “The Social Agenda of Stephen Foster’s Plantation Melodies.” American Music 30.3 (2012): 275-89. JSTOR. University of Illinois Press. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Christy, Edwin Pearce. “Happy Are We Darkies So Gay.” New York : Jaques and Brother: 1847. The Mills Music Library Digital Collection. http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/WebZ/FETCH?sessionid=01-64337-741693744:recno=1:resultset=1:format=F:next=html/nffull.html:bad=error/badfetch.html&entityimageSize=x