Reclaiming Minstrelsy

This week’s readings were an interesting extension of our conversations about minstrelsy, making a different framework for considering its role in racial history and identity. White people donning blackface and performing their ideas about blackness clearly and overtly comes from racist narratives and a desire for Irish and other immigrants to separate themselves in order to be read as white. Brooks’ ideas about minstrelsy in The Octoroon provided the first complication to this reading, demonstrating the subversive places where minstrelsy actually allows these identities to interact, creating the space for racially liminal bodies.  The racial nuance of In Dahomey takes this one step further. As a piece of traveling theater, it powerfully allowed for a reclamation of black narratives and bodies through an overtly racist medium. 

Williams and Walker factor into themes of exhibitionism and exchange of their era. Getting their start in performing africaness at a world’s fair, they not only demonstrate their cultural distance from the “homeland” they enact in In Dahomey, they also begin to participate in the various ways identity was codified — it wasn’t just minstrelsy on the stage.  Their performance of blackness on stage, however, is meant to serve a distinctly different purpose than the otherness on display at the fairs.  In Dahomey was pushing for a collective artistic agenda, cleverly allowing for empowerment under the guise of debasement or debauchery.  As every creative mind involved in the performance was black, they could take back this medium that was used against them and repurpose it right under the nose of white audiences.  I still have some questions about their enactment about this however, and our discussions of the successfulness of this kind of subversion touched on that. In Dahomey demonstrates the imposition of structures of racism and racial identity constructions that make its subversive elements hard or impossible to read by contemporary white audiences. Does its artistic vision and reclamation of these tropes by cooperative black efforts counteract the continued performance of blackness as an other? As a transitional piece, from our 21st century perspective, I think it can be constructively read both ways — despite the fact that it presents racist tropes of performative blackness, it was a step forward and a form of empowerment necessary to make space for later black performers and allowing them to perform without needing to perform race as well.

2 Replies to “Reclaiming Minstrelsy”

  1. I also agree. I find that, especially in today’s culture, it can be really hard to look back at the first steps to progress and see them simply as that – progress. However, without In Dahomey toeing the line between safe and controversial, there could have been no movement forward. The line would have had to remain in the same place, rather than being moved forward for other performers to continue to toe. The use of blackface in this case is even somewhat empowering. The reclamation of blackface by black people is a start to what can eventually lead to the ending of it – or of giving it a new meaning, as we can see an example of today with the n word.

  2. I agree that the discussions this week have differed greatly from those of last week. I find it fascinating to think that minstrelsy is something that was used in a subversive way and as a catalyst for change. Before this class, I would have thought that no use of blackface could be justified or thought of as a way to reclaim a narrative. Upon reading these narratives and further understanding their impact, however, I have come to see the way in which one can utilize the tools of their oppression in order to flip the script on their oppressors. As you remarked, I definitely still have questions surrounding this usage and its effectiveness, but I am hopeful that it is something we will be able to further explore throughout the rest of the semester.

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