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Book Review 207: Black Like You

August 10, 2011 - Harry Eagar

BLACK LIKE YOU: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture, by John Strausbaugh. 370 pages, illustrated. Tarcher, $24.95

The first thing to say about “Black Like You” is that it's fearless. The second is, John Strausbaugh is a pretty funny guy.

There are so many themes in this serious book – no reason serious has to be solemn – that's it's hard to know where to begin, but a main theme is that blackface entertainment can be understood as youth rebellion, as much as or even more than some fundamentally racist trope.

Although “blacking up” can be traced way back, it erupted into popular culture on the Bowery in the 1830s, and the patrons were mainly young (often Irish) marginal white boys, who were under economic pressure from the proletarianization of American labor in the 19th century (a process explored solemnly and in great depth by Sean Wilentz in “Chants Democratic.” Strausbaugh does not seem to have read Wilentz, but his conclusions are similar.). The same phenomenon, Strausbaugh says, erupted again and again, youth thumbing its nose against stodgy authoritarianism and dull order, as with the blues, rock and roll and hiphop.

Another theme is that America is a mutt culture,. It is not possible, in Strausbaugh's view, to make a bright line between racist blackface and the other kind. There were black minstrel performers, and in fact at some points they were predominant, and black blackface minstrel shows outlasted the white blackface.

Clearly, this is a cultural phenomenon that is not easy to pin down. Some blackfacing was viciously racist, some not so much, and maybe some not at all. Strausbaugh has no patience for either the antiblack racists nor the moralizing racists of the multiculti school.

He forthrightly calls the so-called diversity crusaders of the present day racists, and no one can doubt it. Although he does not put it quite this way, it is a question for philosophers: Who, in a country that is 70% white and 70% Protestant, is more “diverse,” an African-American Baptist or an Italian-American Catholic?

Some of the book gets pretty far away from popular culture. Strausbaugh spends many pages on crappy movies, which may have been popular in the sense that they were not “high,” but were not popular in the sense that many people were aware they existed. Their bare existence may tell us much about American attitudes – Strausbaugh would say they do, and I mostly agree with him – but there's a big difference between cult films and “Amos & Andy.”

For example, Strausbaugh starts out with a report on a modern blackface comic, Chuck Knipp, whose character is Shirley Q. Liquor, but who also has a white persona, Betty Butterfield. Of the two, the white character is a vicious portrayal, a pillpopping Southern dimwit; while Shirley Q. Liquor is self-proclaimed “ignunt” but really a woman with few of the opportunities of Betty Butterfield doing the best she can in an unforgiving world. Knipp is not obviously a racist, but he is definitely misogynist.

In any case, not many Americans know Chuck Knipp, who is rather a cult figure with white homosexual men, and (I venture) not even many of them. It is hard to say to what extent Knipp represents 21st American popular culture.

Anyhow, Strausbaugh is right to think that “blacking up” reflects “a tremendous emotional, sexual and political confusion,” and “Black Like You” does about as good a job of sorting it out as anyone ever has.


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