Sunday, October 7, 2007

Minstrelsy, Racist To Its Core, Is Morally Repugnant

(Correction: Fellow blogger Terry Howcott, of, has pointed out a significant error in the first post.)

Two recent posts on Eddie Campbell's blog, The Fate of The Artist have sparked renewed interest in the Calliope cover art of the Afro-French composer Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), who is profiled at great length at Six comments have been posted, and the links to my posts have been followed more than 200 times. The CD in question is Monsieur de Saint-George: 4 Concertos pour violon, Calliope 9373 (2007), released in June. On Oct. 2 Eddie Campbell showed the cover art from the CD he had just purchased to add to his collection of Saint-Georges, summarized the revival of interest in the composer, and ended with the observation:

Getting a comic strip artist to draw the cover of the Cd booklet strikes me as an odd move.”

On Oct. 4 the blog had a post entitled “polka dots or not.” It linked to my July 20 post on the cover art, and to the July 26 post which included a reply made on behalf of the record label, with my rebuttal. I am grateful for the renewed interest in the issue. However, I must respond to the persons who posted comments rejecting my concerns about references which recall the racist imagery of minstrelsy. Someone has aptly described minstrelsy as “racist to its core”. In both the U.S. and the U.K., minstrelsy was wildly popular among certain White people from the early 19th century to the early 20th century. It was a form of entertainment which reveled in fantasies of White superiority and African American inferiority. An excellent overview of the style is found in the PBS website for the program American Experience:

“Blackface Minstrelsy
Learn more about the history and legacy of the blackface minstrel show in these excerpts of interviews with historians Dale Cockrell, Eric Lott, Deane Root, Fath Ruffins, and Josephine Wright, writers Ken Emerson and Mel Watkins, and performers Nanci Griffith and Thomas Hampson.”

Here is writer Mel Watkins answering the question “How were the minstrel shows racist?”

Mel Watkins:
Minstrelsy is much under-rated historically in terms of its influence on American society. [Consider] the stereotype of Uncle Tom, for instance, the black man who is without backbone and who is really the white man's black man. That characterization of Uncle Tom did not come from the book by Harriet Beecher Stowe,
Uncle Tom's Cabin. It came from the images portrayed in minstrelsy. In the book Uncle Tom was relatively intelligent, although not educated, and an example of Christian morality, in one sense. On stage in the minstrel show he became the shuffling toady. He became the sniveling black man who was really a coward and was ignorant and somewhat comical in his connection to the slave masters. So that image came totally from minstrelsy, and if we could go down the line and point out other ways in which those images pervaded the society at that time, those were the images, that was the sense of what black people were like. I think it becomes much clearer when one looks at black minstrelsy again because when black minstrels started to take to the stage, they were advertised as the real thing. In fact, one group was called "The Real Nigs." And this was -- they were advertised as "Come to the theatre and get a real look into what plantation life was like." So this was not advertised as a stage show. It was advertised as a peephole view of what black people were really like. To that extent, it affected all of society because those people who didn't know blacks, and there were many places where there were very few blacks, assumed that those characterizations, those depictions, those foolish characters on stage, were real black people. And so it had an immense effect on the way mainstream society thought about blacks.

The Arion CD 68093 (1990) uses the portrait made by the American painter Mather Brown, done in London in 1787. My concerns about references which reminded me of minstrelsy were shared by many others, including several who also wrote to Calliope or its U.S. Distributor, Harmonia Mundi USA. We must not compound the racist legacy of minstrelsy by allowing ourselves to forget what it was.

racial+inferiority" rel="tag">racial inferiority
White+superiority" rel="tag">White superiority
demeaning+stereotypes" rel="tag">demeaning stereotypes
Uncle+Tom" rel="tag">Uncle Tom
minstrel+shows" rel="tag">minstrel shows
morally+repugnant" rel="tag">morally repugnant


Eddie Campbell said...

a couple hundred!!!?

most days i'd swear nobody was paying attention to my blather. 'linking' is the key word in this blogging phenomenon, or in another word, communication.

Another thought. I have a half-written piece in my drafts folder on Alan Lomax and Jelly Roll Morton. I should finish that and post it...

very best to you

Eddie Campbell

John Mullen said...

I am very interested in reactions to minstrelsy at the time, in Britain. It was clearly very popular and a real encouragement to popular racism at a time when Africa was being divided up between European powers. Michael Pickering's recent book makes it clear that British minstrelsy was rather different to US minstrelsy as it was not trying to deal with the reactions of its audience to a large local minority (there were very few blacks in the UK compared with the US). I have looked up in The Times archives in London, and as far as I can see no contemporary commentator from the elite spoke of the racism in mintrelsy. Minstresly declined rapidly after 1905 in Britain, but not because of objections to its racism. If anyone knows where I can find more about this, I would be interested.