Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop

Overview

An exploration and celebration of a controversial tradition that, contrary to popular opinion, is alive and active after more than 150 years.

Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen investigate the complex history of black minstrelsy, adopted in the mid-nineteenth century by African American performers who played the grinning blackface fool to entertain black and white audiences. We now consider minstrelsy an embarrassing relic, but once blacks and whites alike saw it as a black art ...

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Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop

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Overview

An exploration and celebration of a controversial tradition that, contrary to popular opinion, is alive and active after more than 150 years.

Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen investigate the complex history of black minstrelsy, adopted in the mid-nineteenth century by African American performers who played the grinning blackface fool to entertain black and white audiences. We now consider minstrelsy an embarrassing relic, but once blacks and whites alike saw it as a black art form—and embraced it as such. And, as the authors reveal, black minstrelsy remains deeply relevant to popular black entertainment, particularly in the work of contemporary artists like Dave Chappelle, Flavor Flav, Spike Lee, and Lil Wayne. Darkest America explores the origins, heyday, and present-day manifestations of this tradition, exploding the myth that it was a form of entertainment that whites foisted on blacks, and shining a sure-to-be controversial light on how these incendiary performances can be not only demeaning but also, paradoxically,
liberating.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Taylor (coauthor of Faking It) and Austen (editor of Roctober magazine) provide a comprehensive and perceptive history and critique of black minstrelsy—a tradition that began in the 1840s, where black performers entertained black and white audiences by playing the grinning blackface buffoon, exaggerating the traits white people used to characterize black men. Minstrelsy emerged as the most popular form of entertainment (the ancestor of vaudeville and the variety show) until the turn of the 20th century, when the classic minstrel variety show gradually disappeared. Taylor and Austen argue that minstrelsy’s “Negro caricature” became woven into American culture, reappearing in the 21st century in hip-hop, rap, Mardi Gras Zulu floats in New Orleans, and inspiring the work of artists like Lil Wayne and Spike Lee. The book explores minstrelsy’s long period of popularity; artists such as Bert Williams and Master Juba; its audience’s reactions; and the ways its innovative performances have influenced American culture. According to the authors, black minstrel performers did not simply re-enact degrading stereotypes, but rather satirized those stereotypes to liberate themselves and their audiences. In his performances, Bert Williams expunged some of minstrelsy’s demeaning aspects to highlight its humanity and pathos, while Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles kept minstrelsy’s musical legacy alive through its songs. This well-informed work deepens our understanding of a lasting element of American culture. Illus. Agent: William Clark, William Clark Associates. (Aug.)
Reed Johnson - Los Angeles Times
“[A] fascinating and authoritative critical history that traces the roots of minstrelsy back to Africa and the Civil War era... Whatever your perspective on the sensitive issues it raises, Darkest America is a thoughtful and well-written exploration of themes that cut to the heart of our national identity and culture.”
Preston Lauterbach - Wall Street Journal
“While the authors acknowledge the appalling truth about minstrelsy, its carefree trafficking in vicious stereotype, they also successfully suggest that we’ve averted our eyes too quickly... Darkest America contains delicious twists... [and] carries a truth so heavy it trumps race.”
Robert Christgau - Barnes and Noble Review
“In the long, powerful title chapter, [the authors] tell a story absent from the many minstrelsy studies to arrive since Robert Toll’s Blacking Up in 1974.... Their polemic is convincing.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Exciting... convincing... entertaining and well-paced... rich in detail.”
Los Angeles Times
[A] fascinating and authoritative critical history that traces the roots of minstrelsy back to Africa and the Civil War era... Whatever your perspective on the sensitive issues it raises, Darkest America is a thoughtful and well-written exploration of themes that cut to the heart of our national identity and culture.— Reed Johnson
Wall Street Journal
While the authors acknowledge the appalling truth about minstrelsy, its carefree trafficking in vicious stereotype, they also successfully suggest that we’ve averted our eyes too quickly... Darkest America contains delicious twists... [and] carries a truth so heavy it trumps race.— Preston Lauterbach
Barnes and Noble Review
In the long, powerful title chapter, [the authors] tell a story absent from the many minstrelsy studies to arrive since Robert Toll’s Blacking Up in 1974.... Their polemic is convincing.”— Robert Christgau
Library Journal
Over 150 years after the rise of minstrelsy, blackface and grotesque caricature still have the power to shock, sicken, and shame. Yet Taylor (senior editor, Chicago Review Press) and Austen (editor, Rocktober) maintain that despite its many evils, chiefly virulent racial stereotyping, the 19th-century minstrel show provided African American entertainers a platform for innovation and that its themes recur in black performance arts including Mardi Gras carnivals, decades of television comedy, and gangsta rap. The authors consider key players and performances (Bert Williams, Lincoln Perry, Zora Neale Hurston, Amos 'n' Andy, Sanford and Son, Flavor Flav, N.W.A., Tyler Perry) and critical response from Richard Wright to Bill Cosby to Spike Lee, whose powerful, troubling film Bamboozled is a furious indictment of the minstrel tradition. VERDICT For a team of white writers to take on such a racially supercharged topic is perhaps risky (the authors refer to themselves by race only once, but plainly), but their illuminating book demonstrates serious regard for the history of black performance and, through a substantial bibliography, encourages further exploration. It will interest both general readers and specialists in black entertainment.—Janet Ingraham Dwyer, State Lib. of Ohio, Columbus
Kirkus Reviews
A provocative, compelling exploration of one of the most controversial elements of the black entertainment world. Chicago Review Press senior editor Taylor and Roctober magazine editor Austen explore the long history not only of African-American involvement in minstrel performances, but also of black-derived comedy that utilizes elements from the minstrel act--exaggerated stereotypes of the black experience that hearken back to the minstrel shows of the 19th century. More precisely, the authors examine the debates over these myriad forms of entertainment and the accusations of minstrelsy that have often embroiled black entertainers and intellectuals in fevered debates over the nature and depiction of the black experience. Taylor and Austen deftly argue that African-Americans have taken on perceived minstrelsy in one of three ways. The first has been simply to embrace such forms of entertainment and comedy. The second has been to signify on them--i.e., to engage in self-aware parody and wry utilization of elements of minstrelsy to make a larger point. The third approach involves waging war on such stereotypes, which often leads to heated accusations and counterattacks. The authors take a kaleidoscopic look at their topic, emphasizing a diverse range of individuals and works, including blackface entertainer Bert Williams, writers Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, Stanley Crouch's attacks on Tupac Shakur as a "thug minstrel," Spike Lee's film Bamboozled, and comedian Dave Chappelle's self-exile when he reached the conclusion that his own work had moved uncomfortably from comedy about stereotyping to enabling the very stereotypes he was combating. An innovative, marvelous book about comedy, stereotypes and the struggle to steer through the sometimes-fierce internal debates over African-American identity in a society still struggling with its racial past.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393070989
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/27/2012
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 725,852
  • Product dimensions: 8.30 (w) x 5.90 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Yuval Taylor, senior editor at Chicago Review Press, is the coauthor of Faking It and the editor of I Was Born a Slave. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.

Jake Austen is the editor of Roctober magazine, He lives in Chicago, Illinois.

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