JUMP JIM CROW: LOST PLAYS, LYRICS AND STREET PROSE OF THE FIRST ATLANTIC POPULAR CULTURE by W.T. Lhamon Jr., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 459 pp, $29.95 cloth.
Thomas Dartmouth (Daddy) Rice was a white actor who in the 1800s donned blackface and created a stage character called Jim Crow. In the era of minstrelsy, Rice imitated the songs and dances of the slaves, adding his own truncated caricatures that were cunning, wily, stupid and slow, leaving a devastating cultural and political legacy of negative imagery that resounds even today.
W.T. Lhamon Jr., a professor and historian who has written extensively on race and class alliances in the 19th century, has, in Jump Jim Crow, researched Rice and unearthed 9 of his plays and 13 of his songs. Lhamon’s analysis and conclusions are undoubtedly an important scholarly contribution to theatre history, but they are also disturbing. It is Lhamon’s contention that the original intent of Rice and his Jim Crow material was an “expression of rebellion and resistance against the oppression and confinement suffered by people of all colors in antebellum America and Victorian England.” Maybe so, but the derisive antics of Rice and his minstrel cohorts became all too clear when the burnt cork (blackface) was applied.
In his examination of the “lost” songs and plays of Rice, Lhamon sets out to validate minstrelsy by arguing that:
1) Minstrelsy provided the American underclass with an ideology to represent itself;
2) The creation of stereotypes enabled the common folks to laugh at their “insufficiencies”;
3) These stereotypes were sometimes childlike but never childish;
4) Stereotypes were not racial but were an invitation to poor whites to align themselves with blacks against oppression; and
5) Rice and his friends began a new black stage English.
In reality, Jim Crow actors stole from black culture, exaggerated its aspects into caricature, and then had the audacity to define it as “blackness.” White audiences accepted the singing, dancing, happy-go-lucky, razor-wielding, grinning buffoon as representative of all blacks. Even today, performers are often asked to “be more black,” “talk more black” or “act more black.” Lhamon himself makes the point: “No other American cultural figure stirred a legacy that endured such widespread censure as well as continued appropriation.” One might add that this syndrome continues with jazz, blues, gospel—and hip-hop is on the way.
“The mentality of the early Jim Crow plays,” Lhamon further writes, “is not as viciously despairing as it has become in Spike Lee’s films.” This is both presumptuous and condescending. Any existing or even limited black audience of the time would hardly have been in a position to rebel. Had there been a multitude of Nat Turners, Harriet Tubmans, Toussaint L’Ouvertures and Mary Princes in 19th-century America, there would have been no Jim Crow, then or now. Theories and ideas are strong philosophical currency, but symbols are the blueprint of a reality—a reality that often eludes the scholar who dreams of a more noble consciousness. The burning cross, lynch rope, swastika, ball and chain and whip are still very much alive. Spike Lee got it right in Bamboozled; so did Marlon Riggs in his 1987 film Ethnic Notions.
Symbols do not die a natural death. Ira Aldridge and James Hewlett, the valiant actors of the African Grove Theatre in New York City, played Shakespeare and attempted to bring pathos to the Jim Crow roles. The result of their counteractions: Their theatre was burned to the ground. When the great comedian Bert Williams and his partner George Walker tried to elevate minstrelsy, they were forced to wear blackface before white audiences. Williams, a major star of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1910-19, was not allowed to go on Broadway stages without it. Uptown in Harlem, however, he played without it.
The mask of blackness has hypnotized our society since it began, seducing blacks and whites in different but interrelated ways. When Williams and Walker, a musical starring Ben Harney and Vondie Curtis Hall, toured the country in the ’70s and ’80s, there was a gasp in the audience when Harney appeared in blackface. Some black patrons walked out before they saw the scene in his dressing room where he removed the makeup and showed the unhappy frustration of the gifted comedian who was not allowed to appear as himself. Another Daddy Rice legacy: A decade or so ago, the talented Ben Vereen did a one-man show on Bert Williams, a small portion of which was broadcast on television from a White House appearance. The clip shown was of the actor in blackface only, and the black audience backlash was profound. Does anyone recall the Ted Danson-Whoopi Goldberg debacle?
The soul-destroying force of minstrelsy lingers today, even when extravagant satire is the ultimate intent. Indeed, the buffoonery of Thomas Rice discredits the very issues Lhamon seeks to validate in Jump Jim Crow. Rice’s nine plays were mainly farcical, precursors of burlesque and the situation comedy. His 1844 Otello, a sequel derived from Othello and apparently considered an important work, was billed as “a burlesque opera.” Oh Hush, a tale of “Coal Black Rose” and her two lovers, one of whom hides in a closet while Rose hits the other on the head with a frying pan, might have worked as an episode on “Sanford and Son”—without the blackface. Virginia Mommy is a one-act farce in which the slave Ginger Blue is painted up like a mummy and made to lie in a coffin. Supposedly conniving, he speaks like the prototypes for Mr. Stepin Fetchit, the slow-witted character of the 1940s. Ginger’s dialogue:
GINGER: Did you call me, master? RIFLE: I call'd the waiter, are you he? GINGER: I ar one of dem.
The Foreign Prince has another slave posing as an African prince and might have served as a model for Eugene O’Neill’s Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones. Jim Crow as the prince introduces us to his children (“Dem am my childs!”) as piccaninnies, the derogatory term for black youngsters that has taken centuries to erase.
The use of “nigger” throughout Rice’s 13 song lyrics, moreover, would be a total affront to African-American audiences today—despite the protestations of many rappers and the misguided Harvard scholar Randall Kennedy. In Rice’s street prose, The Life of Jim Crow, the dialect is almost incomprehensible; the notes indicate that Rice actually changed the word “rascal” to “nigger,” along with other aberrations.
With all due respect to Lhamon’s painstaking research, which will undoubtedly enrich the archives of academe, this must be noted: The jump from Uncle Tom to Mr. T is very short. (A New York magazine article describes some extreme hip-hop behavior as “gangsta minstrelsy.”) By resurrecting these distorted remnants from a painful past, the implicit suggestion in Jump Jim Crow that their performance today could bring anything less than misery for the descendants of the tormented souls who were imitated, made fun of, exploited and lynched, is an absurdity.
Shauneille Perry is a writer, director and former professor of theatre and black studies at New York’s Lehman College. Her play Marian Anderson: Things of the Heart will be presented at the Bermuda Theatre Festival in 2004.
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