By far the most frightening image on American TV in recent days was not some horror show from Iraq but rather a close up of Larry Parks in Blackface singing “Mammy” in the 1946 movie “The Jolson Story” which aired a few nights ago on Turner Classics. The sense of revulsion I felt as the camera dollied in for a close up of the performer’s sweating, grease-painted face, pop-eyes and wooly “Coon” wig was visceral and examing it prompted these thoughts.

 First, perhaps the most disturbing thing about Minstrelsy is its longevity. It was a popular form of entertainment in this country for well over a century and for 80 of those years, from roughly 1830 to about 1910, the Minstrel Show was far and away the most popular. Think about that and then think what that says about America…that the show everyone wanted to see above all was a white man in Blackface caricaturing blacks, virtually inventing the black stereotpes and solidifying them in the minds of white people.

The three standard characters of Minstrelsy were the happy-go-lucky “Jim Crow”, the over-celebratory musician, “Mr. Tambo” and “Zip Coon”, the flashy free black “puttin’ on airs” and strutting his stuff in a futile attempt to rise  above his lowly station in racist America. In “The Jolson Story” the young Al Jolson gets his first break as a solo act when he is asked to perform in Blackface in a big touring Minstrel Show. Although probably historically accurate, what struck me was the complete nonchallance with which Jolson and indeed everone else accepted Blackface not only as an artistic form, but virtually the only form for polular music. No one seemed to wonder, as I found myself doing, why was it necessary for white men to put on black masks in order to sing popular music?

The Blackface phase of the film eventually does end and Jolson, again without any comment, suddenly begins to appear on stage as himself, a wise-cracking, singing Jew. So what happened? Well, the movies mainly. I’m not sure of  the exact cause-and-effect relationship, but it is surely  no coincidence that the end of the supremacy of Minstrelsy as entertainment came about just as the movie business was getting started. But those previous 80 years left their mark and again its is the historical Jolson who starred in the first “Talkie”, performing in Blackface as “The Jazz Singer.” Interestingly it was Georgie Jessel who was Warner Brothers’ first choice for the role of Jakie Rabinowitz, but Jolson got the part when Jessel, who had played the role on Broadway, demanded too much money.

Bing Crosby and Judy Garland did Blackface in films, as did countless other white actors and singers. Again I come back to the question I asked myself before: why was Blackface necessary for whites to sing popular music? The best answer I came up with while watching Larry Park’s brilliant but scary portrayal of Jolson is that it has to do with the mask itself.

The American Minstrel Show had it origins in the preindustrial European carnival tradition where masks were an essential part of a show that also involved the reversal of social roles. By putting on burnt cork or black grease paint to cover his whiteness, and donning a “Coon” wig and outlandish costume, a white performer was liberating himself from uncomfortable and unmusical stiffness of the white social role. Without having to constantly worry about such white concerns as their presumed great dignity or having to be constantly on guard that proper deference was always being shown to their elevated social station (my image of the Southerner is of a man constantly on the look out for social sleights and more than ready to avenge them, real or imagined) white men found it possible to dance with a suppleness and croon with an open emotion  otherwise unavailable to them. While hiding behind the black mask they projected a sincere but distorted admiration of blackness.

 

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