It was at this epoch that Mr. T.D. Rice made his debut in a dramatic sketch entitled “Jim Crow,” and from that moment everybody was “doing just so,” and continued “doing just so” for months, and even years afterward. Never was there such an excitement in the musical or dramatic world; nothing was talked of, nothing written of, and nothing dream of, but “Jim Crow.” The most sober citizens began to “wheel about, and turn about, and jump Jim Crow.” It seemed as though the entire population had been bitten by the tarantula; in the parlor, in the kitche, in the shop and in the street, Jim Crow monopolized public attention. It must have been a species of insanity, though of a gentle and pleasing kind…
– New York Tribune (1855)
Despite their billings as images of reality, these Negroes of fiction are counterfeits. They are projected aspects of an internal symbolic process through which, like a primitive tribesman dancing himself into the group frenzy necessary for battle, the white American prepares himself emotionally to perform a social role.
– Ralph Ellison
The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.
– C.L.R. James
After a decade of first being made aware of it and after having procrastinated in buying it, I finally got around to purchasing a copy of Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class last week after a discussion within an earlier blog post about cultural borrowings and appropriations. Love and Theft will not be a book that I will rush to finish within a day; despite its relatively short 314 pages (nearly a third of which are endnotes, citations, and indices), this appears to be a weighty tome.
Here are some questions/guesses that I have based on having just finished the Introduction (if I am in the mood, I may write a review essay on it similar to what I had to write nearly two decades when I was a cultural history major):
Approach: Will it be more like the microhistories of Ginzburg or Ladurie?
Will it be a structuralist examination of mentalités or will there be some exploration of power relations similar to what Foucault was evolving toward?
“The minstrel show was less the incarnation of an age-old racism than an emergent social semantic figure highly responsive to the emotional demands and troubled fantasies of its audiences.” (p. 6) – How will this be explored in the main body of the book?
Binary narratives – how will Lott debunk them, as he seems to indicate that he will?
How does the late antebellum (1846-1854) backdrop for “Jim Crow” and other such nascent minstrel shows influence not just the medium of communication but the narrative itself?
Does the concept of “American Studies” co-exist in this historical era with regionalism? Can there be said to exist then an “American” concept of minstrel shows as opposed to a series of regional conceptualizations?
In which ways did antebellum African American cultures influence white perspectives and in which ways could these shows be seen as a (distorted) reflection of cultural assimilation?
It will be interesting to see how (or if) Love and Theft addresses these questions (and others) raised within its introduction. I am very curious about this work, as I want to see what methodological and epistemological approaches Lott takes and how well he executes his theories regarding the complex narrative of “love and theft” that surrounds not just the antebellum minstrel shows, but the generations of black-white cultural relations that followed. Should make for an entertaining read, although I suspect most who read this blog wouldn’t quite use the adjective “entertaining” to describe an academic history…