I was recently asked by Adam Parker to read and review a book for the Post & Courier. This is the first time I have ever reviewed a book for a publication. It was a fascinating read and a book that I highly recommend. I guess I'll have to come up with my own rating system now!
Book reviewed by Colin Quashie:
The oft maligned, misunderstood and/or misinterpreted history of minstrelsy is explored in Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop by Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen. This superbly researched text is presented in scholarly detail and offers surprising anecdotes and insights into the birthright of the dark art, the rise and fall of blackface and the subsequent fallout of both art forms with contemporary audiences. It presents a thesis of the practical means, and speculates on the debatable motives of practitioners of what many consider to be ‘the only completely original contribution America has made to the theater.’
The book covers a huge swath of territory. It theorizes how early survival-based acts of coonish buffoonery by plantation slaves to ‘feign stupidity and sloth to trick and lower overseers expectations’, provided the comic framework on which highly structured and staged performances would be fashioned. Barnstorming troupes of innovative actors and transcendent personalities ignited a popular explosion of minstrelsy that reached its zenith (some shows were on the enormous scale of modern day traveling fairs), shortly after the reconstruction era. The contentious transfer of blackface from nineteenth century stagecraft to twentieth century tool of ridicule and racial divisiveness eventually lead to the demise of minstrelsy and sped its absorption into vaudeville.
The combination of a renaissance of black cultural expression and the development of radio and television converged to not only challenge and redefine the historic relevancy of black minstrel sensibilities, but fuel public clashes amongst detractors and aficionados. Black literati, the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, publicly weighed in on both sides of the cultural divide and forecast future conflict (Bill Cosby vs. Stepin Fetchit, Stanley Crouch vs. Tupac and more recently, Spike Lee vs. Tyler Perry). The controversial broadcast of Amos ‘n’ Andy, which capitalized on the best while projecting the worst, would ultimately become the epicenter of discussion for generations to come. However, it would be the rise of the black power and civil rights movements along with the cinematic projection of dignified ‘super negroes’ that would forever denounce and stigmatize the minstrel legacy.
The book comes full circle with the alleged adaptation and reintegration of minstrel motifs by black musical acts and contemporary comics. The curious case of Dave Chappelle’s ‘awakening’ is eye opening and emblematic of the emotional toll exacted by past and current handlers of race based material. Sitcoms, from Good Times to Sanford and Son and Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns, which were and are heavily dependent upon actual characters and characterizations rebooted from the minstrel era, are exposed and questioned, while hip-hop’s and rap’s minstrel tag is rebuffed. An entire chapter is dedicated to the effectiveness of Bamboozled, Spike Lee’s magnum opus, which satirized the minstrel movement on every level from producer to performer to viewer.
Darkest America provides a comprehensive narrative into the factual aspects of minstrelsy’s improvisational genius and beguiling legacy while offering commentary on the myriad complexities of racial antics. It will not end the debate, but rather provide both critic and advocate a well-researched platform to support their argument.