I didn't run, but after the initial jolt, I had to examine my reaction. How had this artwork had such a disorienting affect on me and evoked so many emotions -- shock, guilt, fascination, repulsion, shame, fear, and confusion? What did I really know about blackface minstrelsy? The subject has become "disappeared" to the point that most of us know little about it aside from its racist implications.
|Mark Steven Greenfield, from blackatcha series, Nightmare, 2001, Iris print, 38" x 24"|
First published in 2006, Strausbaugh's book is a taboo-busting, eye-opening look at race relations and popular American culture. Strausbaugh takes us on a fascinating ride through the history of blackface and its pervasive influence -- from the first Africans brought to Portugal in 1441 as exotic curiosities, to slavery, white actors blacking up for Shakespeare's Othello, the wildly popular minstrel shows of the 19th century, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Jim Crow, Vaudeville, Rock, Hip-Hop, Blaxploitation films, Negrobilia, Gangsta'Lit, Ebonics and more.
In 1832, a white ghetto boy from New York, T.D. Rice, began performing his song Jump Jim Crow, dressed like slave with black grease paint and absurdly wide red lips, while shuffling across the stage in the character of a Southern Negro. He became the first blackface superstar, and for the next half century minstrelsy would be the dominant form of American entertainment.
"However shameful we find it, blackface has played a large and integral role in the formation of American popular culture. It existed before the heyday of the minstrel show, and has persisted long after the minstrels faded away . . . Although it was certainly racist, it was sometimes something other than that, a reflection of the complex of neuroses and pathologies that mark relations between Whites And Black in America -- a complicated web of love and hate, fear and guilt, attraction and repulsion, mockery and mimicry."
|Mark Steven Greenfield, from Doo-Dahz series, Portrait of Rosetta Duncan, 2010, pen & ink on Duralar, 36" X 24", currently on view at Offramp Gallery through June 26, 2011|
With the wave of immigrants pouring into American at the turn of the 20th century, New York City became the famous "melting pot." Many ethnic groups had to learn to live side by side and accept each other's differences. Much of this was accomplished through humor, reflected on the Vaudeville stage. Black actors in blackface shared the stage with other broadly played ethnic stereotypes. Most of the light-skinned ethnic groups managed to blend in with white America, but the stereotypes persisted for Blacks:
". . . it cannot be doubted that the images of Blackness that were most familiar to many White Americans into the twentieth century were not Blackness at all, but some version of blackface. Blackness as interpreted and re-created by White people, often in mockery, but sometimes in genuine and sincere imitation."
From Black Like You: "The cakewalk is one of those intriguing confluences of Black and White American cultures. Blacks on the plantation had developed it as a satire of their White masters. Their backs stiffly arched, their butts held tight, they strutted, bowed, and twirled their canes in a blatant parody of the way tight-assed, stiff-necked White folks moved. White folks loved to see Black dancers execute a fine cakewalk, and demanded to be taught how to do it, apparently unaware that they were being mocked."
Everyone should read this book. It is an invaluable guide through the mine field I encountered on first viewing Mark Steven Greenfield's work. A broader understanding of blackface makes me squirm a little less, gives me new insight into race relations and popular culture in America and lets me look beyond the indignities blackface engendered without forgetting them.
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Currently on view at Offramp Gallery
Mark Steven Greenfield: Doo-Dahz
May 15 - June 26, 2011