- 1 year ago
- 1 year ago
John Cline discusses the wages of blackface in his review of Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop:
When riding the bus to the University of Texas campus a few years back, I became suddenly conscious of the fact that the cover of the book in my hands depicted a stark white fist clutching a hammer against a black background. And the title: Wages of Whiteness. It was enough to raise a few eyebrows. At the time, I was delving through the available literature on blackface minstrelsy, as part of my exams for the Ph.D. program in American Studies. Looking back on this brief bit of extreme self-consciousness, I think my gut feeling was right, because — at best — the topic of minstrelsy in America is a discomfiting one, not typically broached in public.
David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness — not, of course, a racist tract — is one of several academic studies about the idea of “whiteness” that first emerged among the nineteenth century American working classes. Roediger’s book, along with Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White, Eric Lott’s Love and Theft, andAlexander Saxton’sThe Rise and Fall of the White Republic, expanded on what is known as New Labor History (Herbert G. Gutman et al.) by taking race as central for understanding the working class. They study blackface minstrelsy as a way to ascertain how immigrants and others fresh from the farm were indoctrinated into the discipline of industrial wage labor during the antebellum period. They assume the wealthy and powerful had an interest in distinguishing, for this audience, how wages that barely provided subsistence in the burgeoning industrial economy of the North differed in a substantive way from the enslavement of blacks in the South. Hence, the creation by white performers in blackface of so many stereotypes of African-Americans as lazy, sensual, libidinous — traits recently arrived immigrants were encouraged to disavow in order to ascend into the ranks of “whiteness” and its promise of dominion over the Other: the black, the Chinese, the Hispanic, the unassimilated.