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Two visiting authors tackle an American taboo: blackface minstrelsy

Those Eyes, Those Lips

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Among the many hot-button topics that dot the minefield called race in America, few trigger more instant and heated response than that of blackface and minstrelsy. Even so, that didn't deter authors Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen, who decided to explore the subject and its incorporation into American entertainment. They were keenly interested in the different ways intellectuals, activists, and for lack of a better term, regular folks in the black community viewed the subject.

The results of their research and analysis form the provocative volume Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop (Norton), which was released in August to rave reviews. Taylor and Austen will be in Nashville 2 p.m. Saturday to discuss their book at Parnassus Books in Green Hills, and in advance of their visit they answered some questions about the book via email earlier this week:

What led to your writing this book at this time?

YT: After my book Faking It was published in 2007, I started a short-lived blog in which I'd write about anything having to do with music and authenticity that fascinated me, and one of those things was Ethel Waters' version of "Underneath the Harlem Moon" — she transformed a racist put-down of Harlem society into a song of triumph by changing the lyrics. What surprised me was how many other African American performers also recorded and and performed that song (without changing the lyrics much), and it got to me to thinking how African American performers deal with racist material in general.

And that got me to thinking about blacks in blackface. I like to critically examine my own reactions — whether it was the dialect in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Are Watching God or the skits on Chappelle's Show, I was really cringing seeing black performers doing things that seemed racially demeaning. I had culled three volumes of slave narratives, in addition to republishing many autobiographies of African American performers, so I was much more used to African Americans representing themselves as heroes than ignorant buffoons. That phenomenon began to really fascinate me — it was a puzzle I wanted to try to solve.

JA: When Yuval asked me to help him, I was cautious about tackling controversial material. But when I realized that the radioactivity of the subject left so many fascinating ideas and data unexamined, I was excited to try to look at these things in a new way.

There are those who claim the evolution of rap and hip-hop from an underground phenomenon into a dominant pop music has been a largely negative event from a cultural standpoint, though it has certainly made a lot of individuals quite wealthy. Do you agree or disagree with that contention?

JA: Our work doesn't draw lines like that, but presents the material and the opinions of both its defenders and critics.

YT: Exactly. Personally, however, I disagree quite strongly. Hip-hop, to me, seems like an incredibly empowering art form.

Do you feel it is valid to talk about "conscious rap" as something separate or apart from its more commercial counterpart?

YT: I don't think it's my place to validate the various distinctions one can make between different types of rap. Make all the distinctions you want, as long as you realize the borders are fluid.

JA: As soon as African Americans were performing in minstrel shows, wearing blackface, and doing undignified, low performances, black intellectuals were creating brilliant works of criticism or "high art" made specifically in response to this material, as demonstrated by Frederick Douglass, Oscar Micheaux and James Baldwin. So if one draws a parallel between bragging, violent, profane rap and minstrel shows (which is not a historically accurate comparison, since minstrelsy and gangsta rap used different black stereotypes), then "conscious" rappers are just continuing an inter-family dialogue African Americans have been having for over a century.

How have regional differences in rap and hip-hop culture affected the phenomena that you discuss in your book, or has that played no significant part?

YT: Minstrelsy has traditionally portrayed poor Southern blacks, so poor Southern rappers naturally tend to be more susceptible to its imagery.

JA: Many Southern rappers intentionally emphasize their drawls, which some see as a parallel to dialect, and at one point RZA said that Southern rappers "evolved later than us" and were still "frying fatback in the kitchen." But you have to take East and West Coast rappers' criticism of Southern rappers with a grain of salt. These critiques came after Southern rap conquered the other regions commercially.

Public Enemy's Flavor Flav was one person you cited in the book. Who are some others that you think are essential personalities from either a positive or negative standpoint?

YT: Nas has vociferously attacked Southern rappers for being minstrels: I can't think of any rapper who has used minstrelsy as a weapon more effectively than he has.

JA: No other rapper seems to draw on minstrelsy as specifically as Flavor Flav, who emphasizes wide grins, a shuffling gait, and comic delivery developed on the minstrel stage (though in Public Enemy it seemed to be an ironic, confrontational decision, perhaps making whites more uncomfortable in yet another way, while providing much needed comic relief for the dire music. It wasn't until he became a reality TV star that the same antics got him accused of "coonery." However, other rappers that challenged hip-hop's code of "cool" and allowed themselves to engage in coonishness and mess with stereotypes include ODB and Biz Markie. KMD (the group that MF Doom was in) used anti-minstrelsy as such a a theme that their mascot was a minstrel caricature, and their last album was not released because they refused to alter the cover art that depicted the mascot being lynched.

You discuss the popularity of some individuals who fit the minstrel role within the black community. How different does the perspective towards this depend on such factors as education and income?

YT: Minstrelsy has always appealed, by design, to the "proletarian" classes — from its inception in the early 19th century to its various permutations today. Educated and wealthy African Americans have always spoken out against its evils, even before Emancipation.

Where would you place such current rappers as Lil' Wayne in this spectrum, and what is your view regarding his recent controversy with the relatives of Emmett Till?

YT: Lil' Wayne's wide grins, shamelessness, and "lazy" style of delivery remind some people of minstrelsy; personally, I see a lot more differences than similarities. As for his insensitive and brutal rap about Emmett Till, he should have known better. I published Till's cousin Simeon Wright's memoir, and I can just imagine how hurt he was when he heard that. I'm not going to stop listening to Weezy because of that, though. I think he's an amazing performer.

Rap has been around long enough to have its generational splits and issues like many other idioms. How different are outlooks regarding the issue of the minstrel image among different generations of black entertainment fans?

JA: That's too difficult a subject to draw generational lines around. Class, education, and personal experiences seem to sculpt opinion as much as, or more than, age. Many older African Americans say that black art should always be dignified, but I don't think we've discussed the black cast of the 1950s Amos 'n' Andy show and had an older person who watched the show when it was on not recall it fondly, which is how most people probably think about this. They see things that are problematic in low art that draws on stereotypes, but if it's performed by funny, talented people, they still find it kind of funny.

Do you see concern over this issue waning in future years?

YT: I do. The transformation of the Zulu Krewe in New Orleans over the decades is a good example: In the 1960s, this blackface tradition was raked over the coals and the Zulus almost vanished; by the 2000s, almost nobody there saw anything demeaning about it at all. The tropes of minstrelsy are little by little vanishing into the past. That doesn't mean blackface is no longer potent or demeaning, or that Flavor Flav is ever going to be seen as dignified. But things are changing.

JA: I don't know. The fact that some of the white teenagers who have performed blackface routines in recent years claimed, perhaps sincerely, that they had no idea there was an odious history of wearing blackface suggests that maybe we are moving towards an age where this is forgotten or less painful. But on the other hand, as long as this ignorance emboldens people to do things as stupid as that, there will always be a reason to remind people of the history of both white and black blackface performers. I also think that a lot of the critical reception of Tyler Perry's work makes it clear there are still tensions between the black popular audience and the black intelligentsia that don't seem to be going anywhere.

What groups or individuals do you identify as being the key people to watch in this regard over the next decade?

JA: Recently two major films about slavery have been successful, and some more are coming, and I think discussion and debate about a chapter in American history that people have preferred to not confront in recent years may spark interest in figuring out early African American history's influence on American popular culture. I hope this will be widely addressed critically and artistically, not just batted around by a few individuals.

Lastly, what is the next book or subject that you're considering?

YT: I'm working on a proposal for a book about the passionate friendship of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes in the 1920s and early '30s, and its tragic descent into bitter acrimony.

JA: I have been working for a few years on a book about Chicago's R&B scene in the late '60s, specifically focusing on the years the Jackson Five was a garage band touring the circuit before they signed with Motown. I am also shopping a book about the making of the Super Bowl Shuffle, focusing on the visionary businessmen and gifted musicians who worked behind the scenes, several of whom met tragedy in the ensuing years.

Two books I've contributed to come out this year: a compilation of baseball writing, about a fifth of which I wrote, and a coffee-table biography of a photographer/singer from the '70s New York punk scene that I coauthored. Unlike Yuval, I don't have a real job, so I need to keep my hustle on.

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