The moral arguments in defense of slavery hinged on the claim that it was the best arrangement for all parties involved, especially the slaves. Thomas Jefferson, for example, argued that the differences between black slaves and white masters were ‘fixed in nature‘, with blacks being condemned to an existence driven more by ‘sensation than reflection’, thus making them incapable of comprehending the full weight of their predicament, let alone improving it. Freedom, according to John C. Calhoun, was the enemy of the black slave and would condemn him or her to the miserable life of a ‘pauper in the poor house’, rather than the ‘superintending’ care of masters and mistresses. When Jefferson returned from long trips, according to some biographers, he would have to wade through a throng of slaves eager to touch him, to thank him, to celebrate their master’s return. The minstrel, to many African Americans, is the physical embodiment of these arguments: the word made flesh.
The minstrel stalks our collective imaginations like a grinning, groveling, hand-clapping, toe-tapping Freddie Krueger. He leaps out just when we let our guards down and turns dignified moments into disgraceful debacles. He transforms the Academy Award Ceremony into a tribute to the trials and tribulations of pimps. He turns televisions shows about the plight of the poor in the inner city into buck-eyed dyno-mite (!!!!) joke fests. He morphs news stories into youtube songs and memes – bedroom intruders, AK-47 fried chicken disputes, Jordan sneaker riots. Somewhere the minstrel lies in wait, ready to leap back into the hearts and minds of the American public at the expense of those of us who demand dignity and respect, but as with all things American the story of the minstrel is more complex.
In Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop (W.W. Norton, 2012), Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen explore the minstrel tradition and put it in its proper context. While many of us may have used the label to attack particular artists or actions (see above), Taylor and Austen dissect it as a creature of American art, commerce, and racism that occasionally created opportunities for advancement – even for those who wore the mask.
Yuval Taylor was kind enough to speak with me. I hope you enjoy