From around 1830 through the 1950s, a sad, shameful, and central feature of American popular culture was the minstrel show. White performers darkened their faces by applying burnt cork. Minstrel spectacles of the worst sort were crude attempts at humor through disgraceful parodies of African-Americans. What’s often not recalled is that some minstrel shows attempted to reproduce accurately the acts of Black entertainers. This “delivery” by Whites of African-American creative ideas was necessary for the mores of the time did not allow Whites to attend performances by African-Americans artists. In many cases, it wasn’t even possible due to enforced segregation.
Minstrel acts didn’t just disappear in the 1950’s. Rather, the minstrel act transformed itself with a wink by leaving the burnt cork packed away in a trunk in the dressing room. Elvis Presley was the first white musician to achieve great fame by simulating (appropriating?) what had been African-American popular music. Using the same routine, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles took off in the early 60’s. (In a radio interview, Bill Wyman remembered how in Chicago (the capital of the Blues) a white fan wanted to know “where did this music come from?”) Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” was the notorious stereotypical
African-American musician, Mr. Tambo, of the old minstrel shows.
Certainly before John F. Kennedy there were Irish politicians, Indeed the Irish city-machine pol’ was a fixture in U.S. politics generations before Joseph Kennedy decided to back a son in a run for the Senate. But, pre-JFK, the Irish were character actors on the American political stage. By masterful organization of urban Irish voters – and that for the larger power structure less mess was involved by keeping the cities inside the tent instead of outside – Irish leaders rose to power. Even though the Irish kept the show going, the leading roles went to Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Until Jack Kennedy changed all of that.
Today’s African-American leaders are inheriting the urban political institutions that once were operated by the Irish. In 1976, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, in an analysis of the delegates at the 1972 Democratic and Republican conventions, made a number of prescient statements. She predicted the end of candidates of the George Wallace ilk playing any significant role in mainstream politics, the dilution of identification with Party (and the consequent increase in the importance of independent voters), and the rise in visibility (and to some degree acceptance) of extreme ideological elements at either end of the spectrum. Ms. Kirkpatrick also discussed at length the growing importance of symbol specialists and their ability – by defining all issues in terms of right and wrong – to seize the moral high ground:
“… salience of bread and butter issues has been declining while style, image. and abstract issues of principle are of steadily increasing importance.
Ideas, values, and issues are the currency with which symbol specialists pursue politics. What money is to the businessman and manpower is to the trade unionist, words are to the symbol specialist: they are the base value utilized in the effort to win other values – power, status, moral approval, wealth. A special relation exists in politics between rectitude concerns and verbal skills. Obviously, verbal skills are needed to dramatize moral concerns, but moral concerns are also needed to make persuasion persuasive. Moral claims are readily available to the middle income symbol specialist. Unlike wealth, status, knowledge, and health – rectitude can, for all practical political purposes, be had for the claiming….”
With this in mind, one can discern White politicians trying to claim the moral authority of Dr. Martin Luther King by simulating and/or incorporating elements of his oratory.
African-Americans now appear very frequently in commercials aimed at a wide audience. This is a dramatic shift. Formerly, ads featuring a black spokesperson were strictly targeted at African-American consumers (with well-known sports figures as the rule proving exception). Some years ago, black actors began to be used where a “Brooklyn” (e.g. N’Yawker, working-class guy or Jewish mother) character might have appeared. By scripting these distinct types, advertisers intend to fix the audience’s attention and memory on a product. By definition different from much of the population, these figures all stand out. Also, as large numbers of people believe that these stock characters possess valuable insights, there is a prejudice in favor of them.
For at least the last several years, the part played by African-Americans in commercials has become much more pronounced. Vast sums of money are not being spent foolishly. Advertisers
measure results in hard numbers. It must be that the general population unconditionally and unconsciously trusts the word of African-Americans.
The career of James Earl Jones dramatically illustrates this evolution of popular perception. On Broadway in 1970 (“The Great White Hope”), he played a threat to the existing order. By 1977, James Earl Jones’s voice enabled Darth Vader to personify the threat OF the existing order (super-ego?). Now, in the Verizon commercials, James Earl Jones is your friendly neighbor, family member, and business partner.
Contemporary TV shows and movies regularly portray African-Americans as authority figures (particularly military officers and police – the character of a Marine drill sergeant will almost certainly be played by a Black actor). Could it be that, with a just-like-in-the-movies mind-set, African-Americans now are thought of – by preconception – as authority figures?
Those seeking to harness commercial forces learned that audiences are receptive to a message communicated by African-Americans. Those seeking to harness political forces know very well that ability to transmit a commercial message translates directly into relaying a political message. At some point, opinion-crafters will give up on the search for some political Elvis with a talent for impersonation.
There’s a white patrician appearance – the Senatorial “look” – that’s been of great advantage to aspiring politicians. Those fitting this description have found it easier to get taken seriously, both by voters and backers. In a similar manner, African-American politicians will increasingly find the odds in their favor.
ANTHONY OLSZEWSKI can be reached at