Blackface Minstrelsy, or the Rebirth of the Democratic Party as a Replay of “The Birth of a Nation”
Some years ago, OK many years ago, when I was teaching at UC Davis, I invited Professor Michael Rogin (1937–2001), a at the , to come talk to my class on blackface and politics. He actually showed up, and although I can’t remember what he told my class, I do remember that we had a wonderful lunch in the sunshine somewhere and talked about politics and blackface in the movies. We talked about the new movie “Pulp Fiction” as a form of blackface. In fact, I interviewed Professor Rogin on the Quentin Tarantino film for my article, “That Same Old Shoe,” a critique of the Academy Awards for 1995. Two of the films up for best picture that year were Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump.
The professor agreed with me that Pulp Fiction’s success with the popular audience was rooted in its minstrelsy tradition. “The racist thing is at the center of Pulp Fiction,” he told me. “It’s hard to believe that people are not aware of the racist subtext, but nobody ever writes about it, and it is never talked about.” We agreed that Pulp Fiction, Blues Brothers, and Forest Gump were all rooted in blackface minstrelsy with whites impersonating blacks, as American fun and entertainment.
For him, the whole of American culture was, in fact, indebted to blackface minstrelsy in a fundamental way. It was, in his view, the foundation of our national character. We have become a racialized society, he claimed, and our national character is that of the blackface white man. Blackface minstrelsy was an objective correlative—a visible symbol of submerged unconscious workings of a basically flawed system, a performance of a white man in a black body. The tradition went all the way back to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, who fathered several children by his black slave, also wrote the leading document for our country’s freedom. Except, however, he wrote two declarations of independence, according to Professor Rogin to ensure that, “immigrants could become Americans and blacks could turn white.”
The first of the two Declarations of Independence, he said, “appears within the founding sacred document of American national identity.” The document signed on July 4, 1776, derived “equal and inalienable” rights from the “state of nature.” This “state of nature” spawned not only individual rights but also Indian dispossession and chattel slavery. But in a second draft, Jefferson wrote that blacks would never be able to overcome their inferior “nature.” The “nature” of the black man, as defined by Jefferson, was to rape white women, which would pollute the white race, so blacks could not, by nature, become a part of the first Declaration of Independence. This “duality” is expressed in blackface minstrelsy: While white people can be black and go back to being white again, black people can never be white. Blackface minstrelsy not only symbolized this schism between the two Declarations of Independence, but it also assumed a certain intimacy with an “inferior” culture. “The society that developed materially from establishing rigid boundaries between the white and dark races developed culturally from transgressing those boundaries.”
At that time, another scholar, then at the University of Virginia, history professor Eric Lott (born 1959), wrote a book became a best seller, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993; 2nd ed., 2013), suggesting that not only did minstrelsy create a working class aesthetic, but that, overall, blackface minstrelsy was a good thing. He wrote that blackface minstrelsy “was a psychic map that read and exposed its fan’s curiosity about the boundaries between race, class and sexes.” But these caricatures were stoked by fascination as well as derision. “The gestures, voices, songs and dances borrowed from blacks or imagined to be black,” Lott added, “were less aligned with absolute white power and control than with panic, anxiety, terror and pleasure.”
Similarly, in Pulp Fiction Tarantino adopted African-American folk speech. “Every time you hear an expensive [???] white man break into his version of black English,” Lott wrote, “you are in the presence of blackface’s unconscious return. It was an established 19th century theatrical practice, ridiculously, of the urban North, in which men caricatured blacks for sport and profit … [It] was little more than cultural robbery.”
Lott and Rogin agreed that it was the pursuit of profit that motivated films like Pulp Fiction and such other leading race films as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1903; Birth of A Nation (1915); The Jazz Singer (1926), and “Gone With the Wind (1936). Pulp Fiction, prominent in the 1994 Academy Award nominations, lost out to another interracial buddy movie, Forrest Gump. Both films were related to minstrelsy. Lott notes that “As Forrest tells the story of his own birth, what appears on screen is a Ku Klux Klan scene from Griffith’s film.”
In 1995, amidst a national cultural backlash against affirmative action, society once again fell back into the habit of blackface minstrelsy. In London, passengers became upset when a man got on the London tube dressed in blackface and an afro-wig. A black woman, Petra Joli approached him. “Don’t you think you are racist to put black on your face?” He replied that “Jackson was a person I like. And I am impersonating Jules Winnfield,” the character in Pulp Fiction.
“The character of Jules Winnfield,” Rogin told me in 1995, “is a cultural donor, just like the natives in The Last of the Mohicans. Although he is working for Marseilles, the black strongman, he is somehow working against him. He’s a catalyst for Travolta’s character. The black character is the person who makes Travolta live.” Tarantino has said that Jules was like an impersonator of a crazy ‘70s black militant. Like the minstrels, however, Samuel Jackson notes that Jules is a turncoat against his own black brothers. After the emancipation of the slaves, blacks could only perform in minstrelsy if they played the part assigned to them by whites—so it is with Samuel Jackson.
Now in 2019, the Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, has appeared in blackface standing with a KKK figure in his year book. If he steps down, he would be replaced by Lieutenant Governor Fairfax. but Fairfax has been accused of sexual assault. Next is attorney general Herring who has also admitted to appearing in blackface. I went online and searched Rogin’s name. I saw that he had written an article on politics, minstrelsy, and Hollywood, and delivered a lecture on it in Berlin. I clicked the link (I had lived in Berlin once) and found this title: “The Declarations of Independence; The Radicalized Foundations of American National Culture.”
It was good to be reunited with his thoughts. “Let’s begin with the facts,” he wrote, “The founding Hollywood movie, Birth of a Nation, celebrates the Ku Klux Klan. The first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, was a blackface film. The all-time top film box office success is Gone with the Wind. Blackface minstrelsy was the first and, before movies, the most popular form of mass culture in the United States.” Burnt cork had helped to engender American national culture, the culture that gave birth to Hollywood.
In the latest reports, Governor Northam is not going to resign from his position. He is going to lead an investigation of the charges against the black lieutenant Justin Fairfax, who is accused of rape.
“Why couldn’t anybody see the racism at the core of Pulp Fiction?” Prof Rogin asked me once. I wish I could turn to him today and ask him, “Why can’t they see that in the social drama in Virginia politics?”