I apologize for not having posted in the last six months. I've been working on a variety of other projects. I wrote a long piece on Funkadelic's Maggot Brain, which popmatters.com was supposed to publish last month--maybe they'll publish it this month or next. And I've been working with Jake Austen on a proposal for a new book tentatively titled Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip Hop.
I just came across an article David Gates wrote for Newsweek which connects black minstrelsy to the kinds of questions about white blues fans and authenticity that Hugh and I explored in Faking It. Fans of our book might enjoy reading "It's a White Thing."
A few comments on Gates's piece, most of them trivial, some perhaps not so. In general, I like it a lot.
There's no need for scare quotes around "rediscovered"--Skip James was indeed rediscovered, plain and simple. There's good news for Skip James fans--A Cappella Books, the imprint of Chicago Review Press of which I'm the editor, has reissued Stephen Calt's biography of James, I'd Rather Be the Devil. Calt recently told me, a propos of Gates's piece, that the entire time he knew James he never bought him an alcoholic beverage; but I'm sure Gates is telling the truth here. The parallels between Gates's experience with James and my experience with Jack Owens, as described in Faking It, are numerous but hardly surprising.
Gates writes, "when blacks themselves took up stage minstrelsy—after all, weren't they the real real deal?—the ambiguities became far more pointed, and a hint of subversion qualified the subservience. Out of this tradition came the comedian Bert Williams." True enough--though I wonder whether the "hint of subversion" was really there before Bert Williams. This is going to take a lot of investigation, which I want to do if a publisher expresses interest in our book. My impression is that the "hint of subversion" was really Williams's doing, and that the black minstrel show, as exemplified by troupes such as the Georgia Minstrels, Darkest America, and Black America, was not subversive. In all my reading on these minstrel troupes, I haven't found one mention of subversion--or signifying--of any kind, even when they played to a purely black audience.
This brings me to a major point. Gates assumes that doing minstrel shtick was "painful" for Bert Williams. But blacks had been doing this shtick non-stop for forty years prior to Williams, and it had represented the only road to success for black entertainers. Considering this, why wouldn't doing minstrel shtick be like water off a duck's back to black entertainers by this point? (See, for example, my post on "Underneath the Harlem Moon" below.) Take the example of Dave Chappelle. After doing his blackface minstrel number in 2005, he felt so incredibly pained that he performed the hajj (the journey to Mecca, only he didn't quite make it--see this interview with him in Time magazine), and shortly thereafter quit Chappelle's Show altogether. That's because doing blackface minstrelsy these days is opprobrious in the extreme. But back in the early twentieth century, it was very common, and I doubt Bert Williams's "pain" can compare to Dave Chappelle's. Gates approvingly quotes Marybeth Hamilton on white blues fans, who engaged in "a faintly colonialist romance with black suffering, an eroticization of African-American despair." But by describing Bert Williams's brilliant career as a series of painful compromises with the spectre of minstrelsy, Gates is doing exactly the same thing. I believe that Williams enjoyed black minstrelsy, even if not as much as his black audience had for the last forty years; but he brought something brand new to the genre--signifying--and did so with great enthusiasm and care. There's nothing painful about that--wouldn't Williams have been proud of his momentous accomplishments? Then again, I haven't yet read Camille Forbes's book, and maybe I'm wrong.