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Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class.

The new labor history (now over twenty years old) has come in for a drubbing lately by many of the field's younger scholars. Most recently, David Roediger and Peter Way have called new labor historians to task for being overly romantic about the cultural and moral landscape of nineteenth-century workers' lives. Roediger told us that white workers lamented wage slavery not because they hated slavery, but because they projected their own anxieties on enslaved Americans. Way portrays Irish-American workers' drinking and fighting less as an authentic representation of a new working-class culture and more as an ugly reaction to the power of organized capital. Eric Lott, formally trained in English, navigates between the Scylla of romanticism about working-class life and the Charybdis of lamentations about working-class vice. The title, "Love and Theft," suggests the divided mind of antebellum white workers. As the primary audience of blackface minstrels, workers stamped their feet and sang Jim Crow songs out of a face-saving mockery ("Theft") but also out of a fascination ("Love") for what they imagined black people and black culture to be.

Lott's stage is the antebellum streets and theaters of the North where workers watched and participated in minstrel shows. His primary material is song sheets, scripts, reviews, pictures and firsthand accounts of minstrel performances. His theoretical contributions are largely in the "Love" part of his equation. Few historians of minstrelsy have been prepared to defend racist lampoon. Lott suggests here that many whites' contradictory desire to be black (by imitation) and to distance themselves from blackness (by caricature) has been a recurring strain in American culture, and cannot be explained away as simply racist. For example African-American performers now represent ghetto life in Rap music videos, but the performance of blackness is no less packaged, stagy and cartoonish than its antebellum forebear. In the context of labor history, Lott's discovery of "Love" in blackface minstrelsy is an attempt to turn our attention to what may seem the ugliest pieces of working-class life in order to understand how they can reveal labor radicalism and abolitionist sensibilities, however conflicted. Where Roediger saw Freudian projection, Lott sees Lacanian desire: subjects despise the Other, but they also desire it.

The book can be divided into three parts. The first five chapters (Part I and chapter 5 in Part II) offer a theoretical investigation of meaning and representation. Readers comfortable with Lacan and Jameson (Frederic, not J. Franklin), will enjoy the insights and critical leaps of this section. Those of us teetering closer to the ground will need to keep a Derrida/English dictionary close at hand. Lott shows how tightly lashed minstrelsy was to working-class representation, suggesting how the minstrel grew out of older European traveling comedies. Zip Coon and Jim Crow, stock figures in most minstrel shows, acted as stand-ins for the country lad and the city boy in older comedies. Minstrels' dress and forms of speech also mimicked Irish working-class figures like Mose and the bowery b'hoys. Lott here deploys the work of Michael Denning, who teased "mechanic accents" out of nineteenth-century dime novels. While minstrels were always a commercial product of an entertainment industry, they became popular only as they recorded the heartfelt songs, misogynistic anxieties, and class anger of white working-class men. This is fascinating and heady work, but will be difficult reading for most historians.

The middle section, chapter six, is a compelling Freudian analysis of the humor in minstrelsy. Lott suggests how minstrelsy captured "lost moments of childish pleasure" in grade-school vulgarity. He examines how workplace discipline in the 1840s pushed workers to imagine that the pleasures they had repressed had somehow been stolen by black men. He also argues that minstrel transvestitism functioned as a way of turning the castrating anxieties associated with newly empowered women into a display of male potency. Finally, we see how the performance of male minstrels' desire for transvestite minstrels on stage allowed white men to watch homosexual desire and distance themselves from it at the same time. This chapter on working-class voyeurism relies on a rich blend of graphic, literary and musical sources, and is fascinating reading.

The third part of the book (chapters 7 and 8) follows a chronological sequence, and could be useful in a class with advanced undergraduates. Here Lott charts the changes in the performance of minstrelsy alongside the political conflagrations of the late antebellum period. Following Gramsci's analysis of class warfare's cultural battlefield, Lott suggests how a seemingly soothing commercial entertainment slipped into sectionalist politics and abolitionist sentiment. Pathetic songs about old slaves were discovered by abolitionists and apologists alike, mobilizing white workers to take sides in sectional controversy. Minstrel shows that had innocently made fun of home life on the plantation became stages for the examination of the total power of planters. This is not to say that minstrelsy was forced into politics, but that the political import of minstrelsy's subjects became increasingly visible. Zip Coon and Jim Crow, formerly representatives of city and country, came to represent workers North and South. Finally, as minstrels staged Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in the late 1850s, they and their audiences were increasingly forced to confront the choice between abolition and apology, between Love and Theft.

This is an important book, and will likely be a model for historians who seek to blend cultural and labor history. Particularly useful is Lott's ability to weave a political narrative about the coming of war around working-class history. Lott's delicate position between the new labor history and its critics leads him to qualify his most bold propositions, but this negotiation and seeming self-contradiction was precisely (as Lott shows) the position of the antebellum minstrel.

Scott Reynolds Nelson College of William & Mary
COPYRIGHT 1996 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Author:Nelson, Scott Reynolds
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
Words:950
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