W. T. Lhamon, Jr. Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture.
Following World War II, blackface minstrelsy slipped quietly into a restless grave. Old timers paid tribute to the nation's first mass entertainment by publishing their "good-old-days" memoirs, while other Americans nodded their heads and hummed, "I'm glad that you're dead, you rascal, you."
Brander Mathews's autopsy found that the popularity of vaudeville, cliche-ridden material, and competition from the new musicals with women in chorus lines had caused minstrelsy's demise.
When Robert C. Toll in 1974 published Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America, he asked: "Why had minstrelsy been so popular that it dominated American show business for nearly fifty years?" Toll's question struck gold. Soon a host of scholars swarmed over the terra incognita, staking out their claims. W. T. Lhamon, Jr., emerged from his digging with Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop (Harvard UP, 1998). He declared that he had discovered a rebel vein of wit, satire, and song that ran from Jim Crow in the 1830s to the street rappers from the Bronx in the 1990s. In Lhamon's new book, he argues that Daddy Rice, the original creator of the Jim Crow character, was not a white racist. The famous blackface zany had not intended his creation to become the generic name for Southern segregation. Quite the opposite. Daddy Rice's Jim Crow had been a warrior for integration and even miscegenation! The evidence for this amazing reversal can now be found in Lhamon's new volume Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture.
Before we "wheel about and turn about and jump Jim Crow," recall the legend of a song and dance entertainer named Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white man who costumed himself as a black tatterdemalion, supposedly patterned after a crippled stable boy whom Rice had seen dance in Ohio. Within a decade Rice became the "highest paid actor on two continents." Lhamon quickly demolishes the myth of Jim Crow's origin by showing that "Jumping Jim Crow," a popular black folkdance, stemmed from African folklore. Indeed, a few blacks in the Georgia Sea Islands as late as the 1970s still "jumped" tales of buzzards and crows, the trickster birds. Daddy Rice, Lhamon claims, evolved his own trickster Jim Crow to give white society "the bird."
The reign of the Populists during the Presidency of Andrew Jackson (18291837) ended in a severe economic depression, particularly hard on immigrants, urban Irish, and Blacks. In 1827, New York had manumitted its slaves, who then competed with whites for jobs. Trapped in the slums of Five Points in Manhattan, the wives of Irish laborers supported their families by sewing in sweatshops. A women's suffrage movement surfaced along with an abolitionist cry for a national end to slavery. White minstrels answered with: "When women's rights is stirred a bit / De first reform she bitches on / Is how she can wid least delay / Just draw a pair ob britches on." Popular minstrelsy also scorned lawyers, judges, clergy, and politicians--in a word, the Anglos who benefitted from cheap labor. Their discontent found voice in the mouth and person of Jim Crow, who mocked the carriage trade.
How had a white dancer in blackface captured a rowdy crowd of laborers? First, Jim Crow was a trickster, wearing a clown's black mask as he sang, "An' I caution all de white dandies / Not to come in my way, / For as sure as they insult me, / Dey 'Il in de gutter lay." A black man dared not confront a white audience with such a song, but a white man masking in blackface could. Again, Jim Crow lessoned the white boys who impersonated him. "Dem urchin's what sing my song / Had better mind dar books / For any how dey can't be Crows / You see d'ar only Rooks" (i.e., swindlers). In brief, Rice captured the "white man's embodied desire for blackness," a phenomenon Eric Lott named "white ventriloquism through black art forms."
Lhamon's research has been prodigious. He mined new material that allowed for reinterpretation of Jim Crow's history. In New York City and in London libraries, he dug up manuscripts of farces in which Rice had "interleaved" the role of Jim Crow, a zany trickster who had made his audience laugh at greed, hypocrisy, and stupidity, much like the sting of Michael Moore in his book Stupid White Men (2002).
Scholar Dale Cockrell has counted 425 blackface performances in Colonial America of Shakespeare's Othello, the most popular of the bard's plays. The tragedy's magnetism stemmed in part from the fact that wooly-headed Othello kills himself for the sin of marrying a white woman. And it was this play that Rice chose to convert into dialect verse with a new ending. In Rice's Otello the noble Moor does not kill himself, but fathers a child with Desdemona and escapes with her to live happily ever after.
While Lhamon may not be the first to address the racism of the play, he is the first to assemble proof that Rice "changed the joke and slipped the yoke." Rice performed in nine farces that incorporated Jim Crow. All are printed in this volume, along with more than 100 verses sung by Jim Crow. Finally the book concludes with two fictional "street" biographies of Jim Crow. All of this is preceded by a ninety-two-page introduction and followed by forty-seven pages of footnotes, which are often as enlightening as the text proper. Because Jim Crow's lyrics are filled with long forgotten social references, it is useful to read the introduction in its entirety before tackling the plays. Although Lhamon's explication of Jim Crow's evolution into a nineteenth-century "hip-hop" rebel is beautifully developed, the book could benefit from a documented history of how the "rebel" image of Jim Crow the integrationist became the symbol for segregation. I suspect the core of the matter lies in the very trick that Rice used to circumvent racism--the burnt cork mask. White minstrels were generally proslavery. Rice was a single blackface among a thousand white men in burnt-cork masks, and they simply absorbed him as a brother.
A word may be added concerning Lhamon's prose style, perhaps derived from his long immersion in minstrelsy. He is witty, he puns, and sometimes he employs the polysyllabic circumlocution of the nineteenth-century humorists. Occasionally he wraps us in a sentence that requires unlocking. For example, after quoting a paragraph from a positive review of Jim Crow's performance, Lhamon writes, "The middle-class journalist here lays his dream of joining one's tormentors right over the quite distinct ideal of lateral sufficiency that is in fact diagnostic of the mobility, and which Rice's character and his play are in fact promoting."
While Lhamon's reinterpretation of Jim Crow presents an inherent reprimand to all of us theatre scholars who have accepted the traditional legends, the story has not ended. David Krasner of Yale points out the Rice's correspondence in the Harvard Theatre Collection reveals him to be proslavery. More study is needed to see if Jim Crow can "jump" his old racist image.
James V. Hatch
City College, CUNY (Emeritus)
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|Author:||Hatch, James V.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2004|
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