The White Minstrelsy of American Politics

[By Jerry Ward]

Taylor and Jake Austen’s aptly titled Darkest
America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip Hop
(New York: W. W. Norton,
2012) is a smart and timely book.
is smart because Taylor and Austen chose not to ape Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993) or
to mimic Robert C. Toll’s Blacking Up:
The Minstrel Show in
(1974).  Instead they focus
on the centrality of minstrelsy in cultural expressions and suggest we should
care about that expressive tradition because American “culture wouldn’t exist
without minstrelsy” (5).  Take their
exaggerated claim with a grain of pepper: American culture would be duller and
safer without minstrelsy, but it would exist. 
Nevertheless, their attractive work should have a companion volume
entitled Darkest America: White
Minstrelsy from Colonial Conquest to Social Pathology

and Austen’s book is timely because it enables a reader to have a moment of
enlightenment, an epiphany.  Read against
the grain of how modern historiography uses the term polis (city-state), the book can be interpreted as a cutting
treatment of polis (nation-state) and
some of its spectacular characteristics. 
Such displacement allows us to discover the red liberal/blue
conservative binary is not the only reason for finding ourselves in a
post-election swamp to be navigated between now and 2016. The swamp was made by
white minstrelsy.  White political
minstrelsy daily nurtures the swamp.
colonial days, white minstrelsy has been a practical art used by pink people of
color.  These pink people distort their
collective ethnic identities by smearing white paint over their imagined
bodies. The audible and visual mask denies the biological verification of
ultimate African origins.  The paint
invades the nervous system and manifests itself as random Gestalts, which in
turn produce dedicated scripts for the grand stage of American politics.  The white minstrels take orgasmic delight in
performing these scripts to frustrate and misinform non-painted citizens. The
scripts are spin-driven histories; the comic deliveries block any clear vision
of the real political actions and policies that often prove fatal.
as the charm of black minstrelsy pivots on “indefinite talk” routines, the
thrall of white minstrelsy depends on the 24-7 broadcasting of “definitive
trash-talk.”  Long usage has made this
kind of discourse seem “normal” and has rendered white minstrelsy
indistinguishable from what is not theatrical. 
It is merely insane or absurd to argue that American politics is not a
child begot from a strange marriage of black and white minstrelsy.
and Austen open the closets of polis
in Chapter 3, “Of Cannibals and Kings: How New Orleans’s Zulu Krewe Survived
One Hundred Years of Blackface” and Chapter 10, “New Millennium Minstrel Show:
How Spike Lee and Tyler Perry Brought the Black Minstrelsy Debate to the
Twenty-First Century.”  Rather than spoil
the unique pleasure of discovery in those two chapters, and indeed in the book
as a whole, I will leave you with the refrain of white minstrelsy’s theme
song:  There is a bomb in Gilead that
kills the sin-sick soul.