Kevin Young: Review of Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen's "Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy From Slavery to Hip-Hop"

Roundup: Books

Kevin Young’s books include “The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness” and “The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink,” an anthology.

A few years ago, while I was teaching a graduate seminar, the subject turned to blackface minstrelsy, one of America’s first popular art forms. We were very likely in a discussion of the long poems of T. S. Eliot (“The Waste Land” had originally been called “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” and his “Sweeney Agonistes” includes blackface) or of John Berryman (who used minstrel show structures and dialect in “The Dream Songs” as late as 1969). One student, shocked by the persistence of minstrelsy, said another of her professors had insisted that blackface died with the 19th century. Only showing her a picture of Judy Garland in blackface convinced her otherwise.

I’m not sure what rattled the student more: that scholars can sometimes get it wrong, or that blackface continued well into the 20th century. Both are at stake in the mixed bag that is Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen’s “Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy From Slavery to Hip-Hop.” I began to think if the two were a minstrel act they should be named Hit-and-Miss.

The book begins well enough, with a retelling of minstrelsy’s history, white and black (or should I say, white, then black). If the popularity of the minstrel show with its three-part structure had indeed waned by the turn of the 20th century, minstrelsy shaped that century, and our own time, whether in forms of racial parody or in the very variety-show culture that still dominates our airwaves. Blackface too held on: Bugs Bunny blacked up, and white high schools were putting on minstrel shows as late as the 1960s. Only the black power movement put an end to the mugging....

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