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The Jim Crow shuffle, then and now

Today’s black comedians are finding new ways to shadowbox with blackface minstrelsy and its persistent legacy

March 1, 2015 2:00AM ET

“I want to make sure I’m dancing, not shuffling,” comedian Dave Chappelle said in 2005, explaining why he took a sudden hiatus from his hit sketch-comedy show and had no immediate plans to return. With that comment, he called out the ghost that haunts the marketplace of American entertainment: the blackface minstrel, ever grinning and shuffling his way to the bank. Anyone who wants to understand the business of comedy should grapple with that ghost too. The roots of American comedy lie in blackface minstrelsy, the first mass entertainment form that the United States invented.

It’s an ugly fact because blackface minstrelsy involved an act of theft, not unrelated to the exploitation of black labor that, under slavery, allowed the Southern cotton kingdom to flourish and the Northern industrial mills to hum. White actors in 19th century America rubbed burned cork on their faces, painted their lips so that they could stretch into the widest of smiles, then strutted onstage to perform a grotesque caricature of black life that, more often than not, was passed off as the truth. To rouse their audience’s affections, blackface performers danced with ragged exuberance, sang of carefree days on the Southern plantation and mangled more formal idioms of speech (“Gemblem, is you distressing your conversation to me?”).

These skits registered with a large white audience from the 1830s to the 1890s as “genuine Negro fun.” Abraham Lincoln relished blackface minstrel shows; his son Tad even put them on in the White House attic. Mark Twain devoted a chapter of his autobiography to what he called “the genuine nigger show, the extravagant nigger show.” Through blackface, white performers took two liberties — the liberty of representing black life and the liberty of reaping all the profits from that performance — and they did so to popular acclaim for the better part of a century.

Thus blackface became a source of national shame and, often, visceral revulsion. Yet as scholars have pointed out over the past 20 years, blackface minstrelsy’s legacy was more complex than the basic story we tell about cultural and economic expropriation. The antebellum minstrel show was, in its grotesque way, more egalitarian than the culture around it and, in retrospect, was the fount of much American humor that cuts against the stiff proprieties of middle-class life. Popular among white working-class roughs, it mocked lovers who swooned in parlor room courtships and advertised the promise of earthy pleasures at a time when such “vulgarity” was taboo. Every contemporary comedian who works blue owes some sort of debt to its spirit of raunch.

In its early decades, too, minstrelsy’s treatment of race was more slippery than dogmatic, its characters more likely to be tricksters who blurred racial lines than buffoons who reinforced them. (And its first performers tended to come from some of the most mixed-race communities in the U.S.) As historian W.T. Lhamon has uncovered, the minstrel character Jim Crow began his life onstage as an irrepressible knockabout who mocked elites, wore his blackness with pride, advocated for slavery’s abolition and confounded his bosses with a cunning act that involved playing dumb. He also evoked intimacies that were outlawed outside the minstrel stage. In an 1853 minstrel version of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” Jim Crow’s Othello marries Desdemona, has a child with her (played by an actor half in blackface and half in whiteface) and lives to tell the tale. The play ends with the couple encouraging the audience to support their unorthodox family — with the promise of happily ever after in an interracial America.

Michael-Keegan Key and Jordan Peele have established themselves as masters of parody, their ever-changing wigs signifying how easily they’re able to slip in and out of character.

Blackface minstrelsy, then, both paved the way for black crossover comedy and booby-trapped that path. Even after the civil rights movement opened up a space for black comedians as satirists, blackface’s legacy dampened the possibilities for African-American comedy in two related ways. White audiences raised on minstrelsy were ill-equipped to perceive the intelligence of black comedians, concluding wrongly that a comic playing with the mask of a fool was a fool himself. Meanwhile, black comedians had reason to hold back from material that might open themselves up to charges of neo-minstrelsy — sketches, say, in which they explored their own ridiculousness or made a black family the target of outrageous satire.

The sketch show “In Living Color” (1990–94) confronted this dilemma and marked the start of a renewed engagement with minstrelsy’s legacy among black comedians — one that found them neither accommodating themselves to it nor running away from it. While “The Cosby Show” and its ilk sought to banish the ghost of the blackface minstrel, “In Living Color” and its descendants have taken up the art of caricature and brought a fresh self-awareness to it, inflecting the caricature so that it doesn’t stick as a stereotype.

Take the example of Comedy Central’s dizzyingly inventive “Key & Peele.” Michael-Keegan Key and Jordan Peele have established themselves as masters of parody, their ever-changing wigs signifying how easily they’re able to slip in and out of character. The valets who stir themselves into a lather over action heroes like “Liam Neesons”; the substitute teacher who, coming from the inner city, mispronounces the names of his suburban charges (“Jay-quellin” for Jacquelyn) and fumes when the students present him with “silly-ass names”; the two Middle Eastern men who, while supposedly on the prowl for beautiful women, can’t keep their hands off each other — Key and Peele’s characters are broadly drawn, but the writing is razor-precise and the perspective surprisingly good-natured, as if the American skin game (not to mention the larger game of life itself) has made fools of us all.

Comedian Chris Rock’s recent film “Top Five” takes on minstrelsy’s legacy from a related angle. It’s both a riff on minstrelsy’s persistent traps and an unbuttoned exploration of the full range of black comedy. At the center of “Top Five” is Andre Allen, a stand-up comedian who catapults to Hollywood stardom by donning a full bear suit and playing the gun-wielding Hammy the Bear (catchphrase: “It’s Hammy time!”) in a series of blockbuster action flicks. Audiences love Andre when his humanity is disguised in the bear suit — or, more exactly, when he seems happy to be a cartoon of himself (and a mere ham of an actor). Andre’s crisis is that his fans have an inexhaustible appetite for a role that diminishes and depletes him as a person. They are the cheeriest, the most blithe of soul murderers.

Andre starts the film hoping to solve his crisis by turning to serious drama and playing a revolutionary slave in Haiti. It doesn’t work; his efforts are laughable for all the wrong reasons. But “Top Five” takes his dilemma seriously and answers it by taking the viewer on a tour of black comic styles that surpass the thin caricature of Hammy time. Cedric the Entertainer brings on the raunch as Jazzy Dee, a promoter-hustler who’s a monster of sexual appetite. (Just as Andre gives up Hammy, he recoils from his encounter with Jazzy, who is another sort of panderer.) The other actors in “Top Five,” especially those representing Andre’s old friends from the neighborhood, deliver equally entertaining but more modulated performances. J.B. Smoove offers a gamesome and bullshit-free camaraderie as Andre’s bodyguard and oldest friend; Tracy Morgan gives us a layabout who, frustrated himself, wheedles and pricks Andre with backhanded compliments.

The film’s ending resolves Andre’s crisis by returning him to the stand-up stage — a space where he discovers that he can still find his own voice, despite all the hamming-up he’s done. But long before that ending, Rock the director has telegraphed where he’s going. His film is a loving tribute to the many varieties of black comedy, from the broadest sorts of joking to the most layered of psychological portraits. By the time Andre takes the mic, we as viewers have been feasting for 85 minutes at the table of black comedy. We embrace Andre’s decision to sit down at that welcome table too. And we’re glad that he left the bear suit behind.

Scott Saul, an associate professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley, is the author of “Becoming Richard Pryor” and the editor of “Richard Pryor’s Peoria,” a multimedia companion to the biography.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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