What made the ‘American’ different from the ‘Englishman’ was a celebration of vulgar thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.
“Blackface was primarily concerned with white ethnicity.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Brian Roberts.Roberts teaches history and writing at the University of Northern Iowa. His book is Blackface Nation: Race, Reform, and Identity in American Popular Music, 1812-1925.
Roberto Sirvent:How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Brian Roberts:I’m not sure anything would help readers understand current politics. One thing that might help, however, is the focus in Blackface Nation on the early nineteenth-century development of a version of patriotism rooted in common expressions. What made the “American” different from the “Englishman” was a celebration of vulgar thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. This ideal of patriotism was expressed in the character of the original version of the song “Yankee Doodle.” It was also expressed in many blackface songs.
What I’m suggesting is that a large number of Americans are militantly and proudly vulgar. You can’t shame them out of ignorance if they believe that ignorance is a key character trait of an American identity. Politicians on the right get this. Their position has thus become “we accept you for who you are.” Democrats, on the other hand, seem to want to uplift common people, to change them, educate them, and teach them manners. Karl Rove understood that when George W. Bush said “new-kew-ler” instead of “nuclear,” it connected him with an ideal of patriotism as vulgarity.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
That activism, including what many observers would call radical activism, is deeply rooted in American history. In the past as in the present, the idea of what is radical, and what is traditional, has been subject to cultural struggles. The side which roots itself in tradition is often the one that wins. Much of Blackface Nation focuses on the Hutchinson Family Singers, a quartet who in the 1840s sang in favor of temperance, the abolition of slavery, black civil and equal rights, women’s rights, and a communist restructuring of society. They sang songs that welcomed immigrants to the United States and criticized companies for the exploitation of laborers.
“Radical activism is deeply rooted in American history.”
During the 1840s, the Hutchinsons were the most popular singing group in the United States. What I’m saying is that current day activists do not have to reinvent the wheel. One of the tactics of conservatives is to link their position with tradition. They like to say that “back then,” in the 1840s, “no one” knew slavery was wrong. I hear people make this point about a number of reforms, saying “back then” no one knew racism was wrong; or no one knew a policy of genocide toward American Indians was wrong. In the future, they will say that “back then” (meaning right now) no-one knew sport hunting was wrong. Yet back then, now, and in the future, activists knew, know or will know that these things are wrong. Some, like the Hutchinsions, were popular. Others, like say PETA, are supposedly not. But if there’s a record on the issue, you can bet that activists and community organizers were there.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
The main ideology I would hope Blackface Nation at least challenges is the equation of a culturally constructed, blackface inspired, ethnic blackness with authenticity. Part of my argument in the book is that blackface was primarily concerned with white ethnicity. For young white males, blackface offered a character that represented the bedrock of authentic identity. If, that is, the real selfhood of the individual could only be reached through a stripping away of culture – from material possessions to social connections to knowledge – early blackface characters were expressions of absolute authenticity.
Early blackface developed an authentic version of American identity – for white people – that is still hugely popular. The problem is that it now seems to be popular with all people. The idea was that one’s “true self” was composed of a constellation of low desires: for sex, for “good times,” and for amoral consumerism. Any attempt to uplift this concept of self, went against nature. The seductive qualities of this ideal can be seen in current anti-intellectualism, hostility to institutions, and antipathy to a reformist (but not an economic) “elite.” Its popularity may be why blackface characters still exist on the shelves at the supermarket. Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima may not seem demeaning. They are representations of authenticity, telling consumers that their product is genuine and real. But their authenticity derives from their low status, from the fact that they are black and forever our servants.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Most of my thinking has been inspired by individuals who have been willing to challenge the status quo. Many came from the field of music, which is probably not surprising given my book’s topic. When I was young, this meant Joe Strummer of The Clash, along with Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys. In fact, the Dead Kennedys’ “Rock Against Reagan” tour of 1984 may have been my earliest inspiration. It taught me two important lessons: first, that in a deeply iniquitous society, the position you have to fight against is often the sunny optimism that no problems exist; second, art is and should be political.
Currently my inspiration comes from scholars who are willing to challenge the traditional approaches of the humanities. These include Donna Haraway and J.M. Coetzee, both of whom have pioneered a “post humanities” approach to interpreting the world, one that challenges the focus on humans as the measure of all value and reality. One of the points of these scholars is that if you can interpret reality through one hierarchy, their example being the belief that humans matter and animals don’t, you will be more likely to accept other hierarchies, such as white male supremacy. I’m inspired and intrigued by the idea that species-ism rests on the same foundation as racism.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
This question seems like a trap. How can I answer it without exaggerating the importance of my writing or sounding like an aggrandizing fool? But it’s a great question. This is probably what all writers are trying to do. One of the points I tried to make in Blackface Nation is that a focus on music in the history of the United States tells a different story. In the musical version of America, we see that communism was a popular idea. We see that so called “radical” reforms – like equal rights, gender equality, and labor rights – were popular and at the center of American culture. And we see that black people made massive contributions to a so-called white culture. I’m not sure this is a new world so much as a more realistic version of American history.
What I tried to do in my book was use new sources to get a different perspective on United States history. This suggests that one of the problems with history is that it tends to prioritize certain types of sources and expressions over others. The reliance on literacy, written documents, and long-lasting records, will always shed light on some populations while throwing others into the shadows. The goal of Blackface Nation was to bring certain expressions and people out of the shadows of history. To do this, I focused on musical sources. I think it could and should be done with other non-traditional sources.
Roberto Sirventis Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for thePolitical Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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