The part I’m going to be tossing around in my mind is this.
1. White blackface minstrelsy was invented and codified in the North by white men who were basing their acts on the ways black men informally entertained mixed-race audiences in the North. The minstrel skits were only set in the South as a way of giving them a bit of verisimilitude. So, like much of the book, Lott is kind of describing a slippery thing–white Northern men were doing impressions of black Northern men’s performances for mixed-race audiences (in other words, we have to assume that the black men were already making aesthetic choices about what an audience of black and white men might prefer to see over what they would do just for friends. The power dynamic of whites in the audience changes the performance.) but, in order to guard against either too much recognition (“Well, if he’s just going to sing the song John always sings, I could go hear John.”) or too little (“That’s the song John sings, but it doesn’t sound like the way John sings it.”), the scenes are set in an imaginary South, the sources then become imaginary Southern black men.
2. This part was most remarkable to me, but once he brought up Elvis and Normal Mailer and the Beats, I decided he was right–white minstrel performers identified with the black men they were pretending to be. Even back in the earliest days, black men were “cool” in a way that white men felt they were not unless they mimicked black men. And, of course, most white men didn’t want to be “cool,” so it didn’t matter. But some of them did. And they genuinely felt they had a special kinship and insight into black male culture that wasn’t available to most whites.
3. This is the hardest part for me to hold in my head, but it’s the most important. It kind of goes along with number 2. He’s got this quote from someone about how “We all played Indian as children, Black as young men, and then we stepped into our role as white men as adults.” That’s not an exact quote, but it’s pretty close and it tells you a lot, a dangerous lot about how, in a racist society, white men’s admiration for black men goes very wrong for black men.
Because this is both about an over-identification with black men and an utter failure to see them as human beings and, for most white men of the era, it happened as they grew out of playing “Indian,” which means it happened at puberty. So, just imagine this–how you felt when you were 14, guys. And imagine you believe that you can know what it’s like to be someone (and this someone is someone who must at all times be deliberately performing a version of himself that he thinks is going to lead to the least trouble–and remember what trouble for a black man in the 1850s looked like, so he is motivated to not show you his fully human self) just by moving like him and singing like him and talking like him. While you’re in internal turmoil yourself.
See what a fuck this is? White men come to believe that black men are like white men imagined them to be when they (the white guys) were pretending to be them (the black guys) when they (the white guys definitely, the black guys probably) were teenagers. They thought their horsing-around-borrowing of mannerisms was insight. So, there’s a mistake that goes poorly for black men at the level of “I know what it’s like to be you, because I used to mock you (in both senses)” when, obviously, imitation doesn’t have to have anything to do with giving one real knowledge of the source (In other words, I can swivel my hips all “Sweet Child o’ Mine” but doing so doesn’t tell me what it’s like to be Axl Rose.). But there’s a mistake that goes poorly for black men at a deeper level of “I know what it’s like to be you, because I used to be you, when I was going through puberty.” I mean, look at our society’s stereotypes–even now–of black men: lazy, violent, hypersexual, impulsive, etc. Look at white men’s historical fears of black men–all tied up in sexuality and whether black men were going to want white women. It all has the threat of the teenager behind it (at a time when teenagers weren’t even really a thing).
Black men in our culture forever held accountable for white men’s teenage fantasies of being black, mistaken for truth–accountable for the things a white man would do if not bound by the constraints of white society.
4. It’s hard to explain, exactly, but to me this makes sense of why white audiences loved white black-face minstrelsy–and it is probably partially why we white people loved Elvis and the Stones and Zeppelin. Because it gave us a part of a world we didn’t really want to be a part of in a form that let us love it unreservedly. Because our veneer is on it.
Like maybe it lets us be in the know without having to participate, thanks to these guys who do occasionally touristly participate. But since it has so little to do with the actual people we strive to know, they have to be kept hidden so that we never have to know we don’t know them.