I’m still thinking about the authenticity bit. But I’m also remembering how Chief Illiniwek was framed when I was in high school–that it honoring “our” Native American heritage, that the dance was authentic, that it was beloved by all. Even when Native Americans would point out that there are very few sacred dances done by Midwestern Native American groups that involve taking both your feet off the ground at the same time, let alone the running and jumping and tumbling routines the Chief was famous for. I should note that this is how I remember it, but Wikipedia suggests that, by the time I came along, they were claiming Illiniwek was doing a riff on a secular Native American dance.
But my point is that we were sold this idea that Illiniwek was cool in part because it was authentic. Even though it was always white guys. And it was white guys who came up with it. And white guys who codified the dance and white guys who codified the costume and so on and so on and so on. It was “real.” And therefore an “honor” regardless of the opinions of Native Americans.
And I tell you, we would have Cheif Illiniwek to this day if the people associated with the University of Illinois had their way.
So, the complete absence from our cultural memory of minstrelsy cannot be explained by our discomfort with the art’s racism. If a racist thing is beloved enough by enough people, it doesn’t just disappear, barely to be spoken of again, its legacy all but unacknowledged.
So, what is it that makes the most popular form of entertainment for the first half of our country’s existence almost completely unknown in the second half?
I’m still thinking it’s got to be a problem with authenticity. But I think it’s more complicated than just that we can’t look at minstrels and understand how that could have been mistaken for real. I mean, this is where Illiniwek is really informative. It really doesn’t matter that he was not real. Everyone kind of got that he was not real. But everyone was also willing to pretend he was. No, it’s kind of more than that–everyone was willing to be fooled. (And yes, I know “everyone” is a loaded term that doesn’t actually include everybody.)
And I think that’s what’s embarrassing about minstrelsy and why it had to be shut away. Not because America suddenly stopped loving racist shit. But because it embarrasses us that we were fooled by this–even willingly.
How and why could have we preferred this:
Now, I realize I just opened a can of worms here that I am just going to let squirm because of Smith’s relationship with black blackfaced minstrelsy and the short amount of time before I need to get in the shower.
But I think it illustrates the problem. It’s not the racism–would that it were–it’s that we cannot forgive the hokeyness and our old willingness to love it.