Another Bit on Authenticity

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:

to 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.

8 thoughts on “Another Bit on Authenticity

  1. That is amazing. And I think goes to my point. Chief Illiniwek does not come across as hokey. I’m curious as to why, because, even as I recognize it, I don’t understand it.

    But maybe the difference is that minstrel shows had an intentional level of hokeyness?

    I’m trying to think of another enormous cultural juggernaut that has a level of intentional hokeyness–definitely Hee-Haw, but since then? And I wonder if people are embarrassed that they used to like Hee-Haw?

  2. As you might expect, I disagree with your position on this issue, and not because I am an alum. The Chief has never been hokey, and never an object of ridicule or caricature. We don’t do ‘chop chop’ tomahawk motions, and fuck the NCAA, too, for allowing schools like Florida and Georgia to do much worse. When our esteemed Board of Trustees made the decision to ban the Chief, it was because of a small (but very vocal) minority for that old saw, ‘political correctness.’ The students now have never seen this, as time does march on, but it’s ridiculous. I know you grew up in Illinois, too, Betsy, but what are they trying to do? Where the fuck do they think the name of our state, our counties, and many roads came from? Many of the last Chiefs have not only had the support of the Native American community (and made the dress), but the last one even had NA Heritage. He is from Monticello.

  3. I’m a little bothered, B, by your implicit assertion that “hokiness” is an objectively determined characteristic. I don’t see how it can be anything but subjective.

  4. nm, it obviously must be subjective or the standards for it wouldn’t change over time. I think it’s clear that something happened that made minstrelsy embarrassing when it had been so very popular. And whatever that something is, we’re as a culture still mired in it, which is why we have such cultural trouble with minstrelsy. But you know me better than to think that I think there’s some kind of objective hokeyness. I just also think that it’s pretty self-apparent that, when we look at a dude in blackface singing songs that are supposed to be “real” “Negro” songs, we find it uncomfortable–practically everyone in our culture. And it simply cannot be it’s because practically everyone in our culture is uncomfortable because of the blatant racism, because we are comfortable with things we like, which are obviously blatantly racist (even though, obviously, a lot of people are turned off just at the level of it being so racist). So, it’s not that I think there’s some objective level of hokeyness, but that whatever became too uncomfortable about minstrelsy is still present, is still something we’re hung up on. If you watch the video, it’s still self-evident, even if naming the “whatever” is difficult and maybe “hokey” isn’t the right word for it.

    I just don’t believe that, in general, most people turn away from things they like and which give them pleasure for the well-being of others. There has to be some personal motivation–and shame is a big one, so that’s why I’ve put my money on it (at least for this conversation). So, my question is–if American popular culture isn’t ashamed of the racism inherent in white blackface minstrelsy, what are we ashamed of? My guess is the obvious “inauthentic” nature of the performances, the idea that this could have fooled or pleased anyone.

    Peg, an Ogala Sioux man made the outfit. The last chief is of Cherokee descent. So what? If an Italian guy got some clothes from an Irishman and imitated a German would we talk about how much that honored the Germans? There’s not one overarching Native American community. As far as I can tell, neither men of the Illinois Confederation nor the Iroquois–which would have been the two groups white people saw in Illinois at various points–even wore war bonnets. Chief Illiniwek doesn’t have anything to do with the people who actually lived in what became Illinois. He’s a character made up by a guy who got all his knowledge about Indians from his time in the Boy Scouts.

    It’s not an honor to the Illinois Confederacy or to the history of our state for a white kid to dress in the wrong clothes and do an unrecognizable dance while calling himself “Chief Illiniwek.” Maybe there’s an argument to be made that it’s not a dishonor, since it’s so clearly made up. But that line of argument is at best a wash.

    The honest argument is that you guys want him back because you do, because you like him, and the pleasure he brings you guys is more important than the discomfort he causes others.

    And on that point, we’ll have to agree to disagree. To me, it’s not worth it to make people uncomfortable or feel unwelcome or insulted or like we’re mocking their cultures, because there are a million other mascots Illinois could have that would be just as fun and don’t have that problem. And, of course, I would be totally cool if the NCAA also forced every other college to get rid of their Native American mascots and names.

  5. Well, I think the main difference between modern reactions to the “Jump Jim Crow” clip and the “St. Louis Blues” clip, apart from reactions to the blatant racism of the first,* is that our music is still informed by blues, so we hear a continuity from it to us. (I wonder though — contemporary pop music is fairly blues-free; would a pop devotee rather than a roots-and roots-rock fan find Bessie Smith hokey as well? I imagine so.) Whereas we can’t easily tell how USian music got from the first clip to where we are now, so it seems odder and more off-putting.

    *I think that it’s the blatantness of minstrelsy that bothers people today; our biases are supposed to be less overt now.

  6. It’s terribly hokey, for instance, that Hollywood stuck the usual “genu-wine Negro spiritual-singing” practiced choir behind Ms. Smith for this (otherwise) remarkable film; that arrangement has also passed into the fully hokey, and has nothing to do with her music–live or on record–at all! I’d suggest that minstrelsy partly passed into hokey for musical reasons; there were tinges of that old singing style still in some popular music (black and white) into the thirties, minus any blackface, and then it became passe in the face of more modern singing styles. Don’t want to be cynical, but that the music had gone out of fashion made it a whole lot easier for people to let the whole thing go and even congratulate themselves for it once the racist angle became intolerable. If they’d still liked the music–maybe it would have been tougher to let go! ( The put your arm out and strut style of big close is seen as infinitely hokey today–but it moved everybody to a standing O for a long time, very dependably.) I bet leading an audience into a rhythmic clap by clapping your own hands over your head will look as ridiculous–very soon. (I hope.) Meanwhile, millions are still happy watching a sort of white minstrelsy involving imitation and exaggeration of alleged black blues styles known as “blues rock” or even “The Rolling Stones,” still. And they’re only voted 2.76 on the Historical Hoke Curve–so far. This is still happeniing in hip hop, too-as the authors of the book who set this all off point out.

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