From Mammy to MF

Raising Cain
April 9, 1999

What was the first Atlantic mass culture? In this stimulating study, W. T. Lhamon Jr argues that the black minstrel shows - an evening's entertainment based on "songs, dances and patter purporting to be the behaviour of southern (American) field hands" - enjoyed such booming audiences in the 1840s that they can be envisaged as outcasts who took the popular stage by storm.

To the standard account of the beginnings of black minstrelsy in 1843, when Dan Emmett's Virginia Minstrels first performed at the Chatham Theatre, Lhamon adds an interesting discussion of precursors, such as the open-air performers in New York's marketplaces and the more improvised "plantation frolics". Their popularity resulted from black minstrelsy being the authentic self-expression - rude, ironic and culturally subversive - of an emerging and despised lumpenproletariat on both sides of the Atlantic. Illustrated with numerous prints that show how the gestures of blackface performers remained remarkably similar for many decades, Raising Cain presents chapters on the blackface lore cycle (showing how dance steps used by blacks in markets were transferred to whites and blacks dancing on stage), on the biblical mark of Cain (used as a potent symbol by many performers) and on the history of Jim Crow (which follows the trail of cultural imagery from folk contexts to such heirs of blackface as rock-and-roll, stand-up comedy and hip-hop). As well as analysing the meaning of obscure acts that he has dug up in the archives, Lhamon also reinterprets classics such as Uncle Tom's Cabin , Benito Cereno and Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer . Rap artist MC Hammer does not seem at all out of place at this party.

Although Raising Cain is full of fresh insights into the meaning of performance - from the cultural significance of whistling to the use of elaborate winks by satirical performers - not everyone will agree with Lhamon's ideas about this radical blackface lineage. Are the gestures of a slave dancing in an early 19th-century market really congruent with those of a late 20th-century hip-hop artist? Nor will Lhamon's impassioned use of the dialectical approach - how a particular performance practice can be both one thing and its opposite at the same time - necessarily endear him to those scholars who have already decided that all blackface performance is inherently racist.

Provocatively enough, while Lhamon argues that many middle-class accounts of lumpen entertainments were fiercely racist, especially after the 1850s, he is also adamant that blackface cultural expression was ultimately liberating, the shows being constantly insubordinate, truly popular and often ungovernable. But most controversial is Lhamon's contention that minstrelsy is, in racial terms, a much more radical project than abolitionism. Here the making of a social class - how lumpen audiences created their self-identity - ranks as more important than the political work of liberal activists.

In political terms, Lhamon's project is to reevaluate the once-scorned aspects of black culture in general and blackface performance in particular, and in Raising Cain he delights in reviving them in all their rude vitality. But because Lhamon provides neither a formal conclusion nor an introduction - he jumps straight in with a vivid reconstruction of black people dancing for eels in New York's Catherine Market at the start of the 19th century - undergraduates may find his argument hard to follow. Those who persevere will enjoy a writing style that excels in passionate advocacy, scholarly comment, imaginative sympathy and political acuteness. The book is a good, if occasionally rather elusive, read. Raising Cain may raise hackles among the politically correct, but it also deserves to encourage debate about the politics of pop culture.

Aleks Sierz is theatre critic of Tribune and teaches journalism at Goldsmiths College, London.

Raising Cain: Blackface performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop

Author - W. T. Lhamon Jr
ISBN - 0 674 74711 9
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £16.50
Pages - 262

to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments