some of you might know that i have a degree in something called ethnomusicology. the field basically melds principles of cultural anthropology and sociology to traditional musicology. it asks questions like- who is listening to a music? what kind of people make this music? how does musical form reflect these roles and uses? what communities form around this music?
most ethnomusicologists work on cultures further afield from their own. i wasnt interested in this approach. as someone who was introduced to early american music later in life (up until i went to college i basically knew about classical music, southern rock, and folks songs for campfire singing), i wanted to focus my ethno studies on vaudeville, early blues, jazz and swing. and in every corner of those musics, i found blackface minstrelsy.
subjects come in and out of academic vogue, and while i was in school, looking closely at minstrelsy was in vogue. i was grateful because it is a horrifying, fascinating, and deeply complicated form of performance, and i really love performance. minstrelsy is of course problematic around race, but it’s also a hornet’s nest of class and gender anxieties. in my studies, i , along with many others, have come to the conclusion that minstrelsy has influenced the look and sound of just about every american and british entertainment that has come after it. and as a white, class priviliged person making music, studying minstrelsy forced me to confront my own relationship to the music i play.
to learn more about minstrelsy i recommend erik lott’s love and theft (yes bob dylan named his album after the book)(knowing that, listen again) as a starting point. i also recommend spike lee’s bamboozled. there are many many important articles, books, and writers in between these two, so i encourage you to dive in. but i also encourage you to do so with care and guidance. this is hard stuff for anyone seeing it.
i suggest you take especial care because the minstrel show is intoxicating. it is an apex of show craft so perfected that even the most amateur of folks can put one on and have it “work” and create “pleasure”. the pacing, the stock characters, and the humor have deep roots in many other performance forms (commedia dell’arte, for example). the music of the minstrel show is so intertwined in what we think of as “american music” that it can feel familiar and innocuous. like home. like it’s “no big deal”.
but the minstrel show is not innocuous. for all its scaffolding of pleasureable pace and entertainment, the minstrel show is hung with the dangerous cloth of discrimination. it is populated with stereotypes that demean people of color, working class folks, and folks who sit in the less easily categorized parts of the gender spectrum. and know this, the problem with stereotypes is that they are like violence you cannot unsee. you may be able to intellectually know that african american people dont all eat watermelon and fried chicken, but i challenge anyone, of any race, to truthfully say that that stereotype never crosses their mind when they see an african american person and a watermelon in the same frame. even if they know better. even if they don’t let it change their actions. we’ve seen it way too much and for way too long. and i could go on with many other examples.
all of this is to say, i have seen quite a bit of minstrelsy. and it just seems ridiculous to me that we’re needing to have a conversation about this video from the 2013 Mummers Parade in philadelphia. this is only the most explicitly problematic of the parade. there are others.
really? is this what we have to talk about now? i would be more interested in pointing out the less obvious ways that minstrelsy still pervades our entertainment culture. i would be more interested in talking about the methods and the awareness we need to cultivate to start undoing a long history of race, gender, and class stereotypes in entertainment. but we cant even get to that while this stupidity is happening. while people insist on resurrecting shit that needed to go a long time ago. it is completely irresponsible, completely unnecessary, and absolutely needs to be called out.
for the local conversation in philly, check out philly weekly writer tara murtha’s storify.