‘Shuffle Along’ and the Lost History of Black Performance in America

John Jeremiah Sullivan in The New York Times:

BlackThe blacks-­in-­blackface tradition, which lasted more than a century in this country, strikes most people, on first hearing of its existence, as deeply bizarre, and it was. But it emerged from a single crude reality: African-­American people were not allowed to perform onstage for much of the 19th century. They could not, that is, appear as themselves. The sight wasn’t tolerated by white audiences. There were anomalous instances, but as a rule, it didn’t happen. In front of the cabin, in the nursery, in a tavern, yes, white people might enjoy hearing them sing and seeing them dance, but the stage had power in it, and someone who appeared there couldn’t help partaking of that power, if only ever so slightly, momentarily. Part of it was the physical elevation. To be sitting below a black man or woman, looking up — that made many whites uncomfortable. But what those audiences would allow, would sit for — not easily at first, not without controversy and disdain, but gradually, and soon overwhelmingly — was the appearance of white men who had painted their faces to look black. That was an old custom of the stage, going back at least to “Othello.” They could live with that. And this created a space, a crack in the wall, through which blacks could enter, because blacks, too, could paint their faces. Blacks, too, could exist in this space that was neither-­nor. They could hide their blackness behind a darker blackness, a false one, a safe one. They wouldn’t be claiming power. By mocking themselves, their own race, they were giving it up. Except, never completely. There lay the charge. It was allowed, for actual black people to perform this way, starting around the 1840s — in a very few cases at first, and then increasingly — and there developed the genre, as it were, of blacks-­in-­blackface. A strange story, but this is a strange country.

Picture: Bert Williams having blackface applied in a production still from an uncompleted 1913 film that was identified in the MoMA archives in 2014.

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