entertainment, blackface and desire

I am blown away by Lott's essay, despite this being my second reading of it. I did a project for Dr. Dykstra on blackface and comedy. Lott's premise that there is a white male "fascination" and a self-conscious desire to assume a black identity temporarily. He discusses antebellum minstrel shows, Elvis, Mick Jagger, Vanilla Ice and Lee Atwater as a continuous phenomenon, which is significant not as racism or exploitation, but for what it reveals about whites' notions of whiteness and blackness. Lott pointed out that minstrel shows began in the 1840s, when women's Victorian standards of morality were becoming increasingly powerful in white society. White males reacted, like Huck Finn, by seeking opportunities "to be Negroes together."

Lott describes this sentiment as natural because they define painful and pleasurable experiences as black in order to maintain an artificially "respectable" white self-image. (I'm wondering if these theories can be applied to sexualities gay vs. straight, especially in terms of masculinity? Not to conflate the masculinities by any means.)

Early minstrels, like their audiences, were mostly working-class northern white men. Some even received training in their songs and dancesfrom hanging out with black laborers.Once minstrelsy became the dominant source of entertainment, it further divided whites and blacks. Through the minstrel man and the theatrical machinery, whites controlled and certified images that helped to subordinate blacks. Whites also ensured their place in society by promoting the stereotypes in the popular media.

But something existed behind the masks and what existed was authentic, authentic black music, black humor, “blackness,� which was unavailable to whites, who only observed the distorted versions. "Blackface acknowledges a racial relationship which to whites seems neither satisfactory nor summountable, this acknowledgement owes in turn to perceptions of 'race' and its signifiers that we would now term 'essentialist' To 'black up' is to express a belief in the complete suturing together of the markers of 'blackness' and the black culture[..]"(243).

The popular culture of the time played a key role in how slavery and race was remembered. The distorted versions white audiences saw confirmed their view of race and slavery. Minstrel shows reproduced an idyllic picture of slavery, of plantation life in the South where naïve, happy-go-lucky slaves sang and danced and played in comic dialogue. Popular culture also included aspects of authentic black expression and when ‘read’ by an in group public, formed a type of counter-memory behind the veil. In doing so, it created a subtext as well as a means of communication through something like slang or the blues, for example. The blues provided a network of shared experience, a way to communicate, a source of identity as much as a form of entertainment.