Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Book Review: Beyond Blackface

W. Fitzhugh Brundage, editor. Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

The era around the turn of the twentieth century is often considered the nadir of American race relations, as black Americans faced extraordinary violence and discrimination. But the authors in this collection of essays focus more on what African Americans were doing than what was being done to them. Collectively, they argue that African Americans did not merely possess a distinct black culture but were integral in the creation of a modern American mass culture. Through entertainment, sports, and the use of new technologies, African Americans asserted themselves and refused to passively occupy the marginalized space white Americans had assigned for them.

The use of new technologies to caricature and dehumanize African Americans is well known, but if images and film could be used against blacks, they could also be employed to force white Americans to confront real images of African Americans as dignified and human. As John Stauffer notes, as early as the 1850s Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists had great faith in the power of photography to advance black perspectives, and in the twentieth century, black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux built a decades-long career. He faced chronic shortages of capital and equipment, and battled white-controlled censorship boards to make dozens of movies that challenged white assumptions. Thus an increasingly visual popular culture could cut both ways as African Americans appropriated technologies that were frequently tools of oppression and used them to define themselves as they saw fit.

In other areas such as music and sports, African Americans exerted more influence than white Americans often wanted to admit. The most popular music at the turn of the century was ragtime, a form begun by African Americans and quickly adopted by whites. Likewise, as David Krasner points out in his essay, African American performers and dancers such as Aida Walker achieved widespread acclaim and capitalized on white assumptions to present themselves as “the essence of cool." In the boxing ring, Jack Johnson knocked out “The Great White Hope,” shaking white supremacy and causing whites across the country to riot in a panicked attempt to assert control. Meanwhile, the Great Migration shaped the contours of mass culture as white fears of black mobility affected the placement of everything from housing to entertainment venues and vice districts.

A few of the essays in Beyond Blackface appear to be works in progress that would benefit from a more fulsome treatment. The disparate collection of authors at times produces tensions and overlap, yet on the whole Brundage has ably collected a set of essays organized around cohesive themes. These themes are nicely encapsulated by one of the final essays detailing Joe Louis’s defeat of the Nazis’ standard bearer in 1938, a fight that made him a hero to millions of Americans, white as well as black. That Louis achieved such visibility without provoking white riots owed partly to the international context and his clean cut image. But it also pointed to African Americans’ success in contributing to and defining the American story. In the ensuing decades it would become increasingly difficult for white Americans to define African Americans as aliens and strangers in their own land.

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