Vol 27 no.3

Twisting the Dandy: The Transformation of the Blackface Dandy in Early American Theatre

When George Washington Dixon took to the stage in 1834 to perform “Zip Coon,” his latest incarnation of a blackface dandy, he most likely bent his knee a little more than in his previous portrayals of the dandy, garbled his speech a little more, and added some garish costume accessories. Dixon was twisting the dandy into something new and alien. The twisting of the dandy was a theatrical response to the real black dandies who had been present in the urban centers of America for several decades, and who provoked debates about racial classifications, white and black freedoms, and the American class system. Dixon’s participation in these debates—through the bending, distorting character changes he made—continued a process of transformation of the blackface dandy in early American theatre. The exact nature of this course of alteration, and the reasons for the blackface dandy’s remodelling over time, are debatable, due to the array of influences on the character, contradictory primary texts and contemporary reviews of blackface performance, and contentious methodologies for investigating blackface entertainment.

This article will draw on minstrel studies to analyse the character of the blackface dandy in three iconic songs of early American blackface theatre, “My Long Tail Blue,” “Jim Crow,” and “Zip Coon.” Arguably, the earliest popular representations of black dandyism on the American stage contained features and characteristics designed to diminish any threat posed by real black dandies to the white working class’ imagined white superiority, and these features were quickly amplified in the following years to repress the perceived challenge posed by discourses and performances of black liberty. The rapid transformation of the blackface dandy entrenched a narrative of white liberty that undercut any potential arguments for cross-racial working-class solidarity, abolition, cross-racial sexual relationships, or black rights. Within a decade of the first blackface dandy treading the boards in America, a destructive discourse of blackness—exemplified in the character of Zip Coon—eliminated the possibility that early blackface theatre could provide a theatrical response to social transformations in America that might champion the causes of equality and black liberty. Exactly how these discourses and causes are investigated has been brought into question lately. Recent methodological shifts in studies of blackness have provided an important intervention within minstrel studies, providing the occasion to reassess the figure of the blackface dandy and the role of such a figure within discourses of blackface theatre, blackness, and American liberty more generally.

Methodological Shifts: The Four Stages of Minstrel Studies

For nearly a century, minstrel scholars have debated the role of racial discourses in blackface performance. Mikko Tuhkanen has categorized minstrel scholars into three periods, with more recent work potentially constituting a fourth shift in approaches to minstrel studies. A common feature within twentieth-century blackface minstrelsy studies, so argues Tuhkanen, is the “repetitive dismissals of earlier studies as biased, insubstantial, or politically motivated.”[1] In the 1930s Carl Wittke and Constance Rourke theorized blackface as a process of “cultural borrowing” where white performers used performance styles of black people in creating a uniquely American form of cultural expression.[2] Responding to this reading of minstrelsy, from the 1950s through the 1970s Ralph Ellison, Nathan Huggins, and Robert Toll dismissed studies such as Wittke’s and Rourke’s, claiming they focused too intently on national formations and failed to understand the harmful racial ideologies circulating in blackface entertainment; for Ellison, Huggins, and Toll blackface was “a reflecting surface” in which white anxieties about race and politics are resolved through harmful racial stereotypes of blackness.[3] Thirdly, Eric Lott pioneered a revival in minstrel studies, followed by authors such as W.T. Lhamon, Dale Cockrell and William Mahar, attempting to balance the approaches of the first two periods of minstrel studies.[4] In Love and Theft Lott argued that Ellison, Huggins and Toll were “representative of the reigning view of minstrelsy as racial domination,” suggesting their work performs a “necessary critique [that] seems somewhat crude and idealist,” and that, instead, minstrel studies should present a “subtler account of racial representations” that reads blackface minstrelsy as a “distorted mirror, reflecting displacements and condensations and discontinuities . . . multiple determinations” of whiteness and blackness.[5] The third group condemn earlier critics who claim blackface performance to be “an unequivocally racist, antiblack practice, both in intentions and effects,” and instead, insist on a more nuanced reading strategy, one that highlights the multiple determinations of identity and political issues, intentional and unintentional, that lead to the possibility of both crosscultural affinity and antiblack sentiment in blackface performance.[6] The complication of intentionality is a feature of this third group of scholars, who re-animate rebellious, anti-bourgeois themes in blackface performance, and prioritize these themes over the oppressive, racist consequences of blackface. Tuhkanen remains neutral in the debate, concluding that the development of minstrel studies “like blackface performance itself . . . has evolved with the twists and turns of its own ‘lore cycle.’”[7] Since Tuhkanen’s 2001 article, a group of scholars have taken issue with the approaches and findings of the third group. In other words, to Tuhkanen’s genealogy of blackface minstrel studies can be added a fourth turn: scholars including Daphne Brooks, Tavia Nyong’o, and Douglas Jones who question the methodologies of previous studies in order to emphasize the way black people—audiences, artists, activists, and everyday people—shaped and responded to blackface performance over time.[8] Presenting an intervention that informs the approach taken to the analysis of blackface dandies in this article, the fourth turn in minstrel studies advocates for a methodological re-orientation that reveals historical blind spots in earlier histories and suggests ways to prioritize black experiences in an analysis of white performances of blackness.

Brooks’ theorization of black performance after 1850 suggests that blackface stage characters can be read as responses by white performers to challenges issued by black people arguing against white authority and control. Brooks, in identifying how late nineteenth-century black performers intent on social, cultural and political transformation inhabited and transformed the stereotypes of blackness created by the early white minstrels, urges scholars to consider minstrelsy’s “strategy of alienating the body and ‘blackness’” and “how the practice of alienation participated in the making of a dissident theatrical figure that travelled the stage in the mid-to-late nineteenth century and found itself at the center of both hegemonic and resistant social and cultural ideologies.”[9] Brooks, that is, suggests that the racial stereotypes created in early blackface performance styles were used for both oppressive and liberatory discourses of blackness. The term “alienation,” for Brooks, refers to the “white minstrel performer’s production and navigation of a violently deformed black corporeality”—a physically and representationally twisted and gnarled form of blackness—that “shored up white supremacist ideology . . . grotesquely exposing the mutual constitution” of whiteness with blackness.[10] Such a stance reiterates the concerns of the scholars in the third turn of minstrel studies—such as Lott, who advocated for an analysis of how political and social concerns of the white performers and audiences (the constitution of whiteness) energized blackface performance—while emphasizing the fusion of social and racial themes in minstrelsy to create a unique discourse of blackness that ultimately asserts white superiority. But, importantly, Brooks adds another paradigm for analysis, examining how, particularly later in the nineteenth century, the discourse of blackness was re-appropriated and transformed by black performers, critics, and authors with an interest in black liberty.

An exemplary demonstration of the methodological shift advocated by Brooks is Nyong’o’s study Amalgamation Waltz, which incorporates the performances, perspectives and responses of black people into an understanding of blackface theatre. Nyong’o recounts how an editor of the Colored American, Samuel Cornish, attacked blackface minstrelsy and chastised black members of the audiences at such performances. In 1841, recounting a friend’s experience of attending a blackface show, Cornish complained:

he never saw so many colored persons at the theatre in his life, hundreds were there, and among whom were many very respectable looking persons. O shame! paying money, hard earned, to support such places and such men, to heap ridicule and a burlesque upon them in their very presence, and upon their whole class.[11]

While Cornish’s attempts to convince black patrons to boycott such venues may not have been entirely successful, Frederick Douglass, in 1848, clearly thought the intended audience of blackface entertainment was white, and labelled blackface performers “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of the white fellow-citizens.”[12] Nyong’o’s methodological re-focussing—bringing contemporary black voices into a consideration of blackface performance—highlights historical inaccuracies in earlier studies of blackface, the blind spots in what has been labelled an “orthodox division of minstrelsy into an early radical phase followed by its co-optation by commercial and middle-class interests by the 1850s.”[13] The radical phase, according to scholars such as Lott, Cockrell, Lhamon and Mahar, occurred from the 1820s to the 1840s as blackface performers engaged in and promoted cross-racial solidarity—even amalgamation—in the hope of uniting a working class that opposed exploitation by the upper classes.[14] The commercial stage, according to such scholars, occurred as blackface minstrelsy transformed into a form of entertainment for white audiences, where working-class audiences would enjoy criticisms of the upper class and both working-class and upper-class white audiences shared enjoyment in an oppressive discourse of antiblack racism.[15] Suggesting this orthodox historical view “merely transposes the desire for mongrel authenticity onto the mythic origins of a popular style,” Nyong’o reviews early blackface performance through the lens of black critics.[16] Early blackface performers are repositioned as capitalising on anxieties over racial amalgamation, leading to responses by black activists and abolitionists, whose criticisms of blackface performers’ attacks on black dignity demonstrated “concerns over respectability that animate black responses to the amalgamation panic.”[17] The methodological prioritization of black experience in the work of Nyongo, and others such as Brooks, has the potential to improve understandings of, and theories about, early blackface performance.

Drawing directly on the methodological shift promoted by Nyong’o, Jones breaks with earlier groups of blackface scholars to theorize what can be termed the “expropriationist twist” of early blackface performance. Jones reinterprets black performance traditions—such as the slave performers who danced, sang and joked for money and goods at Catherine Market near Brooklyn during the 1820s—that Lhamon has shown to have influenced early blackface performers.[18] While Lhamon reads the lines of influence, from black to white performers, as an example of cross-racial solidarity, Jones reads the exchange differently.[19] Taking Fred Moten’s theorization of the black avant-garde—which identifies a “liberty awaiting activation, the politico-economic, ontological, and aesthetic surplus” in work by black artists and about “blackness”[20]—Jones questions the consequences of white would-be blackface entertainers appropriating the liberatory surplus of black performance. Jones describes this theft as “a cutting, ultimately ghastly, twist” in the historical development of blackface performance:

Call it the turn of expropriation: those who donned burnt cork and crafted minstrelsy recognized the potentiality of the surplus of black performance and used it to activate their “liberty waiting.”[21]

The expropriationist twist theorized by Jones explains the ideological dimensions of what Brooks referred to as “alienation.” The deformed corporeality enacted by white performers in an attempt to alienate blackness from the source of its original black expression did more than separate blackness from black concerns, it transformed blackness into an object used to present white, working-class concerns, particularly concerns to do with white working class freedom from labor exploitation. This twist in the performance of blackness is mirrored in minstrel studies that ignore the role of black people in provoking and responding to blackface performance.

A reorientation of blackface criticism along the lines suggested by Jones, Nyong’o, and Brooks redresses the twist in studies of blackness, a twist typified by the ignorance of black voices and concerns in re-telling blackface history. For Jones, the “vast majority of the literature on early minstrelsy” uphold the orthodox historical view of minstrelsy criticized by Nyong’o; the orthodox view is the result of a methodology whereby “scholars borrow the model of those who crafted minstrelsy itself by refusing black people except when they are advantageous to one’s particular narrative.”[22] In other words, Jones escalates the need for a methodological change by likening earlier blackface scholars to the exclusionary blackface performers they study. Jones demonstrates the new methodology by examining how “an increasingly assertive free black community in the North” agitated for social change in the 1820s and 1830s, where for anxious white communities “blackface became one way to regulate and attenuate” such pressures.[23] Such an analysis reveals how “Minstrelsy emerged as a conduit of white assertion and a buffer against black protest.”[24] Beginning with a close analysis of an early blackface dandy that utilized blackness to present white concerns on stage, and examining both how this early dandy figure was transformed as blackface entertainment’s popularity bloomed and black responses to blackface theatre’s popularity, this article examines the twisting of the dandy in a way that begins to redress the twisting of minstrel studies.

Central to blackface performance’s responses to white anxieties about transformations in American culture was the figure of the black dandy. In her history of black dandyism, Monica Miller states that black dandies emerged in response to several changes in American society and culture, including the end of festivals where black people had used fancy dress in parodying upper class whites, the end of the international slave trade and the abolition of slavery in various states at different times.[25] According to Miller, newly freed black people and their families or communities were accumulating modest amounts of wealth as a result of more economic freedoms and began to use fancy dress to announce their arrival as a new American demographic. The arrival of the black dandy into America’s urban centres was almost immediately followed by attacks and criticisms: “Attempts to control the perceived impertinency of these newly emboldened, newly fashionable blacks ranged from the subtle to the outrageous. Excessive responses included ripping the new clothes off the backs of those blacks dressed beyond what whites could bear.”[26] More subtle responses occurred on American stages.

The blackface dandy is a stage character developed and refigured from the 1820s on to respond to the actual emergence of black dandies in American society as well as other social and cultural concerns. Given that the advent of black dandyism coincided with the use of typically upper-class clothing by white Americans who used elaborate suits and accessories to distinguish American identity, society and culture from Europe, the history of the black dandy as an argument about class and race restrictions is entangled with the history of the white dandy as an argument about American nationalism. For Miller, blackface dandies, as caricatures, “became part of a cultural critique of perceived white decadence that becomes increasingly difficult to parse from concerns about black ‘striving.’”[27] Themselves the product of various traditions, including clowning, commedia dell’arte, and burlesque, the blackface dandy developed as a stage character that was embroiled with these theatrical traditions as much as with the various social and cultural traditions that had led white and black Americans to use refined ways of dressing as embodied forms of argument in the first place. Black dandies, and associated stage representations, are the product of multiple traditions and critiques and, thus, must be analyzed as indeterminate or multiplicitous:

In his adaptability, the dandy figure is firmly ensconced within the flow of African American history, linking African traditions and black recognition and subversive play with white power in the colonial period to black statements of respectability and individuality in freedom. Blackface minstrelsy and other caricatures fought against this mobility even as they acknowledged the ability of the figure and its real-life counterparts to reinvent themselves.[28]

Importantly, the blackface dandy can be read as an acknowledgement of the power and rebellious force of real black dandies and, simultaneously, as an attempt by white performers to redress the arguments made by real black dandies against racial and social norms. The transformations of the blackface dandy in the early 1830s reveal the tensions between acknowledgement and neutralization of black resistance in American society and culture.

An Early Blackface Dandy: Long Tail Blue

The best-known performer of blackface dandyism in the period of early blackface was Dixon, born to a poor family in Richmond, Virginia, probably in 1801. Of what little is known about his early life, Cockrell describes how a circus manager noticed Dixon’s potential as a vocalist at the age of 15 and he was apprenticed to West’s traveling circus as an errand boy; also, it is likely he first used blackface as a clown in the circus.[29] Citing the various formal influences on early blackface, Lott mentions the American clown, as well as the harlequin of commedia dell’arte and the burlesque tramp, as overlapping traditions “tending more or less toward self mockery on the one hand and subversion on the other.”[30] Such diverse traditions influenced the formation of the blackface dandy character.

A proponent of the self-mockery and subversion typical of blackface clowning and commedia dell’arte, Dixon became known for his performances of the blackface song “My Long Tail Blue” as early as 1827.[31] Of Dixon’s “My Long Tail Blue” the S. Foster Damon songbook—Series of Old American Songs (1936)—states: “it remained for half a century one of the standard burnt-cork songs.”[32] Given it is rare to find versions of “My Long Tail Blue” with a post-1830 publication date (where they are provided), or in post-1840 song sheet collections, it is unlikely the popularity of “My Long Tail Blue” lasted more than a decade. Nevertheless, “My Long Tail Blue” did popularize the character of the black dandy, which certainly proved to be an enduring presence, though continually altered and adjusted to respond to white concerns and black responses and challenges, in blackface entertainment over the rest of the century. In a description of some of Dixon’s performances in 1829, Cockrell points to the constituency of the audience in early blackface performance:

during a three-day, late-July span, [Dixon] appeared at the Bowery Theatre, the Chatham Garden Theatre, and the Park Theatre and at all three sang in blackface . . . performing for “crowded galleries and scantily filled boxes,” a solid indication of the heart of his audience.[33]

Ticket prices ensured that, generally, working-class crowds populated the gallery and upper-class audiences patronized the boxes. Cornish’s concerns in the early 1840s about black audience members in blackface shows suggest Dixon’s audience may have included black and white workers.[34] In any case, Dixon’s blackface routines appear to have been disliked by upper-class people, but delivered him success through the general approval of working-class, gallery audiences. The story narrated in “My Long Tail Blue” reveals what it is that appealed to these working-class audiences.

“My Long Tail Blue” tells the story of a black dandy who courts women and flouts authority. The narrator of the song describes his blue jacket with long tails, a mark of respectability and class. The dandy—named Blue—wears his blue jacket on Sundays, while (religiously) pursuing women. While audiences enjoyed hearing about the character’s sexual pursuits, they also wished to see the upwardly mobile dandy brought down a peg or two. The song doesn’t disappoint, describing an encounter between Blue and Jim Crow.[35] In “My Long Tail Blue,” Crow is an escaped black slave who is found courting a white girl named Sue when Blue intrudes. As Blue intervenes and Crow sneaks away, Blue is arrested and his jacket is torn in a scuffle with the authorities. Blue has his jacket mended upon his release from jail and the song concludes with him advising the audience to go and buy a jacket so they too can be like him, winning the ladies’ hearts, flouting authority, and rising up the social hierarchy. Many aspects of the performance—from the costume to the lyrics, to the advertisements and musical style—represent the first moves by a white performer to alienate the black dandy in the creation of a blackface dandy.

In her article “Daddy Blue: The Evolution of the Dark Dandy,” Barbara Lewis reads Blue as a dignified character (unlike the more loathsome characters that would dominate the following decades). Further, Lewis states that Blue represented the condition of some black Americans in reality:

Blue’s handsome, dignified image, the epitome of rationality and reserve, reflected the situation for a sizable and growing segment of [upwardly mobile] African Americans. . . . Blue emblematically expressed the assurance and achievement of this group.[36]

Lewis bases her reading of Blue as a somewhat authentic representation of actual, well-dressed black men on the lyrics, but also on a lithograph of Blue that was printed on the front page of an early publication of the song’s sheet music. Regardless of whether “My Long Tail Blue” faithfully reproduced or radically altered the figure of the black dandy, Dixon’s portrayal and his audience’s endorsement were provoked by the presence of refined, dignified black men in American public life. The lithograph for the sheet music provides a glimpse into how Dixon’s performance was framed and received. Given the aspects of the image mentioned in her analysis, Lewis is likely referring to the lithograph published by Atwill’s and reproduced here in Fig. 1. Another typical lithograph published by Firth has been reproduced in Fig. 2. While Lewis reads Blue as a dignified and respectable man of property who is ready to put his equal citizenship with white men to the test by taking his place in a “teeming metropolis,”[37] she misses some revealing details in the lithograph of Blue, details that are amplified when compared with the second lithograph.

It is true, as Lewis states, that Blue appears to be dignified and wealthy; however, he is also demonized. In the Atwill’s lithograph Blue’s hat brim curls upwards at either end, simulating devil’s horns (Fig. 1).[38] In the Firth lithograph Blue’s moustache provides the devil’s curls, while the tail of his jacket flows away from his body into sharp points, mimicking something snake-ish or devilish (Fig. 2).[39] In both lithographs Blue’s eyes are squinted and shifty; they bring his character further under suspicion. These details bring into question the authenticity of Blue as a representation of real black dandies, instead offering support to the suggestions of Nyong’o and Jones that the twisting of blackness for white purposes in early blackface performance may have occurred more rapidly than the orthodox retelling of blackface history presumes. Arguably, the fact that Lewis misses these details allows her to idolize the character—perhaps in an effort to find an accurate cultural representation of the real black dandies of the period, who were bravely challenging social boundaries and confronting the often violent treatment of dignified black people. The missed details might result from an over-reliance on orthodox readings of minstrel history that place “My Long Tail Blue” in an early, radical stage of the form’s development. And yet, the lithographs need not be read as accurate portraits of actual dandies in order to recognize the agency of black dandies at the time. As Miller suggests, while the elaborate costume of real black dandies was “a symbol of a self-conscious manipulation of authority,” it was tempered by the corresponding representations of blackface dandyism, “an attempted denigratory parody of free blacks’ pride and enterprise.”[40] In comparing the lithographs, then, Blue should not be read as an accurate representation of real black dandies, but as an early response to the anxieties white society felt toward real black dandies. The demonization, brought about by the embodied arguments of black dandies, reveal the expropriative twist enacted by white performers who would go on to craft various determinations of blackness to alleviate their own concerns throughout the rest of the century.

Fig1-LongTailBlue

Figure 1: “My Long Tail Blue” (New York: Atwill’s, c.1827). The character of a dandy, Blue, with horned top hat, shifty eyes, and a straight, dignified stance. Image courtesy of John Hay Library, Brown University.

Fig2-LongTailBlue

Figure 2: “My Long Tail Blue” (New York: Firth, c.1827). The character of a dandy, Blue, with tailed coat, spiked moustache, shifty eyes, and a formal stance. Image courtesy of John Hay Library, Brown University.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The liberatory surplus of real black dandies was transformed through Dixon’s portrayal into an argument for increased white working-class freedoms. For example, Blue’s blackness serves as a synonym for social transgression. Blue does not obey rules; for this he is a character that many in the predominantly white audience—with desires to escape social regulations—would have admired. His pursuit of women was also appealing to white audiences, but any association of white audience members with black freedoms needed to be controlled. Lott reads the phallic “long tail” of Blue’s coat as representing “white man’s obsession with a rampageous black penis . . . invoking the power of ‘blackness’ while deriding it, in an effort of cultural control.”[41] Further, as Nyong’o powerfully argues, the affect of cross-racial sexuality was particularly important in the first debates throughout the 1830s over racial equality, abolition and amalgamation.[42] Any boisterous delights to be taken in Blue’s sexual exploits were accompanied by concerns about crossracial relationships and their political associates, equal rights and freedom. As such, the sexual freedoms and any suggestion of equality and amalgamation are closed down in the narrative of the song by a fantasy of black-on-black violence (Crow versus Blue), that resolves the tension and allows audiences to re-assume their position as civilized, restrained white men differentiated from the violent black buffoons in the song’s narrative.

The cultural control of Blue’s crossracial freedoms occurred through his alienation, his demonization, released the uncomfortable realization of shared liberatory interests with a black character at the same time as it addressed the animosity many whites felt towards the class of real black dandies populating the urban centers of America. To demonstrate the animosity working-class white people felt toward real black dandies, Lewis describes riots in Philadelphia during 1828 when “white ruffians” (whose “mobocratic tactics” were endorsed by local papers) physically assaulted and verbally insulted many elegant and well-dressed black people who attended balls and dances.[43] The social presence among white workers of genuine animosity toward black dandies and strongly held beliefs in an essential difference between white and black people led performers to respond with racial characterizations that differentiated white audiences from troubling presences such as Blue so that audiences could feel both socially and culturally secure. The alienation of Blue, then, suggests the expropriation and twisting of blackness to white ends occurred, albeit more subtly than in later performances, in the earliest blackface shows.

Dixon’s “My Long Tail Blue” signalled the emergence of the professional blackface entertainer, and in doing so paved the way for an almost ubiquitous expropriation of blackness in decades to follow. In fact, it was the regional folk character of Jim Crow, named in “My Long Tail Blue,” who became the most famous character of early blackface theatre. While Dixon was having success with “My Long Tail Blue,” Rice began composing a song and dance about Jim Crow to which Dixon would respond in turn. Rice’s “Jim Crow” displayed a particular brand of animosity toward black dandies that would become a feature of blackface performance for decades to come.

Attacking the Dandy: Jim Crow and Zip Coon

Rice was born around 1808 and grew up “in New York’s most ethnically mixed neighborhood—the Seventh Ward—along the East River docks.”[44] After time spent working as a carpenter’s apprentice, by the mid-1820s Rice had turned to acting and was appearing in “supernumerary roles” in plays and by 1828 he was on the road full-time with a performance troupe, still performing bit-parts in various plays.[45] It was not long before Rice had stolen the show in his minor roles at the Park theatre in New York during 1828, drawing criticism from his senior actors who felt he distracted audiences from their shows, and by late 1828 Rice was on playbills for comic songs during interludes.[46] In 1830 Rice debuted a routine involving a catchy song and a quirky dance, possibly learnt from black performers at Catherine Market before Rice adapted it to the stage. The routine defined his career. By 22 September 1830, he was listed on a playbill for his performance of “Jim Crow,” a song Cockrell claims to have been instantly popular.[47] Two years later Rice was headlining with “Jim Crow” in New York. Between 1836 and 1841 Rice performed the song to acclaim in England, Ireland, Scotland, and France, returning several times to the United States, each time more popular than before.[48] While Rice’s popularity should not be underestimated—he is often incorrectly described as the first blackface performer, Jim Crow is the most well-known character from the period, and various versions of “Jim Crow” remained in the repertoire of blackface performers and folk bands for over a century—his popularity needs to be contextualized. In Cornish’s boycott call of blackface theatres he mentioned Rice by name and described him as “that most contemptible of all Buffoons,” and claimed, according to Nyong’o, that Rice’s trans-atlantic success had garnered support among Europeans for the US slave industry.[49] In other words, Rice’s popularity was not absolute and his routine was not as enlightened as scholars such as Lhamon believe. In fact, the persuasiveness of Rice’s racism may have been enabled by the slipperiness—the open-endedness—of the textual traces of his performances.

There are a number of versions of “Jim Crow.” Lhamon, in his collection of songs and plays performed by Rice, reproduces a version of “The Original Jim Crow” published in New York in 1832 (hereafter referred to as version A).[50] The version has no less than forty-four short, four-line verses, each followed by the chorus: “Weel about and turn about and do jis so, / eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.”[51] Another version, published in Philadelphia in the same year, contains nineteen verses (hereafter referred to as version B), only some the same as version A. Version B is subtitled “A Comic Song (Sung by Mr. Rice at the Chestnut Theatre).”[52] In both versions the chorus is the same, yet the verses differ. Early blackface songs were highly improvised and adapted to current affairs and the place of performance. There were, however, some constants in the performance, including the chorus, followed by a lengthy musical “turn around” in which the famous hopping and spinning dance-step would be performed, the twisted knee of the character, the raggedy costume, and the oscillation between stumbling soft-shoe shuffles and energetic, bounding leaps.

The wheeling and spinning nature of Jim Crow suggests that the song is playing with themes of racial inversion. The chorus—which could constitute half the performance—is an obvious example. Version A contains several verses where Jim Crow pities white people because they are not black:

Kase it dar misfortune,
And dey’d spend ebery dollar,
If dey only could be
Gentlemen ob colour.

It almost break my heart,
To see dem envy me,
An from my soul I wish dem,
Full as black as we.[53]

The narrator of version A continually slips between referring to the audience as white people (“I’m glad dat I’m a niggar, / An don’t you wish you was too”), and as black people (“Now my brodder niggars,” and, above, “as black as we”).[54] Version B—recalling Blue’s invitation to follow suit—invites the (white) audience to become (black) Jim Crows:

Den go ahed wite fokes
Don’t be slow,
Hop ober dubble trubble
Jump Jim Crow.[55]

While these various audience affiliations are indicative of both black and white audience members, it is also an indication of how audiences were actually invited to simultaneously associate and disassociate with blackness, or, to cite Huggins: “one could almost at will move in or out of the blackface character.”[56] This dis/association is, arguably, essential to an expropriation of black liberty—a taking hold, and removal, of the aesthetic of freedom. Like the narrative of “My Long Tail Blue,” the antics described in “Jim Crow” invite white working-class audiences to envy black freedom, despise the bourgeois, and enjoy violence toward black dandies. The lithographs on the front covers of song sheets for “Jim Crow” show the character with one bent, twisted knee, emphasising a deformed version of masculinity that served to alienate blackness and differentiate it from the ideals of white manliness held by the predominantly white, working-class audience (see, for example, Fig. 3).[57] Far from any hint of dignity shown in the character of Blue, the physical deformity of Crow acts simultaneously to explain his strange, leaping dance and to mark blackness as physically inferior to the white working-class audiences of the time.

“Jim Crow” is among the earliest cultural texts that are openly hostile to black dandies (a feature of Jim Crow’s character). In version A of “Jim Crow,” three verses relate Jim Crow’s encounter with a black dandy:

I met a Philadelphia niggar
Dress’d up quite nice and clean

. . . .

So I knocked down dis Sambo
And shut up his light,

. . . .

Says I go away you niggar
Or I’ll skin you like an eel.[58]

The acclamation of such violence rests uneasily against the actual violence that was being directed against well-dressed black people at the time. And yet the jokes continued as Rice’s rocketing popularity led to his own star-vehicle play Oh! Hush! Or, the Virginny Cupids. Rice’s Oh! Hush! sees the character of a black dandy, Sambo Johnson, discovering the affair of his sweetheart when he enters the kitchen where she works (and where his rival suitor, Gumbo Cuffee, has hidden). Cuffee, played by Rice, was a veritable Jim Crow: an upstart, dandy-hating, field-working, anti-authoritarian man. No script of the original performance remains, though Lhamon has edited a later adaptation by Charles White. For the purposes of this discussion, the following joke from Oh! Hush! is certainly in the spirit of “Jim Crow”:

CUFF: Excuse my interrupting you for I see you am busy readin’ de paper. Would you be so kind as to enlighten us upon de principal topicks ob de day?

JOHNSON: Well, Mr. Cuff, I hab no objection ‘kase I see dat you common unsophisticated gemmen hab not got edgemcation yourself, and you am ‘bliged to come to me who has. So spread around, you unintellumgent bracks, hear de news ob de day discoursed in de most fluid manner. (He reads out some local items.) Dar has been a great storm at sea and de ships hab been turned upside down.

CUFF: (looks at paper): Why, Mr. Johnson, you’ve got the paper upside down! (All laugh heartily).[59]

The joke is clearly on the pretentious, unintelligent, black dandy, and Cuff (a.k.a Jim Crow) is his foil. The dandy, now transformed into a despicable figure, represents a turn to what Lott labels as the scapegoating of the black dandy, a character embodying “the amalgamationist threat of abolition” and allegorically revealing “the class threat of those who were advocating for it [abolition].”[60] Such attacks on black dandyism reveal how “anticapitalist frustrations,” such as animosity toward upper-class social reformists and the abolitionist bourgeoisie, “stalled potentially positive racial feelings” to uncover “the viciously racist underside of these frustrations.”[61] That is, the dandy represented working-class bosses as well as the educated elite, some of whom had become leaders of the abolitionist movement and raised the possibility that worried white working-class people: that amalgamation and equality could eliminate racial difference among workers. To hate the dandy was to hate white reformers, black reformers, and black workers. And Jim Crow most certainly hated dandies. Through his immense success, the figure of the black dandy had been transformed.

Whether Rice’s extreme popularity forced a change in Dixon’s portrayal of the black dandy, or Dixon was a keen judge of social attitudes toward blackness, Dixon’s next song continued to alienate blackness with a performance that would strip the dignity of Blue completely. In 1834, Dixon first performed the song “on which his renown finally came to rest.”[62] It is debatable whether Dixon wrote the song, or whether various little-known singers had performed it for many years before, but, undoubtedly, it was Dixon who made “Zip Coon” the only song of the 1830s to compare in popularity with “Jim Crow.”

“Zip Coon” is a monstrous song that mimics certain elements of “Jim Crow.” The lyrics are often nonsensical, with the chorus consisting of “Oh, zip a duden duden duden, zip a duden day” repeated four times.[63] The opening verse leads to the chorus with the line: “Den over dubble trubble, Zip coon will jump.”[64] This line echoes Jim Crow’s insistence that white people “hop ober dubble trubble / Jump Jim Crow,” just as other lines in the song appropriate other elements of “Jim Crow.”[65] Both songs, for example, reference the 1814 battle of New Orleans, where the working-class hero of the late 1820s and early 1830s, President Andrew Jackson, had previously defeated the British forces led by Major General Edward Packenham. In the lithographs for the two songs, too, Zip mimics Crow (See Fig. 3 and Fig. 4).[66] Zip’s bent knee and arms are almost exact copies of Crow’s, and despite the obvious costume differences, Zip’s costume, like Crow’s, is exuberant and disorderly, superfluous and mis-matched. Zip, the lithograph and various appropriations within the text suggest, is Blue with a twist of Crow. Zip mimicked Crow’s invocation of popular, working-class nationalism. Perhaps Zip, as he jumped “over dubble trubble,” even incorporated a spinning leap similar to the one that Rice had made famous.

Fig3-JimCrow

Figure 3: “The Original Jim Crow” (Riley, c.1832). The character of an escaped slave, Jim Crow, with bent knee and foot and ragged clothes. Image courtesy of John Hay Library, Brown University.

Fig4-ZipCoon

Figure 4: “Zip Coon” (Hewitt, c.1834). The character of a buffoonish dandy, Zip Coon, with gnarled limbs in a stance similar to typical portrayals of Jim Crow. Image courtesy of John Hay Library, Brown University.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The representation of blackness in “Zip Coon” is just as disjointed as in “Jim Crow,” where the narration continually oscillates between descriptions of and association with blackness. This disarray is present in the narrative voice, which slips from the first to the third person. Sometimes it is a narrator talking about meeting Zip Coon, or describing him; sometimes it is Zip himself talking about politics, his mother or a girl who loves him. The sexual pursuits and freedoms of Blue and Crow remain, but the disassociation is made all the easier by Coon’s more obvious buffoonery. As with the previous songs, “Zip Coon” allowed audiences to seize the liberties of a wealthy, sexually active, luxuriant dandy, envy those freedoms and release them with a narrative of racial deformity. The presumed political injustice of racial equality and amalgamation, then, is derided allowing white working-class audiences to fantasize about their own importance as the most manly and necessary national type. It was a belief that motivated many to protest against abolition.

The twisting of the dandy—from Blue through Crow to Coon—was near absolute by the time anti-abolitionist rioters stormed a church, ransacked houses, and took siege of a theatre to disrupt a ritzy performance by renowned tragedian Edwin Forrest in 1834. Actors were driven off stage and the rioters threatened to destroy the premises until the theatre manager thought to subdue them by staging an impromtu performance catering to their ideals. He brought out an actor to sing none other than “Zip Coon.”[67] As the first three groups of minstrel scholars would have it, this riot and blackface resolution occurred at a time when early blackface performance was rebellious, encouraging cross-racial solidarity. And yet minstrelsy is here, as early as 1834 and just six years after Dixon revolutionized American theatre with “Long Tail Blue,” co-opted into an antiblack, anti-amalgamation pogrom. What was it about a blackface dandy that so calmed the crowd? Certainly not the suggestion of cross-racial affiliation. In fact, what the analysis of the blackface dandy in this article has shown is that, from the earliest representations on the blackface stage, the dandy was incorporated into a process of alienating blackness. And the dandy was rapidly twisted into a grotesque effigy to calm the minds of anti-abolitionist rioters. As Nyong’o and Jones have forcefully argued, the discourse of blackness under blackface saw the theft of potential narratives of black freedom and its transformation—disfigurement—into narratives to support white working-class freedoms.[68] But, following this expropriation and alienation, what of the potential “liberty awaiting activation”?

The changes in representation of the dandy from “My Long Tail Blue,” through “Jim Crow,” to “Zip Coon” indicates a much broader shift in the representation of blackness between 1828 and 1834. The distortion of the characterization of blackness stripped the black dandy of subversive potential and had a significant impact in real life for some early nineteenth-century Americans. Lewis reads firstly Jim Crow and then Zip Coon as figures growing out of white working-class hostility towards dignified black people who were slowly accumulating wealth:

If Crow served as the antithesis to Blue, Coon mixed their individual elements into a scoundrel composite, the gangling servant dressed in the master’s clothes. Coon combined the original and its reverse into a mockery of the former.[69]

Lewis effectively maps the evolution of the dandy figure as it related to attitudes towards blackness in Jacksonian America. Testing Lewis’ argument, it can be seen that Lewis is correct to imply racist characters mirrored (perhaps even provoked) real violence that was occurring against black people at the time (be it through direct physical intimidation or the institution of slavery). But the analysis in this article shows that Crow was not simply the “reverse” of Blue, but a heightened form of the animosity towards black people that was actually inherent in the portrayal of Blue. Such an analysis, in tandem with Lewis’ and Miller’s analysis of the history of real black dandies, refutes claims that blackface performance was revolutionary and radical despite (or besides) its racism. Even as blackface entertainment articulated the desires of the white working class or arguments against white dandies and class traitors, blackface also represented the broader shift occurring in white social attitudes toward blackness. Seen clearly in the shift from Blue to Zip, between 1828 and 1834 the iconography of racism that permeated the popular imagination of working-class Americans amplified subhuman, demonic and grotesque features, and it did so to ease white audiences’ concerns about abolition, amalgamation and other discourses of black freedom.

The figure of the blackface dandy became a cornerstone of professional blackface minstrelsy from the 1840s onward, and even into the nostalgic vaudevillian revivals of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The ways that the blackface dandy allowed for working-class animosity of the upper classes, for upper-class self-mockery, and for general mockery of black people proved popular for a more economically diverse audience than the rowdy working-class crowds of early blackface. For Lott, the diverse appeals of professional minstrelsy—many of them embodied in the character of the black dandy—closed down any cross-racial affiliation potentially inspired by blackface performance:

Energies directed against the state apparatus might too easily join those focused on black people. . . . Class straits may energize interracial cooperation, but they are also often likely to close down the possibility of interracial embrace.[70]

And yet, the re-readings of blackface minstrel history to account for black influences upon and responses to early blackface—applied in this paper to the blackface dandy—bring into question whether there was ever the potential for a social, inter-racial embrace with the blackface dandy as a catalyst. In fact, as the work of Brooks, Miller, and Barbara Webb show, it was not until black performers and activists such as George Walker and W.E.B. DuBois inhabited and transformed the blackface dandy stereotype that any possibility of overcoming, in a productive and unifying way, the white animosity toward black freedoms was possible.[71] Despite the best efforts of white performers to twist and alienate blackness, and despite the devastating impact of narratives of white supremacy staged through blackface performance for half a century, the surplus of black liberty was, and arguably still is, awaiting activation in these stage types, responses, and texts. Recognizing this is an essential step toward undoing the white racial privilege created in early minstrel representations. And framing early blackface texts and characters as responses to narratives of black freedom will expose them for what they are: illusions of white control.


Benjamin Miller is a lecturer in the School of Letters, Art and Media at the University of Sydney. His research examines the relationship between representations of race in the US and Australia. He completed his PhD thesis in 2010 on representations of blackness and Aboriginality in American and Australian culture and has published on representations of Aboriginal people in Australian theatre, cinema and literature, and on the writing of Aboriginal author David Unaipon.


[1] Mikko Tuhkanen, “Of Blackface and Paranoid Knowledge: Richard Wright, Jacques Lacan and the Ambivalence of Black Minstrelsy,” Diacritics 31, no. 2 (2001): 13.

[2] See Carl Wittke, Tambo and Bones: A History of the American Minstrel Stage (Durham: Duke University Press, 1930); Constance Rourke, American Humor: A Study of the National Character (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1931).

[3] Tuhkanen, “Of Blackface,” 16. See also Ralph Ellison, “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke” [1958], in Shadow and Act (New York: Vintage, 1964), 45-59; Nathan Huggins, Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971); Robert Toll, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974).

[4] Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). See also W.T. Lhamon Jr., Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998); Dale Cockrell, Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997); William Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Ante-bellum American Popular Culture (Urbana: Illinois University Press, 1999).

[5] Lott, Love and Theft, 7-8.

[6] Tuhkanen, “Of Blackface,” 16.

[7] Ibid., 13-14.

[8] Daphne Brooks, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 (London: Duke University Press, 2006); Tavia Nyong’o, The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009); Douglas Jones Jr., “Black Politics but Not Black People: Rethinking the Social and ‘Racial’ History of Early Minstrelsy,” TDR: The Drama Review 57, no. 2 (2013): 21-37.

[9] Brooks, Bodies in Dissent, 28.

[10] Ibid., 27-28.

[11] Quoted in Nyong’o, Amalgamation Waltz, 120.

[12] Quoted in Nyong’o, Amalgamation Waltz, 123.

[13] Nyong’o, Amalgamation Waltz, 8.

[14] W.T. Lhamon Jr., Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 8. According to Lhamon, “The [early blackface] scripts had enough play to make them particularly useful for organizing heterogeneous publics. In flocking to see Jim Crow, disparate types discovered their mutual affinities. Around Jim Crow’s mask the dispersed riffraff of a quickening industrialism began to act out their own parts in a new play in which the insubordinates were mixing among themselves but not melding with the previously dominant” (8).

[15] Cockrell, Demons, 161. For Cockrell, as early blackface transformed into minstrelsy around 1843, “Caught in the middle, between class and race, white common people had to devise both upward and downward processes and rituals” (161).

[16] Nyong’o, Amalgamation Waltz, 8.

[17] Ibid., 8-9.

[18] Lhamon, Raising Cain, 34.

[19] Lhamon, Jump Jim Crow, 30. Lhamon suggests that the blackface characterization of Jim Crow provided the “template” for a “transracial affiliation [that] was virtually unprecedented” (30).

[20] Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 41.

[21] Jones, “Black Politics,” 25. Emphasis in original.

[22] Ibid., 27-28.

[23] Ibid., 17.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Monica Miller, Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 101.

[26] Ibid., 102.

[27] Ibid., 101.

[28] Ibid., 105.

[29] Cockrell, Demons, 96.

[30] Lott, Love and Theft, 22.

[31] Barbara Lewis, “Daddy Blue: The Evolution of the Dark Daddy,” in Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Minstrelsy, ed. Annemarie Bean, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 257.

[32] Quoted in ibid.

[33] Cockrell, Demons, 96.

[34] Nyong’o, Amalgamation Waltz, 120.

[35] As an aside, it should be noted that the Jim Crow character here was drawn from regional, oral folk tales that had been circulating for decades before the character was appropriated and adapted into the exemplar early blackface character performed by T.D. Rice. Lhamon, Raising Cain, 180.

[36] Lewis, “Daddy Blue,” 259-60.

[37] Ibid., 258-9.

[38] “My Long Tail Blue” (New York: Atwill, c.1827).

[39] “My Long Tail Blue” (New York: Firth, c. 1827).

[40] Miller, Slaves to Fashion, 81.

[41] Lott, Love and Theft, 25-26.

[42] Nyong’o, Amalgamation Waltz, 72.

[43] Lewis, “Daddy Blue,” 264.

[44] Lhamon, Jump Jim Crow, 1.

[45] Cockrell, Demons, 62.

[46] Lhamon, Jump Jim Crow, 32-33.

[47] Cockrell, Demons, 64.

[48] Ibid., 65-66.

[49] Nyong’o, Amalgmation Waltz, 121.

[50] “The Original Jim Crow,” (New York: Riley, c.1832), republished in Lhamon, Jump Jim Crow, 95-102.

[51] Lhamon, Jump Jim Crow, 96.

[52] “Jim Crow: A Comic Song (Sung by Rice at the Chestnut St Theatre),” (Philadelphia: Edgar, c.1832).

[53] Lhamon, Jump Jim Crow, 99.

[54] Lhamon, Jump Jim Crow, 98. It is also important here to make a note about the language of the sources I am quoting. I quote some hateful words in this article. In choosing to include these words I am following the argument of Jabari Asim in The N Word: “the word ‘nigger’ serves . . . as a linguistic extension of white supremacy, the most potent part of a language of oppression that has changed over time from overt to coded.” For Asim, the “N word” and other derogatory words are hurtful, but open identification of such language helps to identify moments of racism while also acknowledging the close relationship between language and privilege. For more, see Jabari Asim, The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why (New York: Houghton, 2007), 4.

[55] “Jim Crow: A Comic Song,” stanza 18.

[56] Huggins, Harlem Renaissance, 257.

[57] “The Original Jim Crow,” n.p.

[58] Lhamon, Jump Jim Crow, 98.

[59] Ibid., 150.

[60] Lott, Love and Theft, 134.

[61] Ibid., 135.

[62] Cockrell, Demons, 99.

[63] “Zip Coon: A Favorite Comic Song (Sung by G.W. Dixon),” (New York: Hewitt, 1834).

[64] Ibid., stanza 1.

[65] “Jim Crow: A Comic Song,” stanza 18.

[66] “The Original Jim Crow,” n.p.; “Zip Coon,” n.p.

[67] Lott, Love and Theft, 132-3.

[68] Nyong’o, Amalgamation Waltz, 122; Jones, “Black Politics,” 25.

[69] Lewis, “Daddy Blue,” 259.

[70] Lott, Love and Theft, 237.

[71] Brooks, Bodies, 207-17; Miller, Slaves to Fashion, 137-45; Barbara Webb, “The Black Dandyism of George Walker: A Case Study in Genealogical Method,” The Drama Review 45, no. 4 (2001): 7-24.


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“Twisting the Dandy: The Transformation of the Blackface Dandy in Early American Theatre” by Benjamin Miller

ISNN 2376-4236

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 27, Number 3 (Fall 2015)
©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Editorial Board:

Co-Editors: Naomi J. Stubbs and James F. Wilson
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve

Editorial Staff:

Managing Editor: Jim Bredeson
Editorial Assistant: Kyueun Kim

Advisory Board:

Michael Y. Bennett
Kevin Byrne
Bill Demastes
Jorge Huerta
Amy E. Hughes
Esther Kim Lee
Kim Marra
Beth Osborne
Jordan Schildcrout
Robert Vorlicky
Maurya Wickstrom
Stacy Wolf

Table of Contents:

  • “Twisting the Dandy: The Transformation of the Blackface Dandy in Early American Theatre” by Benjamin Miller
  • “West of Broadway: the Rockefeller Foundation and American Theatre in the 1930s” by Malcolm Richardson
  • “Arthur Miller: Reception and Influence in China” by Wu Wenquan, Chen Li, and Zhu Qinjuan

www.jadtjournal.org
jadt@gc.cuny.edu

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
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