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

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