The classic entertainment trope of the happy minstrel refuses to die. For generations, the biggest form of American entertainment was the minstrel show, in which actors (both white and black) made themselves up with exaggerated and blackened features, spoke in a comic dialect, and played the fool. In the minstrel show version of America, black people were full of personality but ultimately harmless simpletons. They loped and jived and ate watermelon and possessed a childlike naïveté about the world. In the minstrel version of America, blacks gleefully traded the misery and poverty of their everyday lives for the opportunity to sing and dance and make white folks smile with a catch phrase or a lively “coon song.” Minstrels love telling tales to everyone they meet. They tattle on the misdeeds of others while they themselves are judged by audiences for their foolishness.
Here’s a little Original Coon for you. In the 1890s, former slave George W. Johnson recorded “The Whistling Coon,” and it became one of the first best-selling singles by an African-American the United States. Contemporary audiences thought the inhumane lyric (“He’s a limpy, happy, chuckle-headed huckleberry nig/…With a cranium like a big baboon”) was hilarious, but they also probably saw it as a harmless goof.
Here’s another standard minstrel show from the radio days. If anything, it’s milder than what Americans would have paid to see in the years after Reconstruction. Although contemporary audiences thought they were merely laughing at funny characters, it’s pretty obvious to our ears that they were participating in a dehumanizing exercise:
Minstrel shows—and I’m getting to a point here—made the privileged class feel a whole lot better about the American black underclass. After all, if the blacks were so docile and happy, then slavery and the Civil War and Jim Crow and peonage and segregation must’ve not been that damaging, huh? Inequality all comes out in the wash, right?
It was no accident that true minstrelsy died out with civil rights equality.
But it’s not gone. It lives on in new forms. Now we use “documentary” moments or “reality” shows to revel in amusing and dehumanizing stereotypes, and the performers, who exclusively belong to the minority, are still in on the gag.
We don’t need minstrel shows or vaudeville now. We have YouTube.
While not overtly racist (I mean, no one is coming out and saying that black people are lazy or immoderate), there’s more than a suggestion of indolence and buffoonery in bronchitis-afflicted Sweet Brown, an overnight mini-celebrity based on millions of views:
What are we laughing at now, exactly? A stereotype of poor Americans? A stereotype of poor Americans who happen to be black? The old minstrel shows are not replicated, of course, but many of the derisive elements are still there (it’s not watermelon, it’s a cold pop in the middle of the night), and we know we should be laughing at them.
These modern minstrels even sing for our amusement. Antoine Dodson’s “Bed Intruder” segment (below) was translated into the modern analog to a Post-Millennial Coon Song with a spate of auto-tuned clips which giddily trumpeted the announcement that someone was running around the projects raping everyone:
Are we laughing at the lunacy of these “Lawd have mercy” characters, or are we feeling a form of veiled class superiority? Is it a little bit of both? Is laughing at oversized stereotypes simply something human beings need to do? Shakespeare’s fools might testify to that.
I suppose the rebuttal will go like this: No one is putting them up to it. That, however, delves into much deeper sociological questions. Entertainment history is full of clever minorities who co-opted the stereotypes of their eras to make a buck and break new ground, from Broadway headliner Bert Williams to Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel (whose performances laid it on thick but nevertheless descended from the tradition), both of whom became synonymous with their servile onstage personas even though they actually possessed a brilliance that took decades to fully recognize.
The crucial ingredient, to me, is that just like minstrel shows, these updated YouTube personalities are manufactured. They’re created for consumption, and just as in minstrel shows, the people appearing in them are far wiser than the personas they “play.” The Antoine Dodson that the world laughed at — the one we wanted to exist — was a hyperbolic ghetto queen, but the real Antoine Dodson knew exactly what he was doing. He made a tidy income (and bought new house) off his moment of “Bed Intruder” fame and sold a song version on iTunes.
Stooping is good business. Sweet Brown is nothing like the character she plays when she’s whooping it up for local news cameras. Like Hattie McDaniel, she ditches the do-rag when not performing. Brown is sensible, put together, soft-spoken — and converting her catch phrases into tee-shirts, local TV commercials, and paid appearances. Sweet Brown the businesswoman is nothing like Sweet Brown the loopy YouTube over-sharer.
But it’s too late. Here’s Courtney Barnes, who saw the local cameras and rushed to put on her minstrel act, clutching her proverbial pearls for the amusement of any bystander who might be able to turn her into a meme.
Scholars have linked rap culture to the minstrel tradition (here’s Stanley Crouch on that, and he’s hardly the only person to draw a parallel), and artists from Spike Lee to Kander and Ebb have turned the form against itself. I can’t speak to the psychological purpose of pure minstrelsy (keeping others down, neutralizing fear of The Other?), but as someone who is fascinated by entertainment history, I notice patterns. And I do not think that minstrelsy is restricted to African-Americans anymore. When Amos & Andy skulked out of our pop culture and black Americans were integrated, our taste for stereotypes expanded to include our newest recognized group of second-glass citizens.
Gay fashionista Carson Kressley made his name with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a show built on the patently untrue stereotype that every gay man is good at cooking, fashion, and decorating. Once he was liberated from that structure, he parlayed his amped-up persona into a comfortable career as a pop culture staple whose core message has been tolerance and diversity. Gay minstrels remain everywhere, and many of them also advance messages of tolerance — something Victorian black minstrels never did.
Just as black performers did (and, it could be argued after a Tyler Perry film marathon, still do), gay people can be found participating in the projection of group-based clichés. The contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race might say they are in control of their outsized gay stereotypes, but that’s not to say the audience is. The performances may be post-modern, but the impulse to laugh at them is as old as degradation.
Drag Race would be dull entertainment if the contestants approached drag with the clinical sobriety of scholars. The caricature is the event. And Brown and Dodson would still be anonymous (albeit less well off) if they had relayed their eyewitness accounts to those news cameras with calm and detached tempers.
Societal outcasts transform mockery into prosperity: Isn’t American entertainment fascinating?
UPDATE, 18 March 2013: More proof that our objects of derision have learned to harness the joke into income: Today it was reported that Sweet Brown (whose real name is Kimberly Wilkins) is suing Apple and a radio show in U.S. District Court for $15 million over revenue for a song created from her local news rant. Since the song was removed upon request, it’s reportedly not likely she will get any money, but her profit diligence is duly noted. This modern minstrel is in charge of her own destiny.