Blackface, Reconsidered

Blackface, Reconsidered

Blackface, Reconsidered

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 31 2009 5:20 PM

Blackface, Reconsidered

I wrote

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 about Sophie Tucker, whose earliest recordings, some almost a century old, have been released for the first time in decades on a

. I describe Tucker's rise from the burlesque and variety stage circuit to vaudeville stardom and note her origins as a "coon shouter"—a performer of blackface songs.


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In

Salon

, Sady Doyle has written a response to my

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Times

article titled "

?" Doyle says some generous things about my piece. She also writes: "Rosen begins his piece with a list of Tucker's nicknames, but leaves one out: 'Queen of the Coon Shouters.' Her fame came through minstrelsy." Later, Doyle concludes that "without letting Tucker off the hook," the singer's eventual abandonment of blackface performance and "move towards authenticity" makes her "worthy of lasting consideration."

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Strictly speaking, Doyle is wrong on the facts: Sophie Tucker's fame didn't "come through minstrelsy." Her stardom arrived only after she stopped wearing burnt cork, sometime around 1909. (Also, for the record, an earlier draft of my

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piece included the mention of a different Tucker nickname: "A Revelation in Coonology." It was removed by my

Times

editors for space considerations.) More important, despite my obvious enthusiasm for Tucker's music, I'm totally uninterested in the notion of her heroism, feminist or otherwise.



What really troubles me about Doyle's post is this question of whether Sophie Tucker is "worthy of consideration." Are we to conclude that had Tucker not stopped performing coon songs, she would be unworthy of consideration? What about an entertainer like Al Jolson, one of the greatest and most influential singers of the 20th century, whose

took place behind the blackface mask? What, for that matter, about

, the first African-American pop star, who

? Are they beyond the bounds of acceptability?



It is crudely ahistorical to condemn—or to speak of "letting off the hook"—an individual singer for performing racial burlesque in 1908. Blackface minstrelsy was the pre-eminent form of entertainment in the United States for most of the 19th-century and remained wildly popular for at least the first few decades of the 20th. (And as

fans learned last night from Roger Sterling's rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home," minstrelsy stuck around long after actors stopped blacking-up in Hollywood movies.) A growing

has shown that minstrelsy was complex—a show business institution and a socio-cultural phenomenon far bigger and more complicated than any one practitioner. Yes, blackface comedy was racist and appalling, and people should never stop saying so. It is also a key to cracking the code of American culture.



It's especially important to understanding popular music, whose history—from Stephen Foster to Tucker to

to Janis Joplin to Mick Jagger to Eminem and on and on

ad infinitum

—is enmeshed with blackface tradition. For years, minstrelsy was such a hot-button topic that scholars dared not touch it. This is one reason why important musicians like Tucker have received little serious attention in the last many decades.



Now, we are realizing that minstrelsy wasn't just a sin, it was a musical seedbed. In the

Times

piece, I point out that the rowdily comic coon shouting mode was transformed, by performers like Tucker, into a new kind of vocal style—that minstrelsy begat pop music modernity. What's more, minstrelsy wasn't just blackface: Tin Pan Alley songwriters were equal opportunity offenders, churning out Irish sendups, Jewish "Yid" songs, Italian "wop" tunes, and other ethnic dialect lampoons. This music, by contemporary standards, is offensive; Doyle may wish to plug her ears. Those interested in history, not "heroes," will want—are compelled—to listen.


Jody Rosen is critic at large for T: The New York Times Style Magazine.