The new book "Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy From Slavery to Hip-Hop," by Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen, explores the history of minstrelsy, dissecting how it became the most popular form of American entertainment before vaudeville and identifying how elements of the form are present in today's entertainment. In an interview, Taylor, 49, a senior editor with Chicago Review Press, and Austen, 43, editor of Roctober magazine (and an occasional Printers Row Journal contributor), discussed the book. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Why did you decide to write this book?
Taylor: I got the idea for the book when I was listening to Ethel Waters' version of "Underneath the Harlem Moon" and how she transformed this racist song into a triumphant song. Then, I looked at what other African-American artists did with (the song) and I started thinking about how African-American artists feel toward racist material that originated with whites.
Austen: The material made us uncomfortable, but the benefit to that was the material made so many people uncomfortable that there hadn't been much work done on it and there was a real opportunity to look at things with fresh eyes and write things that hadn't been written before.
Did it make either of you uncomfortable because you are both white?
Taylor: We can't change the color of our skin. We are interested in the subject, and the fact that we are white is not something we can help. Are we supposed to just shy away from it because of our skin color? That doesn't seem right. Yes, it made us uncomfortable, but the subject matter made us uncomfortable, too.
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What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research?
Taylor: I was really surprised when I started researching Zora Neale Hurston. I knew what Richard Wright had written about her, and I thought I was going to explode this and say Wright was wrong and Zora Neale Hurston completely turned the minstrel thing on its head. Then I found out that, no, Zora Neale Hurston was intimately involved with minstrel shows. She had written plays that were directly descended from minstrelsy, she had praised minstrel performers and she had warm feelings about the black minstrel traditions.
Austen: When I was studying blackface minstrel shows, meaning minstrel shows where black performers would wear blackface and do stereotypical comedy, I started looking at the Rabbit's Foot Minstrels, who were the most popular group in the early 20th century. I was able to find documentation of their shows touring into the 1960s with their blackface comedy intact. They're a very famous troupe mainly because of all the blues people who were in it, including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Ida Cox. I was writing about the repercussions and influence of blackface minstrel shows on the 20th century, and to realize that for most of the 20th century you could just go see a blackface minstrel show with an all-black cast was pretty surprising.
Did minstrelsy bring aspects of African-American culture into the mainstream?
Taylor: In some small ways, yes. Most of minstrelsy was of white origin. White minstrels would take material wherever they found it, and if they found black performers who did something that they thought was great, they used it in their act. Minstrelsy was really based mostly on what whites were thinking about blacks rather than what blacks actually did.
That's not quite so true when you get to the dances. In the dances, you do find a lot of African-American influence. African-American dance had a real triumphant moment on the minstrel stage.
How did minstrel performances influence the birth of rock 'n' roll?
Austen: Louis Jordan, who was trained as a Rabbit's Foot Minstrel, was one of the architects of rock 'n' roll. His jump blues helped set up the crossover between black and white pop music. One of his biggest hits was "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens," which is literally a minstrel show punch line. He used to smile and make big eyes onstage. He was a dignified man and was very intelligent, but his band mates would tease him and call him "Stepin Fetchit" because that was part of his shtick.
One of the ways that rock 'n' roll and hard R&B got delivered to the mainstream was through this guy, who was trained in a minstrel show and used that training to do so. The other thing to point out is that minstrel shows were the most popular American entertainment prior to vaudeville. There's a lot of music in those shows, so the heart of American pop music was in these minstrel shows. If you wrote songs, this is where you wrote songs for.
What about hip-hop?
Austen: Most of the book's hip-hop chapter is addressing the critics who have accused gangster rappers and Southern rappers of being modern-day minstrels. As far as the gangster rappers, there were numerous critics and several congressional hearings where it was stated on the congressional record that these entertainers were reviving minstrelsy.
That's really not a great historical analogy. They are (calling rappers minstrels) because gangster rappers are playing with stereotypes of criminality, of virility and of the violence that people associate with black men. These were not the stereotypes that were used on the minstrel stage. The minstrel stage was about African-American men being harmless, lazy, funny and maybe tricksters. Even though there is humor in hip-hop, the violence isn't supposed to be a punch line. The violence is often supposed to be very serious.
Really, when people call rappers minstrels, it's weaponizing the word. They are trying to really hurt the person by calling them a minstrel. (They use that word) in part because there is almost no profanity that you could use against a rapper that they wouldn't use against themselves.
Courtney Crowder covers the local literary scene for Printers Row Journal.
By Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen
W.W. Norton, 368 pages, $26.95Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun