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BLAME IT ON THE MINSTRELS?

 

By Mark Anthony Neal, PhD.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010.

One of the high points of the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards Show, was Jamie Foxx’s and T-Pain’s performance of their Grammy Award winning single “Blame It.” The duo were joined by guitarist Slash, and legendary rapper Doug E. Fresh (and Foxx’s sister Diondra Dixon), in one of the Grammy’s more effective mash-up performances of the night. Introduced by Foxx’s The Soloist co-star Robert Downey Jr. “Blame It,” seemingly electrified the crowd—George Clinton raising his hands being among the more memorable images in the crowd.

Yet my own enjoyment of the performance was tainted by the little “bourgeois Negro” in my head that viewed the performance—particularly T-Pain in his white tuxedo and long white wig—as little more than further evidence that contemporary black popular culture nothing but a minstrel show.

Of course that little bourgeois Negro in my head is not simply the product of my imagination but the product of a contemporary cultural discourse that continues to police representations of blackness in the public sphere, be it the film Precious, the music of Lil Wayne or countless reality shows that feature black cast members. As I’ve
argued myself in a different context, some forms of contemporary black popular culture function as “digitized” blackface.

Lacking the cork that some early 20th Century performers like Bert Williams and whites such as Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson had to don in order to authenticate their performances of “Negroes,” nevertheless these contemporary examples are produced with a eye towards a white consumer public that is rarely disturbed by the notion that the blackness they see on the screen is nothing but a performance.

Function though is not intent and too often the cultural gatekeepers of the “race” fail (including myself) to make that distinction, often reproducing the same troubling readings of black culture that we often attribute to white audiences, where class, gender, and ethnicity (can we think of “niggers” as some iteration of an ethnic enclave within Black America?) become the default positions for normalcy, instead of race.

This is a point that Louis Chude-Sokei argues in his book
The Last ‘Darky’: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy and the African-Diaspora. Writing about criticisms directed at black-face performer Bert Williams, Chude-Sokei observes, “there is no allowance here for the subtleties of his performance and its possibilities for multiple readings; indeed the idea that any subtlety could exist would have struck [critics] as being inconceivable.” (19) Chude-Sokei prefers to read Williams and many black minstrel performers within the context of trickster figures like The Signifying Monkey (Esu Elegbara) noting that in the post-Emancipation era the black trickster becomes a figure of “exile, of endless translation and an endless deferral of meaning.” (109)

In light of Chude-Sokei’s observations, what often disturbs me most about the current discourses around black popular culture is that they too often foreclose the possibilities that there are other meanings to be derived from black popular culture other than those that are most palpable within America’s racist history.

Jamie Foxx is an interesting figure in this regard, given that since his debut on In Living Color in the early 1990s, he has shown a particular gift at mimicry. No one, though, has ever mistaken Foxx for Wanda (from In Living Color), Jamie King (from The Jamie Foxx Show) or Ray Charles, yet there is an element of authenticity that some would like to attach to his performance of “Blame It.” This dynamic is one of the burdens that hip-hop, in particular, continues to bear even some of the most visible icon of the genres have long provided evidence that their musical personas are just that.

One of the things that rarely get considered in reading performances like “Blame It,” is what Chudo-Sokei calls the “economy of pleasure in an embrace of one’s own stereotype.” (99) As Chude-Sokei writes, “One can imagine the threatening and liberating appeal of a black minstrel to a black audience.

In light of Du Bois’s neo-Victorianism and the middle-class politics of assimilationist nationalism, in the context of a growing hegemony of the black church, this figure is an explicit and sweet threat, much like the pimp or thug or ‘gangsta’ icons in the present day context of black media masquerade.” (99) If we replace “Du Bois’s neo-Victorianism” with Obama-era respectability, Jamie Foxx and T-Pain’s performance of “Blame It” not only makes more sense, but seems necessary.

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