Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture
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by John Strausbaugh, Foreword by Darius James
Format: Hardcover, 224pp
Pub. Date: June 2006
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
Reviewed by Paige Turner
Blackface and minstrelsy have always been equal opportunity employers and
offenders. Sammy Davis Jr. did the blackface thing along with Judy Garland, Bing
Crosby, and most famously, Al Jolson. The tradition is carried on today by
entertainers like Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger and the entire Wayans family.
Author John Strausbaugh explores why this fascinating and repulsive phenomenon
continues to resonate in Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult &
Imitation in American Popular Culture. He states, "Blackface is still alive. Its
impact and derivations -- including Black performers in "whiteface" can be seen
all around us".
Black Like You provides a provocative history of entertainment, race relations, and politics in the United States. It is almost breathtakingly good in its spot-on analysis of American popular culture. Strasbaugh offers a palatable, accessible treatment that encourages readers to explore this thorny topic from the comfort of their living room chair. Despite Strausbaugh's highfalutin vocabulary he is earnest, engaging and presents excellent examples to underscore his points, weaving the threads of history, race, entertainment, politics, and communications into a meaningful explanation of who Americans are as a people and how we came to be.
The whole idea of blackface remains confusing, because the boundaries of acceptable racial humor fluctuate hourly. Does blackface celebrate or mock black Americans? Interestingly control of images of blackness has mostly been in the hands of whites.
In the 1830s minstrelsy was a way of life akin to rock and roll for white American youth, exhibiting their rowdiness and bawdiness in a liberating way nothing else could. Minstrel shows bloomed like dandelions, recalling a falsely idyllic image of Dixieland during a time when America was becoming increasingly industrial and urban. Americans were also befuddled and wary of changes in social order caused by newly freed slaves and new European immigrants.
Minstrelsy keeps resurfacing, resonating in TV shows like Martin, The Parkers, Sanford and Son, Good Times, and Laugh In. In this new millennium remnants of minstrelsy are seen in hip-hop videos. The latest variation -- whiteface minstrelsy -- is a mainstay of performers like Eminem.
Black Like You delivers all the qualities that make for pleasurable, worthwhile reading. The book's lack of an index is irksome, preventing readers from zoning in on topics that pique their interest. Fortunately Strassbaugh's witty and intelligent writing is worth the trip.
Race relations in America is a prickly-touchy subject, mostly handled gently or evaded altogether, but it is indisputable that America and the world are elevated by the cultural contributions of African Americans. Black Like You reinforces that the lion's share of our joy stems from embracing the black part of America's identity.
Read Another Review of
Black Like You
on AALBC.com by Kam Williams