Dissertation – Chapter 1 – Introduction (1of 3)

Post it Notes like I used copiously while writing my dissertation. Image by Pexels on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/en/post-it-notes-sticky-notes-note-1284667/
Post it Notes like I used copiously while writing my dissertation. Image by Pexels on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/en/post-it-notes-sticky-notes-note-1284667/

© Copyright by
Roshaunda D. Cade



My dissertation explores mid-Nineteenth Century racial crossovers, deceits, and transgressions as singularly American performance phenomena.  I investigate how, through blackface minstrelsy and racial passing, slave mothers gain access to the rights and privileges of American citizenship.  Blackface minstrelsy and racial passing become the obverse and reverse of the same coin.  Both deal equally with, to borrow Eric Lott’s phrase, love and theft: love of what the other side of the coin has to offer (perhaps also love of self to want what the other side of the coin offers) and the theft of those benefits, whether they are real or imagined.  When performed in tandem passing and minstrelsy combine to create a new performance I term minstrel passing.  Minstrel passing ultimately allows greater access to American freedoms for slave mothers than either passing or minstrelsy do alone.  The following texts comprise the primary sites of my investigation:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Harriet Beecher Stowe; Clotel (1853), William Wells Brown; The Bondwoman’s Narrative (2002), Hannah Crafts; Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), Mark Twain.  Through these texts, I discuss how black women use motherhood and the acts of passing and minstrelsy as feminist tools to shape American identity.

During the 1850s, the U.S. lacked a true national identity (Raimon 4).  Few things united U.S. citizens, while politics, geography, and slavery effectively had separated one country into two. This uncertainty prompted the U.S. government and U.S. residents to define who did and did not belong and to determine what citizens looked like.  The mid-Nineteenth Century introduced new national census concerns.  For the first time in 1850, the census attempted to qualify how black black people were (Raimon 2).  It provided mulatto as a category but provided no definition of that term and relied on surveyors’ vision to make that determination (Davis 11-2).   This speaks to the mid-Nineteenth Century as a time of racial ambiguity when laws and social customs regarding race often were transgressed. 

Defining, determining, and even seeing who was American and who was not became more difficult, so the country tried to delineate racial percentages.  F. James Davis notes that the “one drop rule” defining anyone with “one drop” of black blood as black existed well before the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson case, but he also avers that different courts limited blackness to 1/8, 1/16, or 1/32 black lineage (15).  A Virginia law stated that people who had at least 1/4 black ancestry were legally black (Finkelman 245).  No national law defined who was and who was not black.  And the confusion of laws literally made slaves out of people who were legally white (e.g.: a slave with only 1/16 black ancestry would have been legally white in Virginia if not for being a slave).  The competing directives of the various laws regarding race and the understanding that children follow the condition of the mother, if the mother is a slave, made it nearly impossible to determine legally who was white, black, slave, or free. 

The same year also enacted the Compromise of 1850.  This compromise, intended to preserve the Union, included a revised Fugitive Slave Law that demanded that U.S. citizens aid in the capture of runaway slaves and levied harsher punishments for those who did not comply.  This legislation made the early 1850s a time when looking and acting like a citizen became crucial to attaining and maintaining freedom.  One way for many fugitive slaves to appear more like citizens was to employ racial passing and disappear into the white landscape.

Also during this time of national indeterminacy, blackface minstrelsy grew to become the most popular national entertainment.  William J. Mahar positions minstrelsy as a uniquely American phenomenon, vital to antebellum culture, that grew during the time when the US lacked a national culture (28, 1, 9).  Rooted in stereotypical caricatures of blacks, white men donned black face paint to sing and dance their way into iconic American culture.  Blackface minstrel acts simultaneously blurred the line between white and black while they heightened the ability of white men (understood as US citizens) to try on race as a creative outlet.

And while white men discovered new ways to exercise citizenship during this period lacking a national culture, white women fought to become included in U.S. citizenship.  While nearly a century had passed since the Declaration of Independence pronounced the U.S. a country where all men were created free and equal, many U.S. women felt anything but.  Feeling degraded by laws that favored men, women argued that their position in society paralleled that of slaves. Barred from almost all aspects of the public sphere, U.S. women joined forces in 1850 to begin demanding equal rights as American citizens at the first convention of the National Women’s Movement.  This meeting enjoined women to demand their rights as individuals and to function fully as citizens of the U.S.  In a letter addressed to the 1850 Women’s Rights Convention, Mrs. Abby H. Price writes that women and men should be “absolutely equal in their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Proceedings). In the middle of the Nineteenth Century, women began claiming their rights as citizens, while citizens simultaneously curtailed the rights of slaves. 

This mid-century collision of restructured census categories, increasingly confusing racial definitions, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, the emergence of blackface minstrelsy as a national form of entertainment, and the Women’s Rights Movement created a unique atmosphere for American women, black and white.  To enjoy the benefits of citizenship, women had to become like white men, and the 1850s offered a variety of ways for women to accommodate citizenship.  One of the avenues, therefore, for slave women, and particularly slave mothers, to find freedom and enjoy the privileges of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness inherent in U.S. citizenship was to become white men via performances of racial passing and blackface minstrelsy.

Defining terms is necessary to understanding the connections between citizenship, minstrelsy and passing.  Feminist scholar Eloise A. Buker defines citizens as “hybrids” who hold each other accountable for “examining public actions, for correcting injustices, and for promoting fair practices” (166, 8).  For Buker, “citizenship means taking responsibility for public life” (8).  She argues, “[h]umans need citizenship to develop themselves as persons.  Public life with others (especially others who differ and so challenge each other) makes it possible for individuals to develop their full potential” (27).  Buker’s definitions expand the idea of citizen to include all people in the community, not just the ones who create, enforce, and enjoy protection under the law.  She further argues that citizens should be free to choose how to perform their subjectivity (156).  Lastly, Buker describes rights as being “created through informal daily discussions about the law” (29).  So rights, then, are more than concepts clearly delineated by the Constitution and other legal means.  Rights also include day-to-day interplay between citizens. 

I use Buker’s definition of citizen because her feminist theory supports my reading of the texts, as well as the budding feminism of the era.  Additionally, I rely on Buker because the Constitution, which grants citizens rights and privileges, never clearly defines the term citizen (Green 40).  In 1821 US Attorney General William Wirt gave the opinion that by citizen the Constitution includes only those “who enjoyed the full and equal privileges of white Citizens” (Green 50-1).  This definition of citizen embraces only white men and omits all other inhabitants of the country from enjoying the privileges of citizenship, which generally stand as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  I maintain that people who do not qualify for a constitutional understanding of citizen become citizens under the aegis of Buker when they strive for the privileges afforded to white male citizens.  In the texts under investigation, these bids for citizenship and its privileges happen largely through the deceptions of blackface minstrelsy and racial passing.

I build my definition of blackface minstrelsy on the work done by several theorists and historians.  Historian W.T. Lhamon, Jr. suggests that blackface minstrel performances are the first distinctly American forms of plays and musicals (25).  Additionally, Lhamon posits that blackface minstrelsy underlies much of American popular and canonical cultures (2).  Lhamon’s work emphasizes performance as a vital component of mainstream American cultures and intimates that white performances of blackness are common, acceptable, and perhaps necessary to our society.  Similar to Lhamon, Krin Gabbard, cultural and literary historian, argues that “familiar representations” of blackness, as perceived by whites, so permeate American cultures that “it is more difficult to find white performers who do not imitate black people than it is to find those who do” (19).  This form of minstrelsy, then, does not require the performers to black up; instead, they “practice minstrelsy in whiteface” (9, 19).  Removing the black paint from minstrel performance opens the practice to a broader base of players, because it gives all whites, and many non-whites, access to accommodating blackness, not just those who perform musical theater.  Regarding Lhamon’s and Gabbard’s works together reveals minstrelsy, with its subtle removal of the physical need to black up, as an American cultural fixture.

Historian Jim Cullen defines minstrels as white men in blackface who pretend to be black and “pride themselves on the verisimilitude with which they re-create African-American life and customs.  But these are not simple acts of imitation or homage – the routines they enact are wildly, even grotesquely, exaggerated” (57).  Cullen’s definitions place males at the site of racial crossover (begging questions of gender identities and roles in minstrel performance), set up the paradox of blacks imitating whites imitating blacks, and suggest that audiences determine the authenticity of racial performances.

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