Dissertation – Chapter 6 – Conclusion: Minstrel Passing into American Citizenship (1 of 5)

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



This work explores how the performances of racial passing and blackface minstrelsy act as feminist vehicles of self-definition that lead slave mothers to American citizenship.  Both acts defy traditional definitions of race to gain privileges for the players.  Understanding and defining terms is crucial to this work.  Blackface, minstrelsy, and passing may be common concepts, but understanding the terms often requires more in depth study.  My use of these terms follows.  Blackface refers to altering the phenotype in order to appear a member of a race that differs from one’s legal or socially accepted race.  In order for the deception to be plausible, blackface must include affecting the mannerisms and modes of that new race in order to become, or masquerade as, a person socially of that race, while law yet ties the performer to the original race.  Minstrelsy refers to employing the traditions of the minstrel art form as well as adopting stereotypical or normative behaviors of a different race in order to masquerade as a person of a new race, in order to achieve and enjoy the various freedoms associated with that race.  While the definitions of blackface and minstrelsy are similar and overlap, I treat blackface as the phenotypic change and minstrelsy as the affectation of mannerisms indicative of that change. 

Passing incorporates the definitions of both blackface and minstrelsy.  Passing is often understood as blacks portraying themselves as white in their daily lives, not for entertainment purposes, but rather as their lifestyles.  This practice falls almost entirely in the realm of legally black people whose phenotype denotes whiteness rather than blackness.  Passing is choosing to define self in ways that most people never consider to be up for choice. 

Because the slave mothers in the texts under examination use minstrelsy and passing as acts of self-determination, minstrelsy and passing follow the feminist ideal of self-definition.  These feminist acts yield agency, and I argue citizenship, to the performers, because they take control of not only how they present their race but also of how audiences interact with them because of their created identities.  Through these acts of agency, the fledgling citizens craft new positions, however temporary, for themselves in American society.

Eric Lott discusses the tension in minstrel shows between the stereotypical mimicry of blacks and the power that this form of entertainment assigns to blacks.  Blacks, although portrayed as unintelligent in minstrelsy, also are depicted as cunning, comedic, and musically talented, to name a few traits, and they always outwit white people.  This suggests similar correlations to racial passing.  Racial passers rely on their talents as much as their skin tone to subvert and circumvent roles traditionally ascribed to a different race.  More than being similar, it seems that racial passing can be considered a form of blackface minstrelsy, except the mask is white rather than black.  The mask is different, but the performance is the same.  The intent, if not the execution of the performance itself or the result of that act, is the same for both passing and minstrelsy.  When both performances occur simultaneously, the result is what I term minstrel passing.

Minstrel passing happens when black people pass as white while employing the performance devices of blackface minstrelsy.  If blackface minstrelsy becomes so inculcated into our society that whites do not need to don the cork paint to employ its performative elements, as suggested by Krin Gabbard, then blacks who perform minstrelsy without the added layer of paint also become enmeshed in American cultures.  By removing the artifice of the disguise and looking like white people who fit into the American mainstream, while acting the hyper-whiteness of minstrelsy, as articulated by Laura Browder, blacks can most fully ingratiate themselves into American cultures and glean the privileges of US citizenship.  By conflating these two performances, they become the obverse and reverse of the same coin.  No matter how we flip the coin, the currency is access to white American privilege.  The face of the coin is white supremacy as portrayed by blackface minstrelsy.  The rear of the coin is also white supremacy as enacted through racial passing, because white supremacy demands that Americans be white in order to access privilege.  The face of the coin speaks to the experiences of legally white people, while the rear indicates the experiences of people who may look white but do not hold the legal cache of that designation.  Minstrel passing is what results when white skinned blacks simultaneously perform both deceptions.

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