Dissertation – Chapter 6 – Conclusion: Minstrel Passing into American Citizenship (2 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

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.

In minstrel passing, the mask – the white skin, the possible social status if not the legal designation – is the “real” identity, which relies on the currency of white skin.  While the caveat of once a passer always a passer looms, the women who employ this disguise in the novels that I consider cast it aside as easily as a pair of socks.  The danger does not lessen, but the fear of that danger seems to fade in minstrel passing more than it does in racial passing.  The fear ebbs because minstrel passing is couched in such a traditionally all-American performance that anticipates that the audience both knows the artifice and willingly chooses to ignore it.  Annemarie Bean notes that the knowledge that “everyone is ‘shady,’ but no one is truly ‘black’ – is an important distinction in deriving pleasure for the white audience and white performers” (172).  Knowing about race and winking at its malleability and consequent inconsequentiality makes the performance believable and thus enjoyable, so to speak, for both the player and her audience.  The formalism of minstrelsy allows for slippage between races with fewer consequences.  As the player adheres to the minstrel forms, the importance of the legal race of the player recedes. As these legal restrictions ebb, the danger of the performances also wanes.  With some of the danger removed, players temporarily can move between races facing fewer consequences from their subterfuge than they would without the cloak of minstrelsy. 

The women under investigation who perform these acts live out feminist ideals of self-definition and citizenship.  Stowe, Brown, Crafts, and Twain present these enslaved women as white and male on their quests for freedom.  By so doing, their characters adhere to feminist tenets as described by Buker.  They enact citizenship by choosing how to present themselves (Buker 157).  Then they act as good citizens by scrutinizing cultural patterns and rejecting those that are harmful and by participating in public life in order to create justice (Buker 156, 65).  Feminism informs not only the decision to implement race and gender changes but also encourages the courses of action pursued after the transformations occur.

Feminism also played a role in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s life.  It impelled her to define her own sphere and in so doing, feminism allowed her to deal with the specter of her mother and through those efforts introduce new ways of looking at women, specifically black women, into the US literary canon.  Her seminal text, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, spawned great literary reaction.  Some of those texts, most specifically William Wells Brown’s Clotel, Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman’s Narrative, and Mark Twain’s Puddn’head Wilson, model, pursue, and further Stowe’s way of humanizing rather than objectifying black women.  Stowe does so by using the objectifying practices of blackface minstrelsy and racial passing.  She uses these deceptions to move a slave mother from the margins of American culture into the center of contests for American citizenship and liberty.  These performances, although only logistically open to the lightest complexioned black women, the mulattas, are necessary to their entrance into American citizenship.  By empowering these women through their quests for agency, these authors undercut the literary archetype of the “tragic mulatta” while advancing a feminist agenda.  Christine Palumbo-DeSimone suggests that writers who do so “voice a protest not merely against white patriarchy but against the literary tradition which served to uphold and perpetuate racial and gender roles” (128).  Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work in Uncle Tom’s Cabin forges new literary avenues for both male and female authors to understand and relate black women.

Although Palumbo-DeSimone recognizes the power of subverting the “tragic mulatta” stereotype, she does not find this subversion in either Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Clotel.  Instead she asserts that Stowe and Brown treat their mulattas “compassionately,” but that they never develop them past the tragic stereotype  (Palumbo-DeSimone 126), Palumbo-DeSimone does not consider Roxy in Twain’s text, and due to the time of her publication, she may have been unaware of Crafts’ text.  Instead of removing these four authors from the profound literary work of undermining the tragic mulatta, I suggest that they exemplify that work through their use of minstrel passing.

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