Every Last Myth and Slander
by Adrian Nathan West
NYRB Classics, 208pp ISBN 9781681373294 $14.95
Minstrelsy can no more be expunged from the concept of the blackness in the American mind than American history can be stripped clean of that thread of specious virtuosity that runs from George Washington and the cherry tree to those delusions about the essential benignity of master-slave relations that crop up on conservative talk radio and even in the diaries of Julien Green. Early blackface minstrelsy was a crude art: blackened skin alone often sufficed to elicit giggles, and the earliest blackface archetypes, products of the imagination of white performers rarely familiar with the rural blacks they purported to impersonate, offered up a shameful panoply of hapless, capering simpletons clad in rags and mumbling gibberish. The appearance of all-black minstrel groups on the eve of the Civil War brought a new sophistication and a slight measure of dignity to the form, and authenticity was one of their selling points — but with white owners and mostly white, working-class audiences, this still meant fidelity to a politically expedient and psychologically comforting notion of African Americans as docile, cheerful, fun-loving, and at their happiest slaving away on the plantation. Where urban blacks did appear, it was most often as ‘Jim Dandy’ fops, their speech riddled with malapropisms, their pretensions a bad fit for the soft-shoeing and banjo strumming that were their race’s proper forte.
The minstrel, and its countless permutations on television, radio, film, and advertising in the century since vaudeville’s decline, poses a challenge to those who would dismiss black Americans’ complaints of enduring racial injustice with the line: ‘The Civil War ended a hundred and fifty years ago’. For many whites, certainly those I grew up around in Tennessee, informal history — not the work of historians, but the partial, flawed version of history that suffuses popular conceptions of self and community — has tended to emphasise the monumental importance of the Civil War as a way of overlooking the subsequent evils of Jim Crow, redlining, convict leasing, or forced appropriation of black-owned lands. As to the possible effects of a two-century-long reduction to the wily, red-lipped buffoons seen stealing chickens or running from alligators on stage and screen, to lawn jockeys or mascots for Nigger Head Oysters and Pickaninny Peanuts, stock responses are ignorance, baffled embarrassment, or pointless affirmations about the pitfalls of judging yesterday by the standards of today.
The discomfiting heritage of blackface and its residua is both subject and setting for Darius James’s recently reissued Negrophobia, originally published in 1992. The cover of the first edition showed a white woman on a sidewalk at nighttime throwing a mugging, goggle-eyed shadow on a wall, and raised enough hackles at the publisher to make the ‘Book Notes’ section of The New York Times; the book itself was not reviewed. Called on to defend himself, James argued, ‘These stereotypes have not died; they've just been transformed and modernized. . . The whole point is that I believe black people should start taking back these images from our iconography that have been stolen and corrupted through the years by racists. I understand that these images were once oppressive. But I think we are at the stage where we can look at these images and not feel threatened.’
Negrophobia is a horror house Pilgrim’s Progress in film script form that opens with an external shot of a brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The camera pans over a joint in an ashtray and an ornate, crescent shaped box stamped with the legend: ‘Min. Louis Farrakhan’s “Ambrosia of Islam” Do-For-Self Designer Chocolates. “Allah eats ‘em! And you will too!”’ Off-screen, a voice pipes up, belonging to a blonde bombshell named Bubbles Brazil. In black Spandex tights that reveal her ‘protuberant pudendum’, a leather jacket hung with razorblades and syringes, and ‘Doc Martens with anarchosatanic symbols in metallic paintpen’, she muses about the selves she has left behind, subtly mocking the hedonistic underpinnings of countercultural posturing:
‘On my thirteenth birthday, after recovering from the awful discovery that Transvestite Rock was not the hottest happening in puberty since wet dreams. . . I burned my Rocky-Horror Show paraphernalia, sequined Come-Fuck-Me Shoes and all. . . and became a real sixties-era, alienated-from-pig-values, tuned-into-K-OZMIK FM-radio freek. I was no phony weekend hippie. I was bone-fide. I sucked off Jerry Garcia.’
When Bubbles’ idiom changes to the rhyming slang of hustlers’ toasts, the scene is set for her journey into a racialised Hell.
The Brazil family maid, a Mammy figure stirring a mouse into a pot of hominy grits in a nod to the Hoodoo traditions James alludes to throughout the book, takes a break from a phone conversation about a ‘Chicken rustlin’ rascal’ acquaintance to lambaste Bubbles for going to school in her ‘war paint’. When Bubbles complains about the ‘jigaboos’ at her new school, the maid reminds her that her bad behaviour got her kicked out of private school and packed off to rehab. Bubbles perseveres with her bigoted invective until the maid protests, ‘we is no longer cullid, we is whatchoo calls Neo-African Americans’. Bubbles’s confession that she chose to paint her face after looking into the maid’s ‘creepy’ books sends the older woman into a fury, and she casts a spell that will terrorise Bubbles throughout the long, phantasmagoric day.
On the subway, Bubbles sees a wino in a sequinned G-string, fishnet stockings, and other castoffs from theatre district trash cans (an incidental pleasure of James’s work is his evocation of such types, and of an essentially New York weirdness now on the verge of disappearance) who claims to be Sunshine Sammy, the original Little Rascal. Bubbles tries to ignore him, but the maid’s curse is too strong, making any escape from ‘her Negrophobic predicament’ impossible.
In a classroom at Donald Goines Senior High, Bubbles delivers a monologue about the blacks at her school that reads like the free associations of a Klansman stretched out on a therapeutic couch:
‘My high school was overridden with niggas. Not the slow-witted, slow-shufflin’, eyeball-rollin’, flapjack-flippin’ niggas in the brownstones off Central Park West. . . But nigger niggas—the nightmarish kind! Mindless, angel-dusted darkies slobbering insane single syllables, flicking switchblades and flashing straightrazors... Crotch-clawin’ niggas who talked Deputy Dawg and shot dope. Saucer-lipped ragoons who called me the “Ozark Mountain She-Devil” and asked to feel my lunch money.’
Funk music plays in the background; students bark, smoke weed, and sniff glue; dancers pop and lock; a Muslim sells Shabazz Bean Pies, ‘good fo’ stabilizin’ yo’ blackitude’. Pig-snouted police officers murder a student in a Free Huey T-shirt. A roller derby squad, Aunt Jemima’s Flapjack Ninjas From Hell, assaults Bubbles when she goes to the restroom.
The novel proceeds by a series of reveries, hallucinations, and films within the overarching film. When Bubbles returns from school, beaten and bruised, and passes beneath a frozen chicken nailed to a doorframe — another attempt at ritual magic by the maid — she falls asleep in the bath tub and dreams of standing onstage at the White Womb Theater while a magician pulls rabbits from between her legs. The audience is filled with black personages real and fictional, revered and reviled: Emmett Till, Angela Davis, Professor Griff, Moms Mabley, Robert Crumb’s Angelfood McSpade. This slapdash, repugnant — but not merely coincidental — grouping looks back to the ‘anti-sensitivity that impregnates modern civilization’ as Roy Lichtenstein sought to paint it, but also forward to the irreverence of meme culture, which readily absorbs mass murders and humanitarian disasters if de-contextualising them is good for a laugh. James is tasteless, but to quote Brecht, ‘the tastelessness of the masses is rooted more deeply in reality than the taste of the intellectuals’, and in his indiscriminate herding of black people into crude clichés, he is addressing a deep, still unaddressed psychological drama that prevents these portrayals from ever quite expiring.
This drama is powerfully, perhaps even primarily, sexual, and James’s treatment of it is correspondingly raunchy. At the church of H. Rap Remus, the black congregation paws savagely at Bubbles; worshippers’ dreadlocks are interwoven with severed white penises. In an underground cavern, a gang of liquorice men unchain their captive, a Pillsbury Doughboy, and mock his missing genitalia before sacrificing him to a flaming Tar Baby that turns his body to a tray of biscuits. Anxieties surrounding allegations of the black male’s prodigious endowment, which extend back into antiquity, contributed to the disparagement of his intellectual incapacity; a 19th-century Baltimore physician even argued it was futile to attempt to elevate the African through education, as his ‘enormously developed’ genital organs condemned him to ‘a life devoted to matters appertaining to the worship of Priapus.’ At the same time, black sexuality exerted an unavoidable fascination: while a study of slave traders’ letters on the sexual charms of ‘fancy maids’ or light-skinned slave women leads one historian to argue for a reinterpretation of the antebellum South as ‘a complex of inseparable fetishisms’, another has called lurid tales of black men raping white women ‘the folk pornography of the bible belt’. In the myth of the animalistic, voluptuous savage, black people become the repository for a general unease with corporeality, a dumping-ground for unseemly sexual urges, as Bubbles confesses when recounting her own resort to blackface when having sex and taking drugs:
‘But in our minds, we weren’t the culprits. How could we be? Those weren’t our faces. Those weren’t our bodies. We would never put our mouths down there. We were white and well-bred.'
For James, avatars of race, whether ‘empowering’ projections or rank libels, only add further strata to the possibilities for satire. The aim here is a total displacement, which blurs any distinction that might serve as a foundation for a philosophy of race. Race for James is textual, in the sense Derrida intends when he writes: ‘Textuality being constituted by differences and by differences from differences, it is by nature absolutely heterogeneous and constantly composing with the forces that tend to annihilate it.’
After a second face-off with her maid, who ‘underestimate[s] the power of the blond Venus,’ Bubbles makes it to a grindhouse on 42nd Street where the corpse of Malcolm X, after inveighing in rhymes against the evils of pork and street drugs, introduces a film, The Rocky Horror Negro Show. Over World War II footage with Mickey Mouse Nazis and blackface Jews, a BBC commentator narrates the triumph of the white race over the black, Asian, and Hispanic hordes. Walt Disney, the American President-For-Life, emerges from his cryonic coffin for a special televised announcement, a mash-up of the Gettysburg Address and ‘I Have a Dream’, looking forward to a day when ‘the sons of former slave owners would dine on the sons of their former slaves, secure in the knowledge their silverware was safe.’
Unbeknownst to Disney and the celebrant white masses, in a grotto beneath the Disney Magic Mall, the Zombie Master and his Elvis Zombie minion are working away on tissue shavings from the nose of ‘Captain Nee-Gro, that 3-D wonder of the white man’s technology’ — Michael Jackson, to all appearances — ‘to clone his proboscis back to its original Negroid proportions, placing it in the service of the revolution!’ As a ‘Honkey-Mutant Crowd’ gathered for a parade hails Mickey Christ, who multiplies loves of Wonder Bread and cans of Bumble Bee tuna and hurls them at his admirers, the gigantic black nose appears, sucking victims into its nostrils and flooding the streets with mucus. Zombies emerge from cracks in the earth, attack the murine messiah, drain his blood into a bottle of Thunderbird, and suck his bones clean after dipping them in barbecue sauce.
The choice of Mickey Mouse is not so arbitrary as it might seem. In Birth of an Industry, Nicholas Sammond considers the early history of animation as a perpetuation of minstrelsy by other means. Even leaving aside the ample corpus of openly racist cartoons like Jungle Jitters and Coal Black and the Sebbin Dwarfs, for Sammond, the white gloves, the songs and dances, the tricksterish antics of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and other comic heroes mark them out as ‘vestigial minstrels’ engaged in the same back-and-forth of submissiveness and rebellion that defined the minstrel show’s sphere of action.
When The Rocky Horror Negro Show ends, Bubbles wades out toward the lobby through a sea of malt liquor and French fries, and sees two black Muppets or ‘Buppets’ outlining a moneymaking scheme that sounds like one of Pat Buchanan’s nightmares: after getting high crack, they will rape a white woman, write a rap song about it, film it as an act of revolutionary reprisal, win a Palm d’Or at Cannes, then open a shop selling branded T-shirts and sneakers. The book’s darkest moment comes when one of them addresses a shadowy bystander: ‘Yo man! You got five dollars?’ Those who lived through the eighties will recall these as the words Troy Canty spoke to ‘Subway Vigilante’ Bernard Goetz before Goetz shot him and his three companions. In a brilliant if appalling turn, the shadow mouths white guilt boilerplate while shooting the Buppets down. Whereas Goetz allegedly told his alleged assailants, ‘I have five dollars for each of you,’ the shadow bemoans the drug crisis facing African Americans and stresses his willingness to help out. As the second Buppet tells him to keep his money, he goes on:
'No, take it. Really. It’s alright. I’ve got plenty. More people in my position of privilege should do as I do! You’ll be able to go out and buy yourself that brand-new pair of sneakers I saw advertised on TV by that paragon of black enterprise!'
The shadow opens fire on the theatre, and his bromides veer into racist jingles intercut with lines from Goetz’s videotaped confession. This amalgam of white sympathy and racist violence hints at an inner logic that unites them; and that the scene should end with one ludicrous representation killing others is perhaps a more faithful approximation of the truth of racist violence, of the illusory perceptions of self and other that underlie it, than the earnest attempts to plumb the disposition to violence in books like American Psycho or The Kindly Ones. There is no antiquated psychology here, no over-broad avowal of the power of empathy, no reduction of racism to misapprehension, and hence no hope that it is amenable to reason alone.
Swallowed whole by a cop-killing cyborg, Bubbles meets a mane of talking dreadlocks floating above glowing eyes, a bright red mouth, and a white linen suit. The apparition bewails his previous attempts to make contact with earthlings: first with Helen Brodie Cowan Bannerman, author of The Story of Little Black Sambo, here recreated with scurrilous brilliance; then with Frantz Fanon, who transcribed the apparition’s message in Black Skin, White Masks. Talking Dreads tried again with filmmaker Ralph Bakshi and with Sun Ra, a promising pupil until he fell into drugs and started leading his Arkestra through versions of ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’, a tune known during the 19th century by the less agreeable title ‘Zip Coon’. To illustrate his ‘ultimate plan for the degenerate whyte man,’ Talking Dreads shows Bubbles a filmic parable about Garvey’s Corner, ‘a town so staunchly American and small town in its values, it should be called the Town That Made Frank Capra Throw Up.’ Here, impish, freckle-faced boys steal pies off window-sills, teenagers say ‘neatto’ and ‘swell’, and old men gather around the pickle barrel to tell ethnic jokes in an apt reminder that America’s presumptive golden age and the feel-good films and television shows that memorialise it were built on a foundation of unquestioned white supremacy.
Garvey’s corner is a façade masking Sambo’s World, where blacks are trained to pass as whites to ridicule them and subvert their values. Drawing on the Yakub story popularised by Nation of Islam founder WD Fard, who taught that the biblical Jacob (Yakub) and his followers bred white men from blacks after 600 years of selective eugenics, the instructor at the Sambo Institute for Artificial Caucasians reminds his students that ‘You can make a whyte man out of a black man, but you can’t make a black man out of a whyte man’, and urges them to get inside whites’ minds and undermine their ‘will to whiteness’.
Negrophobia is, among other things, a Bildungsroman, and under the spell of Talking Dreads, Bubbles recalls her childhood sex games and her adoption of black personae when acting out her repressed longings. She remembers catching Blaxploitation films in Times Square cinemas; remembers her grandfather in blackface, and her great-grandfather before him, who slathered on burnt cork with the words: ‘Unless Othello shot craps, ate watermelon, and cut Desdemona with a razor, playin’ niggers paid better than Shakespeare and got bigger laughs.’ Three generations of masquerading brought the Brazil family no closer to recognition of the humanity of those they mimicked. It is laughing at and not with when Bubbles affirms: ‘Laughing at niggers is at the root of American popular entertainment.’
The situation has changed, but not entirely. Though so-called legacy media shun overt racism, and even minor or accidental flubs demand public shows of contrition — as when H&M apologised for featuring a photo on its website of a black child in a sweatshirt reading ‘Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’ — the reception of viral videos like Antoine Dodson’s ‘Bed Intruder’ or the Crichton Leprechaun still smacks of the minstrel show enthusiast’s condescending laughter. And if digital blackface — white internet users employing black reaction memes — is not racist as such, it does reflect a culture that continues to find in black expressivity a peculiar farcicality suited to conventionalised reproduction.
A final confrontation with the maid reveals to Bubbles the dire extent of her Negrophobia:
‘Without the vampiric beauty of my whiteness, without the definition of my skin, without my emblematic significance, I was presence without appearance, a being without a basis, a creature without context––a colorless network of organs and entrails in translucent casing.’
Soon afterward, she will appear in an issue of International Vogue between two aborigines, the three of them cupped in the gloved hands of a black man with dyed dreadlocks. There is unity here, but not quite a cause for hope; when the magazine falls to the floor, it opens to an ad for the United Colors of Benetton. Capitalism, of the mercantilisation of black flesh, is the sine qua non of the horrors Bubbles has seen throughout the day, but her epiphany has not touched on it, and it seems to grind on unimpeded.
James Baldwin speaks, in Notes of a Native Son, of the guilty conscience, the fear, that inhabits America’s racial consciousness: ‘Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom, our creations, at last they evaded us; they had a life—their own, perhaps a better life than ours—and they would never tell us what it was.’ In Negrophobia, they do, and it is as carnivalesque and lecherous as anything in Sade or Rabelais. What raises the book above the diffuse and merely iterative visions of surrealism is James’s awareness of what the artist John Akomfrah has called ‘affective proximity’: an insistent correlation of every event in the novel with the symbolic universe of racist tropes that have dominated African American history — or rather, the history of the perception of African Americans, impeding a broader recognition of their status as individuals. It would be a bit much to attribute moral purpose to so thoroughgoing a satire, one intent upon offending even the least delicate sensibilities; but James’s approach, a kind of satiation therapy for the prejudiced, dredging up every last racist myth and slander, does offer catharsis for readers doubtful of the audacity of hope and fatigued by the self-regard of contemporary wokeness. As for the prim, the puritanical, the faint of heart, the Cream of Wheat Chef has a message for them on the novel’s closing page: ‘French kiss my black New Orleans ass’.