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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Minstrelry, Huckleberry Finn, and the X Factor

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I have returned to preparing Huckleberry Finn and (helped mainly by Stephen Railton's outstanding resource, Mark Twain in His Times) have been thinking about its use of the tradition of minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were variety acts, featuring light song and comic performances, by white actors made-up in black face (more on that in a moment).

In Huckleberry Finn, Railton convincingly argues that Twain introduced aspects of the minstrel tradition, most evidently in the "King Sollermun" exchange between Huck and Jim, where Huck becomes frustrated at Jim's inability to understand the Biblical parable. Here, Twain clearly evokes - but alters - the format of the comic skit common in minstrelry, in which an educated "interlocutor" demonstrates the idiocy of a black fall guy. Often, this would entail the black fool missing the point of a common joke (see this example of the skit "Bones in Love"), and thus becoming someone we laugh at rather than with.

In Huckleberry Finn, Twain plays with this archetype. Here, Jim and Huck argue about the significance of the story of King Solomon, who was prepared to chop a child in half in order to determine his true mother. Their rapid fire exchanges evoke a minstrel skit, with Huck assuming the role of the educated interlocutor, and Jim the idiot who cannot understand the obvious point of the story. For Huck, the moral of the story - taught to him by Miss Watson - is that King Solomon was a wise man; he finds it both humorous and frustrating that Jim does not see this. For Jim, though, the "real pint is down furder":
You take a man dat's got on'y one or two chillen; is dat man gwyne to be waseful o' chillen? No, he ain't; he can't 'ford it. He know how to value 'em. But you take a man dat's got 'bout five million chillen runnin' roun' de house, en it's diffunt. He as soon chop a chile in two as a cat. Dey's plenty mo'. A chile er two, mo' er less, warn't no consekens to Sollermun, dad fatch him!"
Whilst an ordinary man would value his own child, a man who has "five million chillen" would not be so troubled by the death of one. The thoughtful reader can see that for Jim, the allegory, derived from his experience as a slave, is that a slave owner with many metaphorical "children" would not put a price on the head of a mere negro. This is reinforced later in the novel, when Aunt Sally asks whether anyone was killed in the steamboat accident, and Huck replies, "no mum, just killed a nigger."

There is a really complex racial politics at work here, as a familiar Biblical parable seems to encode a very different moral depending on whether one looks at it from the point of view of a black or white man. The two ways in which Solomon can be interpreted therefore make it uncomfortably different to the way a minstrel show was viewed, which directed the gaze of the audience to see themselves as unambiguously superior to the black performers. 

In a minstrel performance, a black man is shown to miss the point of a well-known story or joke in a comic way. In itself, this would suggest the idiocy of the black race. However, exacerbating this, all the parts were actually played by white actors, wearing black make-up. Thus the comic skits reinscribed racial differences for the white audience in a more extended way: the white man in black face can wipe off his make-up and return to being a white man, whereas by implication the true black man remains black and – according to the evidence of the performance – stupid and ignorant, defined by his racial otherness rather than able to transcend it. Whilst the white man playing the black role can return to his white origins after the show, true blacks always retain the stupidity and inferiority which the white actor has only fleetingly and self-consciously demonstrated.

With no such visible indicators of skin in the novel genre, Twain employs the minstrel spat in order to confound our expectations. Whilst initially readers familiar with the Solomon story will assume that this exchange likewise shows up the clever and educated Huck versus stupid, black Jim, in fact we realise that it is Huck, not Jim, who has missed the point of the story when the context of slavery is taken into account. The roles they play in the spat are not defined by the colour of their skin - which is invisible in the textual form - but rather by the way their colour has determined their lives and experiences: slavery in Jim's case, some sort of education in Huck's. 

Here, then, is evidence of Twain's humanitarian agenda. As a child, Twain had seen his father trade in slaves, and became an advocate of the anti-abolitionist cause. In Huckleberry Finn, as the example above shows, Twain exposes the hypocrisy of white superiority founded on Christian values. However, herein lies a rub.

As one of the great literary personalities of his era, Twain - like his contemporary Dickens in England - was a showman as well as an author. He took his novels on tour, lecturing and reading to large crowds in popular performances. As the image to the right shows, he often headlined evening shows that also featured minstrel acts. Far from being uncomfortable at accompanying the sort of performance he so carefully adapts in Huckleberry Finn, Twain loved minstrelry, describing it as "the genuine nigger show, the extravagant nigger show," "the show which to me had no peer," "a thoroughly delightful thing." Indeed, Railton explains that this "King Sollermun" episode was actually performed as a stand-alone act on a bill that also encompassed minstrelry.

It is hard to reconcile the two aspects to Twain. How can a man who so consciously manipulated the minstrel tradition in order to show how racial categories defied simple stereotypes have delighted in a show designed precisely to reinforce racial differences? 

In trying to come up with an answer to a question I envisage being asked by a bright student, I alight upon the X Factor by way of analogy. It seems to me that this "light entertainment" occupies a similar position to minstrelry in nineteenth-century culture. Both are formulaic and rely on our recognition of "actors" temporarily inhabiting stereotypes. 

In the case of the minstrel show, it was the stupid black man who unselfconsciously fails to get the point of a common joke, thereby making him the butt of another one; rather than laughing at the joke itself, minstrel viewers laughed at the stupid black man who could not understand it. In the case of the talent contest, we watch the early auditions with a sense of schadenfreude, taking pleasure in the failure of singers to live up to the talent they believe they possess. Rather than entertaining us with their singing per se, it is their lack of ability that is amusing; the contestants' failure to recognise their own lack is the source of the entertainment here. 

Yet just as the minstrel audience ignored the complex racial issues behind their shows, we fail to reflect on the class politics that underlie such a performance. Most of the contestants on talent shows like X Factor are working class. It says something starkly depressing about modern society that for many working class kids it is celebrity rather than education or graft that is perceived as the way to raise their social and economic status. According to surveys, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, most children today say "sportsman," "pop star" or "actor." Celebrity has become a means to an end, rather than the end itself, in a society where hard, professional work may not be fairly rewarded with good pay or broad respect.

When we watch X Factor, then, we are really watching people with often low aspirations and underemployment, prospects from which five seconds of television fame seems to offer an escape. When we mockingly commiserate their failure to perform with any real talent, we also celebrate our apparently superior status as viewers who do not need to reduce ourselves to playing their role. Through rapid cuts and editing, each contestant has a limited space to demonstrate their talent - or lack of it - and this imposes a sense of transience that allows the viewer to feel superior to those on display. The ad break is to X Factor what make-up was to the minstrel. By seeing those performances of lower class or inferior races as being temporary, we are reasserting the permanence of our superiority.

My point here, then, is partly to show just how effectively light entertainment by definition does not encourage us to reflect on the complex conditions (racial or class hierarchies) on which it often depends; even an author like Twain, so conscious of race in his writing, celebrated the populist minstrel show. We only ever see the stereotypes light entertainment presents as being conventions of the stage, without reflecting what in reality those stereotypes reflect. In both cases, the crucial aspect is the temporary nature of the performance. In the case of minstrelry, once we think carefully about it, the use of blackface make-up seems ultimately to reinforce racial differences, because it implies that the true black man could not pass for white in the reverse direction; however, in the moment of performance, even for a sympathetic viewer like Twain it may also seem paradoxically less racist, because the actor is white not genuinely black, and it is a white clown, not a genuinely black individual, who is the target of laughter. Similarly, the editing style of a TV talent show aims to give contestants five minutes of fame, and no more. Being de-individuated, as just one contestant among a constantly changing stream of them, we can safely laugh at them without worrying about the class values that ultimately unite them. Because the actor in the minstrel show is white, not genuinely black, whilst the performer on the talent show is never allowed to reveal too much about their actual background and (lack of) aspirations, we see only the show as a role-play of stereotypes, not as presenting the actual people (black, lower class) who are being stereotyped. 

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Posted by Alistair at 11:10 am


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