Race and Identity 512
17 February 2013
Short Paper: 2
One of the main social and political tasks of 1830’s America was to define what it was to be a free American. Challenged by reformist ideals “purifying” the land and the Industrial Revolution cementing capitalism into the framework of the nation’s economy, Black people and Indians found themselves pushed out of the national identity. Much of this struggle can be witnessed through an analysis of American theater at the time. Stereotypical portrayals of Black Americans through Black Face Minstrelsy and of American Indians in Indian Plays highlight how White Americans invented social constructs to dehumanize or ridicule ...view middle of the document...
This was evidenced by how Black Face Minstrels would paint their faces black, and lips big and white, and even mimic “Black” mannerisms. Similarly, in the Indian Plays, actors like Edwin Forrest in The Curse of Metamora were being praised for painstakingly embodying the idea of “Indianess” through his dress, painting his face and body red and even copying the vocal inflections (lepore). As Jill Lepore more eloquently cites in “The Curse of Metamora,” “‘So accurate had been his observations that he caught the very manner of their breathing…”’(Lepore 201). Although some may assert that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there were major consequences and shortcomings in these misrepresentations.
First and foremost, no one can fully become someone else. If this were possible then there could never be permanent differences as people would be able to morph into whatever category or identity they choose, eliminating variance within groups and the need for races. Furthermore, by setting a limited standard for what a people look like negates any perceived identity within the group. There is no perceived individuality as David Roeadiger writes in reference to Ernest Hogan’s song “All Coons Look Alike,” the song “bore a title that suggested how thoroughly dehumanizing racist stage stereotypes could be” (Roediger 98). Second, these impersonations were only temporary displays. Theaters and show venues provided an “appropriate” setting to explore the world of Black entertainment and Indian civilization through the control of scripts and direction. There was an important difference between acting Black or Indian and being Black or Indian. To read from a script removes the actor from culpability and gives him a sense of innocence because it is his job.
Even with the most accurate of incarnations on stage, one must still question which stereotypes are being portrayed and how they are being implemented. In the case of Black Face Minstrels, the unnaturally blackened skin, and the exaggerated white lips were not only obviously inaccurate but also intentionally so. Black entertainment was frequently lauded by white Americans for its “preindustrial joy” and “natural humor,” and its profitability in the show circuit was undeniable (Roediger 104). Once blackface replaced black entertainment, no longer were the “joys” genuine representations but ridiculed characterizations. From characters like Mammy, Old Jim Crow, and the Zip Coon, lower, middle, and aristocratic classes of “morally reformed” white Americans mocked the...