Editor’s Note

The stimulus for this volume was a colloquium organized at the University of Toronto in 2008 that drew together scholars from different disciplines–theatre, film, dance, cultural studies–all studying the ‘blacked up performing body,’ or the ‘blackface minstrel.’  That colloquium introduced some people to each other who had been exploring similar subject matter, to similar purpose, but who had never met.  This is not surprising; disciplines can sometimes be too well-disciplined, and there is much to read.  The words of the speakers resonated with one another, and the informal discussion was, as I experienced it, appreciated by all participants.  We thought, afterwards, that an edited volume organized with the same goal in mind as the colloquium would be valuable.  The one is not the other, of course, but the intention remains to ask researchers into this particular, and particularly troubled performance idiom, to write from their discipline outward.

From the Introduction:  The question I receive most commonly while working in this area of research, I find, is “Why?” Why are you studying that? In the case of blackface minstrelsy, the question can take a particularly skeptical tone. My answer is as unhesitant as it is, to most people, surprising. When I was first exposed to minstrelsy’s historical tradition many years ago, I instantly recognized it. I recognized the costuming, the tunes, the lyrics, the dance, the gesture, the bad-punning humor, the dialect—particularly the dialect—and the image of the artificially darkened shiny burnt-cork face, with red or white lips and woolly wig. It was not recognition as some distant cultural memory, or an image or two from early television—it was more immediate, more visceral than that. I recognized it as present in the fabric of my own personal, familial, and local culture, inextricably intertwined into my life. I recognized it in that sense, and yet I was (am) a white male born in the 1950s and raised about sixty miles west of Toronto in a fairly secluded area of rural Ontario. That being the case, I am left wondering: How did that (performance tradition) get there (into my own, local culture)?  That question is central to my own research, even as I stray to other centu- ries and other countries. And I am not alone. Not a month goes by that I am not contacted by someone reporting a personal or family memory of blackface- related performance, or some reference to blackface in a published source. This leads me to think that my recognition of blackface is far from unique. It is in some measure addressed by all the essays in this volume.