Turning around Jim Crow
by W.T. Lhamon Jr.
From the Introduction: W. T. Lhamon Jr., whose work on blackface minstrel tradition has been so influential to its study through his books Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop and Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture, begins this volume by updating and adding to his already prodigious work with “Turning around Jim Crow.” Beginning with an image provided by Herman Melville, Lhamon revisits the character of Jim Crow that has been so prevalent in the American cultural argument since the early nineteenth century, reminding us that this figure’s most influential incarnation, in the performances of T. D. Rice, were aggressively integrationist and markedly abolitionist, rooted in populist politics and the common desire for a greater inclusion in the workings of society. He was a “rogue,” but he was a rogue who “figured black and white relations,” writes Lhamon, an integrationist trickster taking “occupation of the troubled interzone between blacks and whites.” Rice’s Jim Crow presents a topsy-turvy world that, in his version of Othello, for instance, ends with a marriage and the presentation of a mixed-race child to the assembled audience. The rewriting of this character into the quintessence of suppression and segregation based on race began early in the practice of commercial minstrelsy, to be sure; but Lhamon suggests that the (troubled) integrationist complexity of this character never wholly disappeared, and that the first promise of Rice’s Jim Crow, the “fantasy of merger,” has something to teach us about the emotional responses of the nation (and the world) surrounding the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Lhamon has argued repeatedly and persuasively for the significance and strength of the blackface minstrel tradition, the complex and conflicting nature of the “lore” it produced, and the extent to which this lore has continued to affect American popular culture. Using the 2008 presidential election as a starting point, Lhamon revisits the “lore” of Jim Crow, and more generally the contradictions and complexities inherent in the blacked-up performing body as evidenced in its first significant American iteration, all in ways that resonate throughout this volume, making a fitting opening essay. Appended to this argument is a previously unpublished sketch by Dan Emmett (remember the name), which Lhamon suggests may have been a source for Melville’s Benito Cereno.
W. T. Lhamon has written a cultural history of the 1950s in the U.S., Deliberate Speed. And he has published three books on blackface performance, Raising Cain; Jump Jim Crow; and Jim Crow, American. He is now writing a book titled Secret Histories on cultural transmission, popular performance, and the slow delivery of democracy. He lives in Vermont and North Florida.