The Uncanny History of Minstrels and Machines: 1835-1923
By Louis Chude-Sokei
From the Introduction: Providing a bridge from early blackface performance and its later incarnations is “The Uncanny History of Minstrels and Machines, 1835–1923,” the contribution to this volume of Louis Chude-Sokei, whose influential work The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora is widely referenced (including by the other contributors here). This wide-ranging essay throws into relief aspects of the minstrel tradition that are easily missed, by tracing its (surprisingly) close lineage with the history of the automaton. Beginning with the purchase and exhibition of Joice Heth by P. T. Barnum, an early episode in a founding narrative of “the show business” in America, Chude-Sokei examines the exhibition of race as it becomes inextricably intertwined in popular culture with images of sexuality and technology. In what follows he traces the complex attitudes that North Americans have brought to bear on nature and an increasingly industrialized society, through depictions of the southern plantation as by turns wild and natural, or industrialized and dehumanizing. Like the previous essays in this volume, Chude-Sokei’s traces this dualistic, ambivalent attitude toward the black and blackface character back to the early years of minstrelsy, with its “simple” plantation folk juxtaposed with the rebellion of the trickster clown. He then takes the argument forward to 1923, the triumphs of jazz, and the invention of the word “robot.” His account articulates the fear of the dehumanizing tendencies of technology, and of the “other”-humanizing performances of minstrelsy.
Louis Chude-Sokei is a writer and scholar at the University of Washington, Seattle. His writing has been widely anthologized and ranges from the scholarly/academic to public venues like the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. His work includes the monograph Dr. Satan’s Echo Chamber: Reggae, Technology and the Diaspora Process (1997) and the book The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black- on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora (2006) which was selected as a John Hope Franklin Center book and was a finalist for both the 2007 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the Theater Library Association’s George Freedley Award. Forthcoming books are The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Techno-Poetics and Our Infinite Arrival, a work of creative nonfiction.