Review: ‘Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy From Slavery to Hip-Hop’

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Are hip-hop artists such as Flavor Flav and Lil Wayne the new generation of black minstrels -- the African American jesters who used to entertain audiences with cartoonish, racially stereotypical shtick before the collapse of the Jim Crow South?

According to a just-published book, “Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy From Slavery to Hip-Hop,” the answer may well be yes. And that’s not necessarily an entirely bad thing, according to authors Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen, both Chicago journalists.

Their book is a fascinating and authoritative critical history that traces the roots of minstrelsy back to Africa and the Civil War era, when “even under the strict limits that harsh slave masters imposed, African Americans maintained an extraordinarily rich performance tradition,” the authors write. Along the way, it considers the contributions to the popular depiction of African Americans by the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Stephen Foster, P.T. Barnum and legendary burnt-cork-faced performers such as Al Jolson and Bert Williams.

But among the chapters most likely to get attention is “Eazy Duz It,” sub-titled “How Black Minstrelsy Bum-Rushed Hip-Hop.” Noting that both blacks and whites have attacked hip-hop for trafficking in ethnic caricatures -- the Rev. Al Sharpton once referred to gangsta rap as “the new way of Stepin Fetchit,” and New York rapper Nas has lamented the over-the-top antics of performers such as Lil Wayne -- the authors take a more circumspect view. They discuss hip-hop pioneers such as Luther “Luke Skyywalker” Campbell of Miami’s 2 Live Crew, one of the first “Dirty South” hip-hop artists who “embraced low comedy, raucous festivity, and century-old rural stereotypes.”

By appropriating racist and demeaning imagery and bending it toward their own purposes, the authors suggest, some hip-hop artists have been able to convert old stereotypes into new tokens of empowerment. For example, the authors praise Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav, who, they write, “understands that comic rituals, the absurd stereotypes, and the fearless foolishness that have been a part of black comedy since the days of minstrelsy are useful tools.”

The chapter also deconstructs the controversy around the video “Fry That Chicken,” by Ms. Peachez, an homage to the finger-lickin’ pleasures of soul food. A Washington Post writer castigated the video for making D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” seem “mild” by comparison. But “Darkest America” quotes L.A. Times and LA Weekly writer Ernest Hardy, who points out the contradictory emotions that the video arouses, centered on “things many black folk still have shame around: Southern-ness, countriness, [homosexuality] and ingenuity born of poverty... a hodge-podge of cultural pride and internalized racist stereotypes.”

Whatever your perspective on the sensitive issues it raises, “Darkest America” is a thoughtful and well-written exploration of themes that cut to the heart of our national identity and culture.


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Follow Reed Johnson on Twitter @RJohnsonLAT.