“If I knew your secret, I would make it mine.”
– Michelle Shocked, “Jump Jim Crow,” 1992
“Out of the counterfeiting of the black American’s identity [in blackface minstrelsy] there arises a profound doubt in the white man’s mind as to the authenticity of his own image of himself. He, after all, went into the business when he refused the king’s shilling and revolted. He had put on a mask of his own, as it were…For the ex-colonials, the declaration of an American identity meant the assumption of a mask, and it imposed not only the discipline of national self-consciousness, it gave Americans an ironic awareness of the joke that always lies between appearance and reality, between the discontinuity of social tradition and that sense of the past which clings to the mind. And perhaps even an awareness of the joke that society is man’s creation, not God’s. Americans began their revolt from the English fatherland when they dumped the tea into Boston Harbor, masked as Indians, and the mobility of the society created in this limitless space has encouraged the use of the mask for good and evil ever since.”
– Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act, 1964
“The heedless (and ridiculing) appropriation of ‘black’ culture by whites in the minstrel show, as many contemporaries recognized, was little more than cultural robbery, a form of what Marx called expropriation, which troubled guilty whites all the more because they were so attracted to the culture they plundered.”
– Eric Lott, Love and Theft, 1993
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Love and Theft was a rare achievement: an academic book that changed the way Americans speak to themselves and with each other. Or, as Greil Marcus more eloquently states in the introduction to the twentieth-anniversary edition of the book, it was “a breach in the dialogue the American vernacular conducts with itself.”
Eric Lott’s study of the origins of blackface minstrelsy and its relationship to the formation of a white working class in America seems to become more powerful and necessary with each cultural exchange that one witnesses.
Lott himself is a Professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) after spending many years with the University of Virginia. Mr. Lott was extremely kind to give some of his time to discuss his groundbreaking book on minstrelsy and share some details about his forthcoming book Black Mirror: The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism. As you’re about to discover, he’s also someone who finds it very hard to say anything that isn’t engaging.
The above video, “Blackening Up,” produced by the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, MI gives a sense of the type of performances one could expect to see at a minstrel show.
OR: Love and Theft is such a powerful book because it’s so rare that you read something which changes your perception of yourself and how you speak with yourself and it’s demanding enough that you can read it multiple times and continue to take more from it. I think the only other cultural book that I’ve had a similar experience to was Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train. I know he wrote the foreword to the new edition of the book. How did that come about?
EL: We’ve been in contact with each other for quite a while now. Mystery Train was a hugely important book for me as well. I think we first met when he came to lecture at the University of Virginia, which has been more than twenty years ago now. When he visited, he was lecturing on material that would become part of a book that he called Invisible Republic. The book is now in paperback under the title The Old, Weird America.
OR: A very good book.
EL: Yeah, it’s really incredible. We started corresponding a little after that. He actually called me in the summer of 2001 to tell me that Bob Dylan’s next album had a very interesting title – which, of course was “Love and Theft.” So, it was from Greil that I first heard that Dylan had borrowed my title.
In my next book, The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual, I included him in a cohort of intellectuals that I disagreed with and was critiquing from the political left. With respect to Greil, I was really put off in various ways by his embrace of an ideal America that he uses to anchor his discussion of Dylan in The Old, Weird America. He took my criticism with incredible grace. He never wrote me off as a friend or ended our correspondence. He is somebody who does not take those things personally and who believes in the value of debate. We rode that out and I have to say that as I get older, the more I realize how indebted I am to his work.
When Oxford proposed a twentieth-anniversary edition of Love and Theft, I thought of him because I had become aware that minstrelsy was the first kind of eruption that would later also happen with “rock-n-roll” and all of its obvious racial problems. I thought that Greil would be the perfect person to write an introduction that could take this whole tradition and give it context. So, I asked the people at Oxford and they contacted him and he agreed after he checked with me to make sure I was OK with it.
OR: I may not be qualified to make this assertion because I don’t keep up with all of the academic literature, but it seems that before your book there was not much discussion of minstrelsy. It almost feels like there was such extreme embarrassment on the part of intellectuals that they didn’t want to confront this form of entertainment. But, now it seems to be discussed quite frequently and openly. I’m not sure if you agree with that or not, but what was it that drew you to a study of blackface and minstrelsy?
EL: There were both personal and scholarly reasons. In graduate school, and even before, I was very drawn to black American music – particularly jazz and soul and funk – and black art more generally; Richard Pryor for example.
The more I contemplated a dissertation, the more I realized that I was one in a long line of white writers and thinkers interested in crossing the color line. It struck me that to study black culture, it could be productive to consider the tradition of white interest in black culture. It also struck me that the beginnings of commercial culture in America, of the entertainment industry, was blackface performances in the 1830s. It was a hugely popular and wildly fascinating, money making phenomenon and still has all kinds of cultural impact. Most of the impact is negative in our culture.
In scholarly terms, when I looked at the existing literature that was out there, there was some interesting stuff on the songwriter Stephen Foster, just a little bit at the time. There was a very good survey of minstrel show history, Robert C. Toll’s Blacking Up, and a couple of very problematic, to my mind, histories of minstrel shows. So, there was some material, but not really a whole lot.
Toll was very judicious in his understanding of the politics of the form. I think he’s been given credit for that. But, what I found when I looked around was either way too politically un-self-conscious celebrations of these hideous blackface images or equally simplistic condemnation of those images.
Instead, it struck me that there was something very slippery, politically unintentional, and ironic going on. To think about the intense investment in not just making fun of African-Americans on stage, but doing so by mimicking them, by becoming them – it’s a dialectic of desire and fascination and revulsion and fear, as well as envy and disgust.
I was trying to do justice to all of those factors and to look as intricately as I could at the whole range of materials – visual to verbal, song to sheet music. It seemed like such a worthwhile, but not yet undertaken, thing to do.
OR: I don’t want to oversimplify the theme of the book, because like I said before, it’s complicated and demanding, but if you were to boil it down would you say it’s fair that the most basic truth that you illuminate is that cultural theft, or any kind of theft, must also be accompanied by desire or love? We don’t steal things we don’t want. And if so, what does that say about the reasons why the white working class of the time was so attracted to this entertainment?
EL: I do think that the dynamic is as you describe in effect, yes, that you want something to possess, something to control. It’s a mix of impulses – fear was certainly a part of that.
I see a lot of glee and joy and fascination as well. In this particular case, that whole combination of impulses gave rise to the theft that we’re talking about, what amounted to control of black images in public and black performance. It paralleled property investments, black bodies and slavery, to a great degree and that’s the kind of control of images and commercial circulation that we’re talking about. It’s a part of a whole economy.
In a larger sense of racial dominance and enslavement in the nineteenth century, it had a disastrous set of consequences in the decades that followed when slavery nominally ended, but then persisted in other forms: debt peonage, the penal system, convict labor, and so forth. That white control over black public representation was set in place and maintained in and through minstrelsy.
The second part of your question was about why this was so attractive to the white working class. I tried to describe in the book the complicated sense within white, working class men, because they were the first audiences for minstrelsy, of cross-racial recognition, but also cross-racial competition. On the one hand, if you’re a white worker in the northeast in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, you see your class position becoming increasingly embattled as the conditions of work become degraded and constricted. Access to black arts just produces a kind of liberating effect and the ability to manufacture a kind of joy out of some pretty sorry circumstances. And I think there is a glimmer of cross-racial recognition there, for example in the turn that some organized working-class activists and thinkers saw in the decline of white, working class conditions something akin to the condition of chattel slavery. What is politically important and interesting for me is the possibility that this could lead to a kind of interracial working-class collective movement, collective desire, against capital. That didn’t happen, for the most part. It didn’t happen, in part, because of another kind of glimmer that you see in the minstrel show, which is that such a prospect was just too threatening to white minds.
To feel black temporarily was liberating, but to most white working men it just seemed degrading and beyond the pale, quite literally, as to how they wanted to see themselves. They just could not bring themselves to produce that recognition.
OR: Continuing on that question of race, in my mind two of the great political movements of the last century, Marxism on one end and various forms of fascism on the other, had the fundamental difference of how they divided the world. Marxists do so by class, fascists by ethnicity and race. Many people, I think, separate those ideas. There was a very good book called The Wages of Whiteness, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, by David Roediger. I think it was published just slightly before your book, but around the same time. One of the things he argued was that even though poorer whites did not economically benefit from racial dynamics, they did receive a huge psychological benefit. In other words, they had the opportunity to feel better about themselves by being able to look down on someone else. It sounds as though you would agree with that characterization.
Is there a strong element of intentional manipulation through media and entertainment to preclude the type of interracial unity you were discussing? To preclude a more class based rather than race based society?
EL: I think you’re right and I do agree with Dave’s general understanding of the way race and class work in and through the minstrel show. He has two very fine chapters on minstrelsy and uses the insight from Du Bois that even when white and black circumstances were essentially identical, white workers could always turn to the sort of psychological wage that Du Bois called “racial whiteness” to set them apart and make them feel a bit better.
The way in which race and class work in tandem is one of the great debates. Your referring to Marxism and fascism as the great political movements addressing these factors is very interesting, but even on the left and within the Marxist tradition there is a lot of debate and disagreement over how race and class operate together. There are class fundamentalists like David Harvey, who think that race is always a secondary matter and that it’s all about capital. There is a whole other set of thinkers and writers exemplified by, among others, Cedric Robinson, and his book Black Marxism. He thinks that capitalism is a misnomer for something that should be called racial capitalism and that over time has made great use of racial hierarchies to get its business done. I’m far more in that camp than the class fundamentalist camp. I think Roediger is as well and his new book Class, Race, and Marxism opens with a critique of class fundamentalism that strikes me as necessary and salutary.
OR: In other words, it’s kind of foolish to try and completely separate the two because they’re both operational in daily life.
EL: Yes, that’s true and location has a lot to do with that particular situation of trying to kind of abstractly pronounce that one is more important than the other. It just seems kind of silly to me. There’s a great line from C.L.R. James in his book The Black Jacobins: “The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.”
So, the error made by class fundamentalists is to not know how to talk about racial hierarchy and the way that capital is able to make use of it.
OR: Although probably not intended, Love and Theft is a great introduction to a lot of the world’s philosophy. You obviously talk about an exchange process that fits nicely with the Hegelian and Marxist concepts of the dialectic, you consider Freudian concepts like the unconscious and repressed sexual desire, and there’s a lot about how power determines meaning as Foucault believed.
Maybe the only thing I was able to take away from In Search of Lost Time was Proust’s feeling that the distinction between sexual love and jealousy is very thin. I think that’s in the book too.
I’m wondering if you think those observations are fair and if so, as you explore ideas are there particular philosophers that you draw upon to shape your beliefs?
EL: Those assessments are fair. Since I’ve been steeped in a lot of the work you mention for a very long time, I couldn’t help but be influenced by them. The really influential thinkers for me were more political theorists than philosophers, particularly Antonio Gramsci and his notion of hegemony, the way in which discourse and representation helped secure a certain hegemonic bloc at given conjunctural moments. In other words, there is always a jostling for domination of a particular social formation and that’s always in flux, never not in conflict.
The idea of the ensemble of forces both registering the political conflicts of their day and influencing those conflicts was key for me.
Stuart Hall’s work at the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies in the 1970s, studying different cultural formations and the like, was an indelible starting point for my understanding of the youth subculture that was minstrelsy.
What’s kind of ironic about the situation is that while many were studying emancipatory formations like punk or rastas or other kinds of subversive, rebellious formations, I was studying this thing that most people thought of as completely reactionary and backward looking. But, as I say, I found unintended consequences and liberating openings produced by the minstrel show that I thought were interesting to talk about at the very least.
OR: Race is such an explosive topic and one where we often talk past each other. Did you have any fear when you published the book that people would misunderstand your message or that you would get vociferously strong reactions against it?
EL: I was never overly concerned about that because it’s clear in my mind that this was a study of white racial attitudes and had nothing good to say about that. I thought it was pretty harsh from a left-point of view on white racial investments.
I do think that David wrote a little bit too harshly about those feelings in Wages of Whiteness. But, I also think that W.T. Lhamon, Jr. in his book Raising Cain is a little bit too easy on minstrelsy, which he thinks of as liberating because it’s raucous and anti-bourgeois. I thought that I’d done pretty good justice to the contradictions at hand and I trusted my sense that those contradictions would come through in my analysis.
There have been certain critiques of Love and Theft that I think are justifiable: it’s too much about men, it can seem apologetic on race and racial attitudes because of the love part of the equation. And I’ll accept those, but I think subsequent work on the form has kind of borne out the dialectic of desire at work and I’ve been gratified to see the way in which the term “love and theft” has become a kind of shorthand for cultural investments in music in particular.
OR: The best commentary on Love and Theft that I’ve read was from the Los Angeles Review of Books and was called “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” The writer was Jonathan Freedman.
EL: Yes! That was great, wasn’t it?
OR: It was a very beautiful essay. I think he really captured what, at least I think, you were trying to get across in Love and Theft.
OR: His discussion of the music video “This is How We Do” by Katy Perry surprised me, I wasn’t familiar with it before I read the essay. Obviously, it’s an appropriation of black culture, which I don’t feel is automatically wrong and I wouldn’t put the video on the level of minstrelsy, but there are some very surprising things in the music video, such as an unnecessary fascination with watermelons.
I mention that as a lead-in to the question of cultural appropriation generally and what your take is on the current dialogue surrounding it. There is no doubt that there have been many forms of cultural appropriation that are not valid or helpful – such as minstrelsy. But, it certainly cannot always be wrong to take from other cultures if we’re going to better understand each other and learn from each other, can it?
EL: I don’t know that I would say that.
I think it works on a more unconscious level and I’m of two minds on the subject of the cultural appropriation critique that has sprung up recently. I haven’t studied it extensively, but it seems that it’s become a mode of shaming, rather than understanding in any kind of complex way. I agree in the context of a novelist like William Styron when he writes as Nat Turner or someone from another race like Rachel Dolezal changing her race and becoming head of the Spokane NAACP. All of that speaks to white privilege in a way that is pretty indefensible.
But, U.S. culture is by definition mixed, cross-culturally appropriating and unconsciously so for the most part. Ralph Ellison is a great theorist and celebrant of the mixing of American culture, what Albert Murray refers to as the “mulatto character” of American culture. The ethnic and racial mix that defines the culture is one of the things, to my mind, that makes it great and also significantly black. What we think of think of as American culture is significantly black. Ellison tirelessly observed that it’s silly to think in terms of cultural ownership and to reduce it to questions of mere appropriation.
On the other hand, there are times, like the Katy Perry video you mentioned, where there is obvious trafficking in a cross-cultural borrowing that is pointless and opportunistic.
OR: I was quite shocked when I watched the video and surprised there was not more of an uproar when it came out.
EL: Yeah. Jonathon’s discussion of it is very good and I’m not sure that I had seen it either when he had mentioned it. I don’t know what kind of audience it got, but I know that Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, to say nothing of Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, and others that are more or less outright mimickers of black music have been somewhat controversial and taken to task for doing so. I like Daphne Brooks’ work on Amy Winehouse.
OR: You could go all the way back to Elvis Presley, I suppose, on that though.
EL: Yeah. It’s always a question, though, of people like Elvis and Amy Winehouse that are obviously trafficking in African-American art, but doing something interesting and original with it and others like Robin Thicke who are just ripping it off.
OR: OK, I’ll leave it at that.
I don’t know if you’re interested in commenting on this, it’s a political question, but I thought that the cultural aspects of the last presidential election were very interesting. You had a tremendous number of working class white voters who, I think, without question objectively voted against their own interests in voting for Donald Trump. I also think that very objectively, racial and other identity politics were involved in why they chose to do that. Did you see a lot of echoes in this from your analysis of minstrelsy?
EL: No, not essentially, because unlike Bill Clinton, who really made use of the pretense of cross-cultural and cross-racial outreach, Trump came on like the white supremacist he is. So, there wasn’t any trafficking in blackness with Trump to make a minstrel style appeal.
Clinton, our so-called first black president according to Toni Morrison, was responsible for killing the new deal. So, he used his “blackness” to do some nefarious things.
Trump, for his part, strikes me as just an outright revanchist appeal to white working-class voters who sought to undo everything that a black president had done. The idea was: let’s take the country back and make it great again, close its borders, build a wall, and reduce the racial anxiety that Obama, by being president, had instilled in a lot of white people. It’s a really hideous and disastrous situation.
The notion that white, working class people voted against their interests is an interesting question, because it speaks again to what those interests actually are.
OR: It goes back to what we were talking about before, as far as how you separate race and class in identity.
EL: That’s exactly right and he, no doubt, is against their interests economically. But, he is in many ways in step with their interests if what they are after is the psychological wage of whiteness. While being shafted economically, they can feel dignified racially.
OR: Your comments about Bill Clinton are very fascinating. I guess I have a mixed view on him. I’ve always admired the writings of Christopher Hitchens and I quite enjoyed his writing on Bill Clinton, even though it was very harsh.
There is no question to me that, going back to the campaign, he felt one of the reasons Dukakis lost was because of racial politics. So, he ended up doing some really hideous things like overseeing the execution of a mentally disabled black man to appear tough on crime and his “Sister Souljah” moment, where I think he really misunderstood, perhaps intentionally, the meaning of her statement.
Then there are many things in the presidency itself – you know, Bill Clinton may have understood race better than any other modern president and he used it to his advantage, but often got a pass because of his political party.
EL: I agree with that and I think his true colors show on occasions like when Bill Clinton was out on the stump, doing all he could to destroy Obama. In South Carolina, he compared him to Jesse Jackson in order to scare white South Carolinians away from Obama. That struck me as the quintessence of Clinton on race.
You’re right, he’s very deft in his use of it, but I never thought that he was committed to any kind of racial liberation because of all the things you mentioned, his pushing through of the omnibus crime bill, and welfare reform. All of that just really exemplifies his position.
OR: Of course, this is more to do with your second book than Love and Theft, he was very much responsible for, at least temporarily removing the left from mainstream politics, so that now we have a centrist party and a conservative party.
EL: Yes, exactly.
OR: I’m going to do you the favor of not directly asking you about Bob Dylan. I can only imagine that you have been asked about him thousands of times by Bob Dylan groupies like myself, who come out of the woodwork to ask you every mundane detail about Dylan and the interactions you have not had with him. I’ll just accept that for now and for the foreseeable future, it is virtually certain that Dylan did take the title “Love and Theft” from your book and that you’re probably never going to speak to him about it.
But, I did want to ask you about Spike Lee, because he seemed to admire the book very much as well and he credits it at the end of Bamboozled. I was wondering if you have ever had any conversations with Spike Lee or heard any direct commentary from him.
EL: Those are great questions. First of all, I actually enjoy talking about Dylan even though I’ve never spoken with him. Although, Christopher Ricks, who wrote the book Dylan’s Visions of Sin, did get to meet him and was invited backstage and shook hands with the man after a show, he told me.
It was finally confirmed by the Dylan camp in the liner notes to one of the official bootleg series, the one called Tell Tale Signs, the liner notes say that the album title came from “an academic book about nineteenth century blackface minstrelsy.” Of course, there’s no mention of my name and I was like, “Thank you very much.” But, at least that is now on the record.
I have a chapter in a forthcoming book, which we can talk about, that addresses the way in which Dylan’s “Love and Theft” echoes my study Love and Theft, in terms of cultural borrowing and cross-racial musical and cultural investments. It’s a really great record and I’m so glad that he used the title for one of his good ones and not one of his mediocre ones.
OR: It’s a great record. “Mississippi” is among his greatest compositions and I think “High Water” was great as well. That whole period of Time Out of Mind and “Love and Theft” is almost miraculous in the sense that somebody who had had his career could have found the intellectual capacity to reinvent himself again in such a remarkable way.
EL: Yes, totally, that’s very well put.
As for Spike Lee, no, there has not been any direct contact, but there is a lot about that movie that I like. There is a brief analysis in my forthcoming book on Bamboozled as well. I think it’s very smart. It’s interesting that back in the 1990s, just before the movie came out, I had gotten to know Michael Ray Charles – the artist whose paintings, I think, generated the whole idea of Bamboozled. He and I were talking about Spike Lee’s films and he even mentioned, Michael Ray did, that Spike was thinking about doing something based on minstrelsy and I’m glad that he found something of use in the book.
What’s interesting about Bamboozled to me is that there’s a clever kind of series of reverse appropriations going on there, not unlike the appropriations that went the other way in blackface minstrelsy. As far as I can tell, Bamboozled is based on two white sources, one of them being Mel Brooks’ The Producers.
Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder are trying to produce a Broadway flop in that film and the flop in question is a musical called “Springtime for Hitler,” made in order to collect money from investors that they won’t have to pay back. It turns out to be a huge success so that they’re both completely fucked.
The parallel in Bamboozled is Damon Wayans’ desire for an absolute flop so that he can get out from under his boss Dunwitty, played by Michael Rapaport, and it became a huge hit despite its obvious racism. So, there’s a kind of appropriation of The Producers in a really interesting way that I know Spike Lee is aware of.
The other appropriation is from Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, in which Andy Griffith plays a hustler who works the entertainment industry to his advantage.
OR: That’s fascinating. The Producers is a great film, but I’d never drawn the connection.
You mentioned the book you were working on, which I think is called Tangled up in Blue? Are you still in the process of writing that and do you know yet when that will be published?
EL: Yes. The study has had various titles over the years and I was thinking about returning Dylan’s favor and calling it Tangled Up in Blue, but its final title is Black Mirror: The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism. It’s coming out in September from Harvard, so just in a couple of months. It has nothing to do with the television show, which I didn’t know about when I gave it the title, but it does try and theorize across a series of cultural forms and formations in the twentieth century, a bigger picture version of Love and Theft by thinking about a black mirror where white cultural formations have sought to see themselves. So, it’s again why white artists and entertainers think about themselves when looking at African Americans and by trafficking in blackness, which sometimes serves to reproduce white social dominance, but sometimes, fleetingly, can expose and undermine it as well.
The book starts with a chapter on Obama and blackface impersonations of Obama and other matters. Then it goes back to Mark Twain and forwards to Bob Dylan in looking at the uses that have been made of African American cultural forms.
OR: It sounds like it will be a very beautiful book.
One of the things about Obama that I’ve been left with is the contradiction of him being the first black president, which is enormous for our culture, but at the same time, rather than show how far we’ve come, the reactions to his presidency show how far we haven’t come.
EL: I really agree. These are contradictions that he’s aware of and he’s even written about in Dreams From My Father and the post-presidency has produced this kind of crazy backlash that we’re being forced to live through.
OR: And Obama, by the way, I think is a very good writer.
EL: He’s a great writer.
OR: Most politicians are not great writers, I guess because they have other people write for them. But, Obama is a great writer. The only other president I can think of off the top of my head that was a great writer was Abraham Lincoln, who was a great poet.
EL: Lincoln is an extraordinary writer, but Ulysses S. Grant is not bad either.
OR: Yeah, his memoirs. He had a very plain, almost Ernest Hemingway style before there was an Ernest Hemingway.
OR: I really want to thank you for the conversation. This was very enjoyable and I appreciate your time. Best of luck to you as Black Mirror is released and in your teaching at CUNY.