Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Hip Hop Minstrel Show

I was warned ahead of time of what I would see. I was sitting in my seat before the start of the show and my friend turned to me and said that the author likes to have White characters say 'hip hop' slang for laughs. I nodded and said 'yes, it's hip hop minstrel'ing. I've seen it before.' My friend's eyes flared up and he stared at me. "Oh my God! You're right.' It felt like I had revealed a whole new world or perspective to him.

The show started and, sure enough, the first 30 minutes were peppered with jokes derived from White cast members talking like Black rappers and thugs while swaggering around and wearing baggy clothes. Repeated peals of laughter exploded in the mostly White, older, upper-class audience as the jokes landed. Some of the jokes I laughed, some of the jokes I did not. Afterward my friend wanted to pick up with the conversation again and asked if I could go into more detail.

The key pleasure from minstrel shows was and is still about taking Black culture at its most grotesque and extreme and to reproduce for objectified laughter. Black culture at its most parodied involves violent slapstick, overly-sexualized stories, buffoonish criminality, and the malapropism of language. Those are the parameters of minstrel'ing to me and I think most would agree to those borders. No new revelations in that. What I don't understand is how come people can't connect our current culture's obsession to the past? America is the birthplace of minstrel shows and just because people aren't smearing shoe polish on their face doesn't mean we aren't still using the archetypes.

I don't mean to suggest that every time a non-Black character utters an hip hop slang or ebonics term for a laugh that it's a minstrel act. It would be a dreary world if the thought police didn't allow White characters to explore other cultures and vice versa through jokes, love, and conflict. But hip hop minstreling is the lazy, shorthand for 'otherness.' It is when a 'White character' seeks so-called freedom from the limitations of his or her tribe by adopting hip hop ebonics and clothing in a slapdash way that highlights animistic and degrading stereotypes. And it's done so for the purpose of laughter 'at' the other rather than 'with' them.

In hip hop minstrel'ing it's very important that the comedy feels like a finger-pointing to something ridiculous, savage, and denigrating. The audience then feels a certain superiority in laughing at the character who is highlighting the 'other.' But really the character is only serving as a display case for what we're really laughing at which is hip hop, urban youth, and Black life. Unable to do that directly because of social stigmas, hip hop minstrel'ing allows for the laughter of privilege 'at' the un-privileged other through the use of a White body. Since it would feel uncomfortable and self-conscious for a mostly privileged audience to be laughing directly at the shenanigans of 'darkies,' they dress one of their own up as a 'darkie' and mimic the dipping swagger, clownish clothing, and braggart slang revolving around violence and sexual satisfaction.

The story arc often works in two directions: either we begin with a seemingly 'uncool' character who is tutored into the minstrel act by a Black culture gatekeeper or the minstrel character starts off the story in full drag before 'discovering' his true roots and going back to being 'just a White guy.' In both scenarios there is usually a run-in with a Black character at some point who tests their 'minstrel skills' in a battle of slang, dance, or showmanship. Often the minstrel is put into a Black setting in which they must 'oohgaboo' and 'bugaboo' there way out of their difficult situation. When they succeed they are confirmed and validated by a Black character who welcomes them into the family. Or they fail and are destroyed. Either way the hip hop minstrel takes off the proverbial shoe polish at the end. He is wiser in his 'whiteness' and 'normalcy' for having temporarily experimented with the other.

The hip hop minstrel returns to the privilege status with an affectionate wink to the audience, as if to say 'what was I thinking?!?' We laugh and nod our heads, feeling confirmed and relieved. The reformed man may, in the future,  don the ministrel act again when it suits him but it plays no part in his emotional life and development. The mask was just 'a curious phase' or a useful gadget in his Batman tool belt.

Hip hop minstrel is not limited to just non-Black characters. Upper-class and rich Black people may also indulge in 'the act' as a learning tool in their privilege. Often the character walks away with a new-found respect for 'them.'

It's not necessary for me to name countless shows, movies, skits in which hip hop minstrel'ing plays out. Besides, there is nothing gained in pointing an accusatory finger. But perhaps if we were more away of hip hop minstrel'ing we wouldn't allow it to succeed. We would demand more from our comedians, writers, and performers than poor mimicry and ape'ing. If that happened then the arts could actually explore our society in ways which enrich and expand our lives instead of calcifying of judgments of others. It would be a great day for hip hop and America if we asked for more.

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