Our Modern Minstrelsy

The phrase literary blackface came up in popular conversation recently, when Barnes & Noble announced they were putting out a line of classic literature titles that had been reissued with “diverse” covers in celebration of Black History Month. Novels like Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, and The Secret Garden suddenly appeared in our Twitter feeds, with characters of color on the covers. We’re talking Dorothy with cornrows, Peter with locs. As if painting a bit of color on their cheeks could overcome the incredibly specific settings and contexts in which the original stories were written and the characters created. As if giving white stories Black covers would serve to fulfill the necessary purpose of diversifying the canon.

In order to truly understand and tackle the challenge of diversifying the canon, it is important to contend with the difficult reality that art — of all forms, including children’s books — has historically been used to reinforce white supremacy. This stems from the days when white performers would paint their faces black using coal, shoe polish, or burnt cork and impersonate Black people on stage, the practice that became known as blackface.

Blackface minstrelsy was popularized around the 1830s, a time when it was unimaginable that Black entertainers would ever perform for white audiences or alongside white entertainers. Performers who donned blackface deliberately portrayed Black people as stupid, silly, childlike, and not only perfectly suited to their subjugated role but happy in it. A series of now-iconic stereotypes emerged in the form of characters such as the mammy (think Aunt Jemima), old darky (think Uncle Ben), and even the rag-clad, straw-chewing field hand Jim Crow, after whom a century of segregation laws would come to be named. Minstrel shows were some of the earliest live performances to be developed in the country, and the tradition helped form the foundation of the American entertainment industry as a whole. These starkly racist images remain profoundly entrenched in our culture and media today.

After the Civil War, Black performers slowly began to break into the minstrel scene, and they did so by mimicking and echoing the standards established by blackface performers. That was what white audiences expected, wanted, understood. And so the traditions established within a racist paradigm were perpetuated, deepened, and even strengthened by these Black performers. They did not need to don blackface, per se (though they sometimes did), but they were performing a version of Blackness that they did not originate, and which wasn’t organic to them, in order to participate in the ­white-controlled theater scene.

*    *    *

The same thing has happened in publishing. As Black creators, even today, we are constantly, inevitably engaging with white expectations for how we portray Blackness. For a long time now, the publishing industry has expected books about Black people to have a certain tone, cover certain ground, and adhere to a particular narrative. For example, we parrot a national narrative about the powerful, traumatic, but ultimately productive civil rights movement. It is impossible to publish Black history without engaging with and perpetuating that narrative, even while writers like me adamantly whisper…but it didn’t really work, and also, remember the Black Panthers?

The story of what it means to be Black has been the same in American literature for so long that the (often-unconscious) expectations and desires of publishers who are genuinely interested in promoting diversity sometimes undercut their ability to actually do that. Spoken or unspoken, there have long been rules about what a Black book should look like, and as we break those rules, we have the power to transform the industry. If they let us.

Those of us writing to expand representation of Blackness face certain challenges about authenticity from the largely white audience of publishing. We are being asked to perform Blackness to the satisfaction of some mythical standard of believability while, at the same time, it has never stopped being okay for white creators to perform Blackness in any way that they choose.

In fact, it would be apt to compare the entire body of children’s literature written by white people about Black people to the paradigm of minstrelsy. I know that for some readers this will come as a shocking idea. But try to view it through a historical lens, not a personal one. It is not about any one writer, or their intentions, or their work. It’s about a body of literature being created by one group of people purporting to speak for another. It is about the reality that hundreds of white writers feel it is not only appropriate but necessary that they be a part of the creation of Black identity. And that to deny them the opportunity to fulfill this charge would strip them of freedom and power.

*    *    *

Let’s consider the history. Blackface was racist in a very specific way — a way that allowed white people to define what it meant to be Black. It wasn’t just painting with a Black brush that which was white, it was systematically performing Blackness through a white lens, with the intent to mock, to discredit, to minimize.

Black characters were first introduced into children’s books for the same reason blackface was used in minstrelsy — to perpetuate and justify the status quo of slavery. Children’s books of the 1800s routinely portrayed Black children as goofy, with vacuous eyes and wide smiles. Later, such stories were used to perpetuate and justify the status quo of segregation. The Story of Little Black Sambo was first published in the United States in 1900, well after the end of legal slavery, and serves as one example of how children’s books perpetuated minstrel-style racism for the Jim Crow era.

Today, children’s books featuring Black children are being used to perpetuate and justify the seemingly­progressive-yet-still-problematic social perception that all people are now regarded as equal in society and there is no difference between the races. The Barnes & Noble covers perfectly illustrate the widespread belief that “diversity” is a matter of a few minor brushstrokes, like turning a character’s cheeks from white to brown. But regarding Black people as “just like” white people is an incomplete first step toward true equality. The fact that we are equal biologically, intellectually, and in the fullness of our humanity does not equate to being treated equally in the world. These things must not be conflated. There are myriad experiences of life in America that are specific to ­Blackness; experiences of trauma, ­exclusion, and prejudice that feed a unique existence steeped in sorrow and struggle and a particular appreciation of joy.

To repeatedly and systematically insist that a book written by a white person about a Black person is the same as a book written by a Black person about their own culture is as profound a form of erasure as the dehumanization inherent in minstrelsy. White voices assert a version of Blackness that is more comfortable for them to imagine than our reality. And to expect Black writers to conform to the expectations that were created for Black stories within a white paradigm is deeply devastating and destructive.

         

Right now, engaging with these expectations is inevitable, but we can also do our best to overturn them. There is actually even a way to update classics and place a Black spin on them beyond their cover art: Ibi Zoboi’s Pride retells Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in modern Brooklyn; L.L. McKinney updates Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in A Blade So Black; my Shadows of Sherwood reimagines Robin Hood as a biracial girl. These successfully re-envisioned classics have one thing in common — they were written by Black creators. The writers absorbed the source material, applied their particular cultural lens to it, and engaged with the stories anew. They offer a glimpse of what it can mean to write from a Black perspective, and how clearly it differs from a white perspective.

*    *    *

Breaking the rules is a balancing act. It starts with a spoonful of truth, a sprinkle of new ideas on a familiar dish. Most books that will truly shatter the rules of the unspoken paradigm of Blackness do not yet exist. They are in us. They are straining to get out. They are the ideas we nurture in the quiet of our creative hearts, but can’t figure out how to write yet, or can’t figure out how to publish. Because the unspoken rules are all around us and within us. We are trained to laugh along with the literary equivalent of minstrelsy, and everything around us expects us to perform as we were trained.

Black writers must continually remind ourselves that there is no true litmus test for how to create authentic Black characters, and even if there could be a litmus test, each of us must write it for ourselves. A white Jewish writer, Laurel Snyder, recently tweeted a comment that struck me deeply. To paraphrase the heart of her message: I’m writing the most #OwnVoices book I could possibly write, and some people may think I’m getting it wrong.

We all belong to numerous identity groups, and yet we cannot be wholly defined by them. We cannot be expected to perform Blackness, or Jewishness, or whatever else we are, because to meet the existing social expectations for what these identities mean is far too limiting. It is far too defined by the white gaze, and when it is not defined by the white gaze, it is defined by the act of trying to transcend the white gaze. We are who we are in relation to whiteness, and when we stop trying to relate to whiteness, the world loses sight of who we are entirely. It tries to erase our meaning. We are tasked with the charge of “getting it right” because to be ourselves, gloriously unfettered by these strictures, would inherently be “getting it wrong.”

The industry badly wants there to be a litmus test for creating authentic Black characters — something as concrete and achievable as performing a familiar minstrel song — because if there is a litmus test, then white writers still have a chance of passing it. But it’s not about who writes Black best. It’s about me being allowed to write my Blackness, and other Black people being allowed to write theirs. No questions asked.

To be very clear — many Black writers know exactly how to pass the litmus test that has been written for us by a white audience. Many of us have done it, many times over. Because it’s the job, and we need to make a buck like everyone else. Because sometimes it’s all we can do. Because it’s how we make progress. Playing the game the white way for a while is how we pushed past minstrelsy to build a legacy of African American spirituals, it’s how we carve out space to create blues and jazz and hip hop, it’s how we, one day, get to make our own albums and sing our own stories, to ourselves and to our own communities. If the whole world is listening, so be it.

But the pressure to conform to the white gaze is enormous. When I write about the civil rights movement, if I try to invoke the image of crowds upon crowds of Black people putting their lives on the line for justice, it almost invariably earns me the editorial side note: “Please mention that there were white people who participated.” Yes, even the civil rights narratives we latch onto center white people. After all, it was a movement speaking to and about white culture; white people, because of their power in society, had to be convinced to treat us as fully human. How could whiteness possibly be more centered in a narrative that is supposedly about Blackness? It is no wonder that so much less has been ­written about the Black Power ­movement, as there is very little space for white heroes to emerge in those ­narratives. It is no wonder that it remains an uphill climb to convince the world that Black Lives Matter.

Our society struggles with the idea that books about Black children are important unless their meaning can be viewed through a white lens. Rudine Sims Bishop’s windows and mirrors and sliding glass doors paradigm remains brilliant as an explanation of why Black children need Black books, and yet people have repeatedly used it to emphasize that the real value of “diverse” books is that they are good for white children, too. At every turn we are forced to define ourselves through the lens of whiteness, to justify our needs based on the needs of whiteness.

Minstrelsy was built upon the idea that Blackness is as whiteness sees it, that Black performers and creators exist for the entertainment of white audiences, that Black people exist exclusively for use by and support of white people. Are we, in the twenty-first century, finally prepared to overturn this particular status quo? Or are we doomed to perpetuate it? Even more insidiously — are we doomed to perpetuate it while proclaiming at the top of our lungs that we are doing exactly the opposite?

Numerous articles, tweets, blog posts, and TED Talks present the argument that the books white writers make about Black people are desperately needed, and that it is their right to produce them. In a 2019 Washington Post article, white author Laura Lippman summed up this viewpoint, stating:

I am a lifelong Baltimorean, and my hometown is one of my primary subjects. It is a majority-black city. It is my obligation to try to write about all of its citizens…Sure, white novelists could “stay in their lane,”…but given the overwhelmingly white state of publishing, won’t that mean more overwhelmingly white stories? Surely that’s not the solution. The long-term fix, instead, is a more diverse publishing industry across the board, which should give rise to more diverse writers and more diverse books.

With this oft-repeated argument, the industry positions white writers as the key to creating diversity. It is a deeply flawed conclusion that the path to successful diversity begins with white writers publishing Black stories.

What if we skip the part where white writers magnanimously present the much-needed Black characters, and move straight to the part where the industry welcomes more Black creators? What if, instead of centering the dialogue on white writers’ freedoms and obligations, we talk about Black creators’ right to define ourselves? The truth is that for us to demand the opportunity to stand alongside white writers as equals still grates on the establishment.

Writers like me break the rules by existing. And by daring to imagine a world in which we no longer have to repeatedly justify our worldview, no longer have to fight to be heard. The path to diversity in children’s literature begins with us rejecting and dismantling our modern minstrelsy. Black writers are doing it, book by book. We are telling our stories, on our own terms, and the world would do well to listen.

From the May/June 2020 Horn Book Magazine Special Issue: Breaking the Rules.

Kekla Magoon
Kekla Magoon

Kekla Magoon is the winner of the 2019 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction and Poetry for The Season of Styx Malone (Lamb/Random). Her YA novels include The Rock and the River (Simon), How It Went Down (Holt), X: A Novel (with Ilyasah Shabazz; Candlewick), and the Robyn Hoodlum Adventures series (Bloomsbury). She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she now serves on the faculty.

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Susan Miller

When I was in high school, there was a production of King Lear in Central Park, with James Earl Jones as King Lear, and three African American women playing his daughters. Just curious to know where you feel this fits on the spectrum of minstrelsy. In other words, is it o.k. to just put African American actors in, what are clearly, white roles?

Posted : Jun 19, 2020 12:10


Wendy Burton Burton

I wonder what needs to be done about Amos Fortune: Free Man, a Newbery winner. It is a terribly racist book, but numerous people biting back at my Goodreads review make it clear that many people don't want to see that, and it's still in print. I thought it would be enough to keep it out of libraries, or at least out of the children's section, but now I think it needs something more radical. An asterisk? Rescinding? Of course the canon is full of racist books (including other Newbery winners), but the Newbery lends so much legitimacy... For some reason Amos Fortune has not been forgotten the way some other Newbery winners have. I assume because it's white wish fulfillment and checks a diversity box (literally--book bingo games).

Posted : Jun 17, 2020 08:32


Kathryn Trowbridge

Thanks for this..... I am incredibly frustrated by the lack of Ebooks (especially in perpetual format) of #OwnVoices authors. I try not to think in conspiracy theories but this feels like a coordinated effort by publishers to make it harder to teach from these authors. Stamped, How to be an Anti-Racist, The Water Dancer - if they are available for school libraries, they are so prohibitively expensive their purchase cannot be justified.

Posted : Jun 15, 2020 10:15


Sonja McGiboney

Hello Kekla, Your article is well spoken. Conceptually I understand the issue of "Minstrelsy". I understand that in the original sense, it was a blatant misrepresentation and oppression of the black people as well as the mindset of the white people at the time. But in the last decade, in white author's efforts to be diverse and include more cultures in their writing, have they failed totally? If so, how can white writers combat that? If we try to build a character that is not white, what do we pull from for character traits etc.? Should we even try to be "diverse" in our writing? I believe exposing the issue is the first step. Empowering and promoting black authors will help combat the problem. But I think there needs to be more education as to HOW all writers can help eliminate the problem. While seeing an increase in the percentages of black VS white authors is a major goal, shouldn't we also provide the community (the white community in particular) with concrete solutions or ideas to help? Shouldn’t both black AND white authors be moving forward with the same, clearly defined goals?I come to the world of authorship anew. I am an older, white woman who aspires to write. My knowledge of the current and historic literature is limited. What should I read to give me the knowledge I need so that I will never write a “Minstrelsy?”

Posted : Jun 06, 2020 03:35

Meg Allison

Sonja, While well-intentioned, your response is problematic. It’s not Kekla Magoon’s responsibility to teach you. Her brilliant article is a lesson onto itself, and one I plan to use when I teach Zoboi’s Pride. Why should Black authors need to partner with white authors to get on the same page? It’s the responsibility of white authors to do their own work, talk among themselves, figure things out, hire a sensitivity reader if necessary, and prepare to accept the fact that some stories do not belong to white people. In fact, a lot of stories do not. If that feels hard and uncomfortable, good. That’s stage one of unpacking white racial identity. I’d start the work there. Along with reading as many books as you can written by Black authors. Start with Kekla’s. She’s a master at her craft.

Posted : Jun 06, 2020 03:35


Elana K Arnold

I learn so much from Kekla's fiction, and her brilliant essays, as well. I'll be thinking about this piece for a long time and will return to read it again. Kekla, thank you for your work.

Posted : Jun 05, 2020 03:53


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