Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Phantom Minstrelsy

Part of my job description involves thinking about race and racism in the United States. That is until some of my colleagues get their wish and amend my job description to involve cleaning the men’s room. That, though, is a different issue. Or is it?

Regardless, something emerging in certain circles of this nation has left me quite disturbed. Blackface minstrelsy, to my horror, seems poised to make a major come back. My first year at this university, the student newspaper revealed that a dorm had been having annual “ghetto parties.” At these events, mostly white students dressed in black face and “pimp” or “whore” outfits. Not shortly thereafter, the University of Texas acknowledged that fraternities had been holding similar events in Austin. At the time, obviously, I was outraged and horrified that students could be so clueless when it came to issues of racism. Still, I assumed that these events occurred because of the regional-specific history of Texas. This state, after all, has a scarey past (and present) when it comes to race. It is also easier for me to ascribe this type of hate to Texas rather than considering it a systemic problem with the nation.

Signs indicate, however, that these Texans may have been on the front edge of a new minstrelsy wave. Recently, a rather famous blogger’s entry drew my attention to Charles Knipp (a.k.a. Shirley Q. Liquor). Being somewhat out of touch living in Texas, I had not realized that Knipp’s blackface drag show attracted an astounding audience of (mostly white) gay men.

To the best of my ability, I have educated myself on the content and intent of Knipp’s work. Let me offer truth-in-advertising, however. I have not seen Knipp’s live performance, so my estimation is based on his web-page, audio and flash clips, as well as transcripts of his work. It seems unlikely that a live performance would alter my view, but I like to be honest.

Let me pause also for those who might suggest I lack a sense of humor about such things. They are probably right. I do lack a sense of humor about such things. This blog, after all, is called the Center of Gravitas. As such, I am compelled to speak out on these types of issues. I think it is a federal law or something.

I would never, by the way, suggest that Knipp should be censored either. We all know that GayProf worships at the alter of free speech. This entry is not about trying to get Knipp to be quiet. Nor am I looking to toss out blanket accusations of racism to his audience. With those caveats in mind, I want us, instead, to think about what his popularity suggests about the current discourse on race.

Most of the humor in Knipp's sketches involve stereotypes about southern blacks that have existed for centuries. He trades on the image of black women as hypersexual, poor, uneducated, and a burden to society. During his performances, Knipp’s character introduces herself as the mother of nineteen children who collects welfare. Clearly Knipp intends Shirley Q to provoke strong responses from audiences. Some suggest that Knipp’s character exists as a satire of previous minstrelsy characters. Knipp even won an endorsement from RuPaul.

Arguing that Knipp’s performance is parody, I think, gives him too much intellectual credit. When questioned about the potential racism in his act, Knipp retorts that people of color have endorsed his visage. “To be honest,” he reportedly said, “people of colour who have seen my shows live... overwhelmingly tell me how much they enjoyed my accurate portrayal of a certain genre of the gritty, witty Southern women that they fondly remember, no matter what her race.” This last statement alone makes me suspect that Knipp lacks the intellectual nuance for us to consider his performance satire. Instead, he defends his character’s racist stereotypes as “an accurate portrayal.” At a basic level, in other words, Knipp believes his blackface character to be based in reality.

Likewise, his claim that the character could be of any race falls flat. Why? Because he did not make her white (his own racial group). Instead, he made a conscious decision to put on blackface. Likewise, testimony from a couple of real-life African Americans does not negate the problems. It is a serious mistake to presume that people of color can’t also have problematic ideas about race (or even be racist). Finally, Knipp conveniently ignores that the majority of his audiences are white.

Minstrelsy first appeared in the U.S. on the eve of the Civil War. We might expect that blackface shows developed as the sport of slave holders in the South. In reality, however, blackface minstrelsy developed and had its greatest popularity in the nineteenth-century urban North. The white, working-class became the most devout audience members of this form of entertainment.

These white performers “borrowed” black cultural materials for white consumption. Knipp might be surprised to find that his minstrel forefathers also claimed an authenticity to their blackface performances. Stereotypical performances only have currency, after all, if people think that they are true. It might also be news to him that white men often performed blackface drag in these shows. In the nineteenth century, minstrel shows made slavery seem amusing, right, and natural (even fun). U.S. popular culture since that time has constantly returned to minstrelsy whenever discussions of race became heated in the U.S. Films from Birth of a Nation (1919) to Soul Man (1986) had white actors who put on blackface makeup for whites'amusement.

Knipp’s popularity, it seems to me, shows that the nation continues to feel uncomfortable addressing social injustice and racism. Much like the first minstrel shows reenforced slavery as the natural order of things, Knipp and “ghetto parties” legitimate an unfair economic system that links race and poverty. Rather than addressing institutional racism, these types of blackface images simultaneously valorize poverty while also repressing real discussions about the nation’s racist present. The current glamour around "bling" and "ghetto style," for instance, implies that there is something special about being poor in the U.S. There is nothing heroic or interesting about being poor. It only makes you tired and hungry.

Knipp’s performances and popularity bother me most of all because they involve gays. Come on, queer folk, we need to work this out. United as gay brothers and sisters, we should never be enemies.

Much to my dismay, however, many gay men and women still do not take issues of race seriously. While searching for information on this topic, for instance, I found many willing to defend Knipp. Still others see debates about Shirley Q as being unimportant. One has to wonder, though, if these supporters come from a rather comfortable class status. Because these images don’t seem important to them and don’t affect their daily life, they believe racism is not important to the larger gay community either.

Today the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force released a report that documents that gay Latino couples face great disadvantages compared to their gay Euro-American peers. Gay Latino couples, for instance, earn less than their white counterparts and are much less likely to be able to own their own homes. It would not be unlikely to find similar reports about African-American gay couples as well.

One of the greatest difficulties facing the queer community, it seems to me, is the chronic indifference of middle and upper class gays to these realities. For many individuals, the nation allows just enough flexibility for middle-class gays to enjoy a fairly comfortable life (myself included, btw). As a result, many of these middle-class gays ignore or, in Knipp’s case, mock the misfortune of others. We can’t take Knipp’s popularity lightly. We have to consider that the reappearance of blackface minstrelsy within the gay community suggests a much greater and complex system of institutional racism.


Helen the Felon said...

You should write a book. Or, like, five books. Seriously.

GayProf said...

Shucks -- you embarrass me.

CLL Canuck said...

Funny enough, that's the same advice the tenure committee gave you...

Maria said...

This post has been included in the premier edition of the Carnival of Bent Attractions. :)