Antoinette's Reviews > Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult, and Imitation in American Popular Culture

Black Like You by John Strausbaugh
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's review
Aug 30, 08

bookshelves: culture
Read in February, 2007

During the late 1800's and early 1900's minstrel shows mocking black life in the South were well attended and received rave reviews. Politicians, clergymen, and scholars filled the theaters each night to watch “darkies” make fools of themselves. Sometimes the most talented African American performers would appear in the shows, hoping to make a name for themselves. Dancing along with Caucasian men in Blackface, a style of makeup that made white people appear black and mocked black culture, they supported the myths surround their culture. Many people that attended these shows had grown up in a plantation setting, and had never had exposure to “real, live darkies.” The damage these minstrel films did to black culture can still be felt throughout the nation. The characters created, such as “The Mammy,” the lazy negro, and the Coon have been forever immersed into popular culture. It is a shameful legacy of cruel entertainment, but unfortunately there was a huge market for racism in entertainment. The book Black Like You by John Strasubaugh documents the stories of African Americans that participated in black minstrely, and presents the damaging symbolic effect of their acts. Strausbaugh also presents the history of the white man in Blackface, and the power of his role as an oppressor.
John Strausbaugh is a regular contributor to The New York Times. He is a critical observer of pop culture, and sometimes works as a music journalist. He lives in Brooklyn, New York which adds to his perspective on the various theaters in Harlem and how they were damaged by Blackface. He is still alive, and is currently doing research on a book about '50's rock and rebellion. His other books include E: Reflections on the Birth of the Elvis Faith and Rock Til You Drop. Being both an active consumer of pop culture and a historian Strausbaugh is well qualified to write on this subject. Of course, some may judge him for being a white man writing about a black problem, but every author faces criticism. It is important to add that this analysis of the author's credibility is entirely original, though it was tempting to copy the jacket blurb. Strausbaugh presents his interpretation of culture in a precise and unemotional manner, making his book an easy and informative read.
Black Like You begins by painting a picture of Blackface in the 21st century, and traces back the history of the racist tradition all the way back to European colonists mocking powerful Zulu warriors. The book mostly brings to light events or decisions that has made such an offensive, obvious, and humiliating stage show possible. He also exposes popular entertainers such as Bing Crosby as an active participant in Blackface, starring in the show Dixie. Judy Garland, Spencer Williams, and Shirley Temple are all household names and beloved stars from the “good old days,” but they “blackened up” more often than not. This book also exposes the hierarchy of Hollywood as a group of white men that attempt to humiliate whichever minority is least popular at the time. Sadly, African American and Hispanics are almost exclusively portrayed as criminals in the media. The theme of the willingness of societies to mistake entertainment as truth is found in all of the stories told. Society attempts to recreate the ideals portrayed on the silver screen, giving Hollywood and celebrities the power to shape our concept of normal. Is it natural to assume that black women sit on porches and eat watermelon? How many young Southern Belles had actually visited the home of a black woman in 1937? Few, but movies showing blacks as uneducated barbarians were being created and received by an audience eager to understand a mysterious culture. The misconception stuck, and many whites still have a feeling of superiority over blacks that can be contributed to the damage done by Blackface.
The thesis of the book is repeated at least once per chapter, but is most eloquently expressed with the quote “The so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.” White culture and black culture, the author explains, is defined by fighting the labels the opposite assigns. Black people do not want to be seen as passive victims, so they create violent hip-hop as a reaction to oppression. White people feel threatened by the idea of a black community with black leaders so they first created Blackface to portray the black man in a way that was easy to ridicule. Then, they attempt to label hip-hop and other “mysterious black inventions” as low-culture. If that does not take all of the power away from the black man, whom has so far proven to be a strong-willed creature, white people attempt to make rap themselves. This is funny to the rest of the world, but at least whites feel good about themselves for a few minutes. Of course, the author purposely exaggerates, but he does have a valid point. If every culture would just relax and focus on individuality rather than group identity we would have a much more peaceful society. Utopia does not seem possible in the picture of the world Strausbaugh presents. Sadly, his analysis of a culture of oppression is accurate.
Obviously a well informed writer, the notes and bibliography section of this book is impressive. However, the points made by people that lived during the 1930's and '40's are the most convincing supports of the main thesis. Personal interviews and dialog excerpts from films best portray the blatant racism that originated in the south. Directors admitting to promising black actors parts and then humiliating them, housewives remarking that the darkies were and are out of control, and Al Johnson saying he can make a million dollars by “acting like a dumb nigger” are some highlights of the interviews. Statistics also play a vital role in convincing the reader that the amount of hatred targeted at blacks is unnatural. It may be natural to be weary of other cultures, but the measures independent white entertainers have taken to preserve white culture has been extreme.
To support the powerful interviews magazine articles, reviews from minstrel shows, and information from other books is used. Darius James, author of Negrophobia, and Afircan-American historian contributes to the book and wrote the afteword. This book is a goldmine of unbelievable documents. “Darkies Day at the Fair,” an image that appear in 1893 in Puck magazine is a favorite. It shows what looks like an entire African tribe lining up the streets of Chicago and making fools of themselves. It is incredibly offensive, but it helps the reader understand the mindset most whites had at the time. They were shown these images everyday, they were encouraged to create these images, this was powerful propaganda. With images like this in circulation, Blackface seems less deviant, and though still terribly cruel it seems less unbelievable.
This book can be enjoyed by any reader. The chapters on music and hip-hop would appeal to most students. The analysis of racial tension is unique and in-depth enough for a casual reader or a serious historian to appreciate. The general public seems oddly fascinated with Blackface and other such traditions of humiliation, and this book has sold well. Even if a racist white person picked up the book, it has some information about Whiteface that would appeal to even David Duke. This book is essentially about culture, and it is a very accessible read. It is rarely wordy, very sarcastic, makes new and interesting points, is well researched, gives several different interpretations of situations, and is revealing. Who knew Shirely Temple enjoyed “blackening up?” Pictures of Judy Garland in Blackface are alarming, but insightful.
I loved this book. I was pressed for time to read it, but somehow managed to devour it in a few days. I got a few looks when I carried it around in the Dr.'s office, but I was able to recommend it to a lot of people. Since John Strausbaugh has experience as a columnist and music journalist he knows what it takes to hold a reader's attention and still present the facts. I like books that are easy to read, and a lot of history books are very much over my head. This book easy read, hoorah! It has made a great addition to my library, and I am glad it caught my eye in the bookstore. Though, as the author points out, you can't judge a book by its cover.
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