Minstrelsy

(Mostly about dance, but with a digression on a racial slur.)

In the November 2nd New Yorker, under Dance, a Joan Acocella piece, “Tap Routine: Donald Byrd considers the evolution of minstrelsy”. The background:

For bien-pensant people looking to enjoy the art of the past, there is probably nothing more bewildering — not the gaze-worthy nudes of Titian, not the beautiful dances created for Indian girls who had been sold to their temples as priestess-prostitutes — than the minstrel shows that flourished in America in the years surrounding the Civil War. Typically, these shows featured a lineup of a dozen or so men performing comic songs and skits based on “darkie” stereotypes, above all the image of black people as happy-go-lucky, lazy, feckless guys lying around and chewing on something or other. Minstrel shows seem even more deplorable in that they began as the creation of white people, performing in blackface and with big, woolly wigs. But such shows were also hugely popular with black people, who were soon producing their own versions, in which they, too, corked up and put on fuzzy wigs. We owe minstrelsy a great debt. It was the foremost precursor of vaudeville. The one and then the other were what regular people had by way of variety-show entertainment before TV, and therefore they were the arena in which clogging and jigging and other dances coalesced into what we now call tap dance.

And then:

The racial jokes that were the stock-in-trade of minstrelsy are still around, and a lot of us, black and white, are still laughing at them, which is the subject of Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen’s 2012 book “Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop.” As Taylor and Austen argue, a lot of our best humor, especially our African-American humor, comes from minstrel traditions. Dave Chappelle told Oprah Winfrey that blackface “got me in touch with my inner coon.” This resulted in some very funny routines.

Note Chappelle’s self-mocking coon. I’ll get to that in a little while.

Spike Lee’s movie “Bamboozled,” from 2000, was an angry protest against the use of minstrel stereotypes in entertainment. So is “The Minstrel Show Revisited,” in which Donald Byrd, the artistic director of Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theatre, has performers in blackface singing and dancing while acts of police brutality take place in the foreground. The 2014 version of Byrd’s show [originally performed in 1991] was inspired by the killing of Trayvon Martin. On Oct. 28-30, at Skirball Center, Byrd will present an updated rendition, taking into account especially the death of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Minstrelsy has had a broader legacy than tap dance, Byrd feels.

The Spectrum dancers in a November 8, 2013, workshop performance of The Minstrel Show (photo by Nate Watters):

Now to coon. The (considerable) relevant material from Green’s Dictionary of Slang:

[fig. uses of SE raccoon. typified as a cunning creature. Used orig. in non-racial senses (emphasizing only cunning), the meaning swiftly became unequivocally racist, and used as such in Aus. too, where it described Aborigines; note American Dialect Society List 17/12/01: ‘The daughter of William Lloyd Garrison (the great American abolitionist), while tending to the needs of emancipated slaves on the Gullah Islands, anthologizd Negro spirituals. She also made notes on the Gullah dialect. “Coon” was the name that the ex-slaves called each other, and she indicates that it is the word “cousin” as expressed through the dialect. […] As with many terms that members of ethnic communities call each other, they descend into the pejorative’]

1 (US) a Whig [from 1872; from the emblem of the Whigs]

2 (US) a Native American [from 1857]

3 (US) a sly person, a cunning fellow [from 1843]

4 (US) a person, esp. a rustic, a peasant [from 1832]

5 (orig. US) a highly derog. term for a black person [possibly from 1767, certainly from 1848]

6 (US black) used non-pejoratively of a fellow black person [from 1914]

7 a clown, a fool, the image is of a ‘chocolate coloured coon’ [from 1922, in Ulysses]

8 (S.Afr.) a black South African [from 1982]

9 (Aus.) an Aborigine [from 1986]

This would be the place to announce that I have now created a Page on this blog with postings on “Slurs” of various sorts (under the “Linguistics notes” Page). This is only an inventory of postings (on Language Log and this blog) about slurs, not an inventory of slurs in English; for that you’d need to consult dictionaries of such things.

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