Blackface NationRace, Reform, and Identity in American Popular Music, 1812-1925

Blackface NationRace, Reform, and Identity in American Popular Music, 1812-1925

Brian Roberts

Print publication date: 2017

ISBN: 9780226451503

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


As the United States transitioned from a rural nation to an urbanized, industrial giant between the War of 1812 and the early twentieth century, ordinary people struggled over the question of what it meant to be American. Blackface Nation argues that this struggle is especially evident in popular culture and the interplay between two specific strains of music: the songs of middle-class reform and blackface minstrelsy. The songs of middle-class reformers, such as the popular Hutchinson Family Singers, expressed an American identity rooted in communal values, with lyrics focusing on abolition, women’s rights, and socialism. Blackface minstrelsy, which emerged out of an audience-based coalition of Northern business elites, Southern slaveholders, and young, white, working-class men, expressed an identity rooted in authentic masculinity, anti-intellectualism, and white superiority. Blackface performers embodied a form of “love crime” racism, in which vast swaths of the white public adored African Americans who fit blackface stereotypes even as they used those stereotypes to rationalize white supremacy. By the early twentieth century, blackface reigned supreme in American popular culture. The Hutchinsons became increasingly seen as old-fashioned, their songs forgotten. This book elucidates a central irony in American history: much of the music interpreted as black, authentic, and expressive was invented, performed, and enjoyed by people who believed in white superiority. At the same time, music often depicted as white, repressed, and boringly bourgeois was often socially and racially inclusive, committed to reform, and devoted to challenging the immoralities at the heart of America’s capitalist order.