Must Read Book

Lhamon, Jr., W.T., Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop (1998).

After reading the ground-breaking work of Alexander Saxton, David Roediger, and Eric Lott, I imagined that I had little left to learn about the early development of blackface minstrelsy, but W.T. Lhamon’s Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop is one of the most provocative and fascinating cultural history studies to appear in recent years. To my mind, the most exciting feature of this book is its focus on the complex intersection of vernacular cultures and emerging cultural industries. Lhamon’s point of departure is the cosmopolitan hustle and bustle of New York’s Catherine Slip Market of the 1820s, where Long Island slaves attempted to carve out small measures of freedom and power by “dancing for eels” before the curious gaze of white workers, who in turn absorbed and refashioned these transgressive gestures as early blackface routines. This vision of minstrelsy’s urban origins seems far more plausible than the older creation myths, which emphasized white journeys to southern plantations in search of black dance moves, or T.D. Rice’s probably apocryphal encounter with a “crippled Negro” (who was said to have provided the clothes and steps for Rice’s “Jump Jim Crow”). Lhamon’s story also complicates more recent historical portraits of embattled Bowery artisans who traded in psychological “wages of whiteness” and used minstrelsy as an ambivalent cultural instrument both to celebrate—and mark racial distance from—the pre-industrial past they were leaving behind. Lhamon argues, in fact, that previous scholars have largely missed the ways that early blackface grew out of transatlantic cultural currents and interracial exchanges circulating “below” the Bowery (a thesis bolstered by Dale Cockrell’s Demons of Disorder, another exciting new book on early blackface). The evidence here is admittedly fragmentary, but in a few remarkable scraps of newspaper coverage and travel writing we actually see blacks and whites engaging in blackface performance together—e.g. in the notorious dance cellars of New York’s Five Points district—and it is this fleeting glimpse of “mudsill mutualism” that leads Lhamon to describe early blackface as a cultural impulse potentially more subversive in its racial and political implications than abolitionism. Given the vicious racial ridicule of later blackface minstrelsy, some critics have blasted Lhamon for his revisionist impulses. One could also question his tendency to romanticize the cultural underground. At certain moments, Lhamon’s work shares clear affinities with Greil Marcus’ appealing vision of rock n’ roll history, in which subversive “traces” of a pre-commodified, more authentic orginal poke through later efforts at culture industry control. On both counts, though, I would suggest that Lhamon’s book needs to be read carefully and reckoned with seriously. Raising Cain is creatively researched, conceptually rich, and beautifully written. And it is one of the very first historical studies to follow a major 19th-century vernacular form—gesture by gesture, text by text, and decade by decade—across the mass cultural threshold.

Recommended by James W. Cook, University of Michigan

James W. Cook is Assistant Professor of History and American Culture at the University of Michigan. He has just published The Arts of Deception: Playing With Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Harvard University Press, 2001). His new book project, Cracks in the White Republic, explores the development of 19th-century interracial cultures between emancipation and modernism.