cover image Darkest America: 
Black Minstrelsy 
from Slavery to Hip-Hop

Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop

Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen. Norton, $26.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-393-07098-9

Taylor (coauthor of Faking It) and Austen (editor of Roctober magazine) provide a comprehensive and perceptive history and critique of black minstrelsy—a tradition that began in the 1840s, where black performers entertained black and white audiences by playing the grinning blackface buffoon, exaggerating the traits white people used to characterize black men. Minstrelsy emerged as the most popular form of entertainment (the ancestor of vaudeville and the variety show) until the turn of the 20th century, when the classic minstrel variety show gradually disappeared. Taylor and Austen argue that minstrelsy’s “Negro caricature” became woven into American culture, reappearing in the 21st century in hip-hop, rap, Mardi Gras Zulu floats in New Orleans, and inspiring the work of artists like Lil Wayne and Spike Lee. The book explores minstrelsy’s long period of popularity; artists such as Bert Williams and Master Juba; its audience’s reactions; and the ways its innovative performances have influenced American culture. According to the authors, black minstrel performers did not simply re-enact degrading stereotypes, but rather satirized those stereotypes to liberate themselves and their audiences. In his performances, Bert Williams expunged some of minstrelsy’s demeaning aspects to highlight its humanity and pathos, while Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles kept minstrelsy’s musical legacy alive through its songs. This well-informed work deepens our understanding of a lasting element of American culture. Illus. Agent: William Clark, William Clark Associates. (Aug.)