Lhamon: Raising Cain (2000)

W. T. Lhamon Jr. reconstructs the hidden history of public dance, musical fusion, Jim Crow, and racial identity (& transgression) in antebellum U.S. cities, then traces it forward into the 20th century:

Raising Cain:

Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop
by W. T. Lhamon, Jr.

Unearthing a wealth of long-buried plays and songs, rethinking materials often deemed too troubling or lowly to handle, and overturning cherished ideas about classics from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Benito Cereno to The Jazz Singer, W. T. Lhamon Jr. sets out a startlingly original history of blackface as a cultural ritual that, for all its racist elements, was ultimately liberating. He shows that early blackface, dating back to the 1830s, put forward an interpretation of blackness as that which endured a commonly felt scorn and often outwitted it. To follow the subsequent turns taken by the many forms of blackface is to pursue the way modern social shifts produce and disperse culture. Raising Cain follows these forms as they prolong and adapt folk performance and popular rites for industrial commerce, then project themselves into the rougher modes of postmodern life through such heirs of blackface as stand-up comedy, rock ’n’ roll, talk TV, and hip hop.

Formally raising Cain in its myriad variants, blackface appears here as a racial project more radical even than abolitionism. Lhamon’s account of its provenance and persistence is a major reinterpretation of American culture.

Some relevant excerpts:

  • RE: Blackface performance in the 1830s:
    “Why was this white identification with blackness the fetish around which a motley alliance constructed itself?  To sign oneself black was unmistakably to acknowledge and choose alignment with the low, as the sugar and cotton trade had ruthlessly defined it well before Rice delineated Jim Crow.  To blacken one’s face, therefore, was at least in part to profess an oppositional stance.  Furthermore, blackface made whiteness a sign, too.  Blackface drew a roughly determining social line: on one side, the motley crew that danced defiantly and did the whitewashing for the bosses; on the other side, the range of forces trying to boss and confine Bone Squash.  On one side those who planted, harvested, and refined sugar, on the other side those who enjoyed the sugar and its profits.  Sugar is one trope for empire, and for the exploitation of labor at the heart of empire.  Thus when Jim Crow recalls looking at the roll of music he had just vomited up, age sixteen in the deep Kentucky woods, and says, ‘I looked at him, an all at once de tune pat as sugar on de end ob my tongue,’ he quietly acknowledges colonialism had a hand in his making.  When Ginger Blue struggles to rise out of his mummy’s box, muttering to himself, ‘Whoo! here I is, pack’d up like a box of sugar,’ he confirms the connection between empire and enforced labor.  Like the more obvious white sugar, Jim Crow and Ginger Blue confirm blackness as a product of colonial practice — not of working class resentment.” (p. 206-7)

See also:

  • “Dancing for Eels”
    by James & Eliphalet Brown (1848)
    “Print shows Frank S. Chanfrau as the character “Mose”, sitting on a barrel watching an African American man dance on a dock along the waterfront, with a crowd of spectators gathered aound. A poor boy, actor John Winans, on the right, is attempting to steal a string of fish from Mose.”
    Promotional image for the 1848 play “Scenes of New York,” based on an earlier folk drawing from Catherine Market (1820).
  • “Dancing for eels” [wikipedia]

  • A later “Dancing for eels” painting explained on PBS.org

  • Diverse scenes of interracial dancing from John Lewis Krimmel (Pennsylvania, c.1820)
  • Mary Kingsley on an African “Cain” tradition:
    “The story which you will often be told to account for the blackness and whiteness of men by Africans who have not been in direct touch with European, but who have been in touch with Muhammedan, tradition — which in the main has the same Semitic source — is that when Cain killed Abel, he was horrified at himself, and terrified of God ; and so he carried the body away from beside the altar where it lay, and carried it about for years trying to hide it, but not knowing how, growing white the while with the horror and the fear ; until one day he saw a crow scratching a hole in the desert sand, and it struck him that if he made a hole in the sand and put the body in, he could hide it from God, so he did ; but all his children were white, and from Cain came the white races, while Abel’s children are black, as all men were before the first murder.”
    See: Kingsley, Mary: “West African Studies” (1899) >>
  • M. C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” video >>

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