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Street Performance and the Continued Legacy of Minstrelsy

This past weekend my family visited me for my thesis. My Dad, sister, and I went to Faneuil Hall on a particularly beautiful day to walk around and see the sights. It had been quite a while – over a year, at least – since I’d been to Faneuil, but I hadn’t forgotten about the droves of excellent street performers to be found. I was looking forward to circus acts and live music, and I got those. But I also had a really fascinating experience with a hip hop crew that, along with my recent critical analysis of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and then the above video that I found on Facebook, left me questioning just how far away we really are from the legacy of minstrelsy.

The video above starts off as fairly harmless – it asks the question why cartoon characters traditionally wore gloves. It’s cute and well-crafted, and I was intrigued if not emotionally involved – that is, until the penny dropped (around 3:05) and it was revealed that the white-gloved cartoon characters (who, it should be stated, are typically black in color) aren’t just visually similar to minstrel characters… they are minstrel characters, “portrayed as mischievous and rebellious, yet good-natured. They wore loose clothes, had painted faces, and they wore white gloves.” Okay, Vox. “Painted faces” is certainly one way to describe it. Another way would be blackface.

Watching the video, I was hit with how intrenched minstrelsy was in the culture of the early 1900’s, and how that has left a monumental impact on our culture today, in ways that even liberal news source Vox can’t outright decry as racist. [Spoiler alert, it is.]

Which… Brings me to the crew I saw this weekend.

Above is a clip of a performance by YAK, You Already Know, the Boston hip hop and entertainment crew that I saw this past weekend. From watching a couple videos, it seems like they do pretty much the same routine each time: they breakdance for the first half of the show, before moving onto the big trick: one member flips over a handful of people. It’s a well-crafted event that is equal parts entertaining and skillful.

As you can hear at the very start of this video, one of their most consistent jokes to introduce the act goes something like this: “There’s gonna be a black guy running real fast with no police behind him.” Which made me laugh in the moment, because it’s funny, right?

Here’s a walk-through of the rest of the performance that I saw:

To draw out volunteers for this their final trick, YAK picked what they deemed a group of “old sexy rich white guys.” After they picked these men, they led them through a dance that was pretty damn funny. Because the joke is that white people can’t dance. And I laughed. The next set of volunteers to do a similar imitation-based dance bit were a group of women they deemed “sexy single moms” – three middle-aged women who then copied the leader in a dance to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” Okay, this one wasn’t quite as funny to me, but I understood the entertainment value.

And then they asked for “the asian sensation,” one Asian male volunteer from the audience. They pulled an Asian-looking man out of the crowd, seemingly against his will. They led him through a dance-fight to “Kung Fu Fighting,” which felt almost too obvious and reductive to even be funny. But a lot of people found it hilarious. The man was a really excellent sport, though it was later revealed that he didn’t speak a lick of English.

As I watched this progress, I started to feel more and more uncomfortable with the act, but I didn’t know why. Was it because the jokes used blatant racism as a punchline? But that didn’t seem to be it. It’s not that I found the jokes funny – I didn’t, with some exceptions. But they also felt too easily identifiable as stereotypes for me to find offense.

It wasn’t until I looked around at the crowd that I realized why I was so uncomfortable.

Everyone around me was white. Like, pretty much everyone in the audience. And they were all laughing, like, a lot. Here we had a group of (self-identifying) black men putting on a show for a bunch of white people, using stereotypes to make jokes. It felt a little too like minstrelsy to be funny anymore.

I want to be clear, here. This crew seems to be especially aware of their own identity as black men, and was using it with intentionality to achieve a specific response. They seemed intent on drawing audiences in because of their blackness, not in spite of it. But I guess that’s what made me uncomfortable… This audience was all too keen to jump in, to laugh when YAK said, “Don’t worry, we’re not thugs anymore,” as if the audience’s laughter also expressed their relief. Maybe it was just the image of the whole thing – a crowd of white faces laughing at a group of black men – that recalled the idea of minstrelsy to my brain and made me question my complicity in the event.

I don’t have a conclusion, only thoughts that continue to run through my brain, popping up every now and then when I run into another performative event that reminds me of the terrible legacy of minstrelsy and the exploitation of black bodies for entertainment.

I don’t want to be complicit. I don’t want to be another laughing white face.

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