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Whiting Up

Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels and Stage Europeans in African American Performance

Marvin McAllister
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  • Book Info
    Whiting Up
    Book Description:

    In the early 1890s, black performer Bob Cole turned blackface minstrelsy on its head with his nationally recognized whiteface creation, a character he called Willie Wayside. Just over a century later, hiphop star Busta Rhymes performed a whiteface supercop in his hit music video "Dangerous." In this sweeping work, Marvin McAllister explores the enduring tradition of "whiting up," in which African American actors, comics, musicians, and even everyday people have studied and assumed white racial identities.Not to be confused with racial "passing" or derogatory notions of "acting white," whiting up is a deliberate performance strategy designed to challenge America's racial and political hierarchies by transferring supposed markers of whiteness to black bodies--creating unexpected intercultural alliances even as it sharply critiques racial stereotypes. Along with conventional theater, McAllister considers a variety of other live performance modes, including weekly promenading rituals, antebellum cakewalks, solo performance, and standup comedy. For over three centuries, whiting up as allowed African American artists to appropriate white cultural production, fashion new black identities through these "white" forms, and advance our collective ability to locate ourselves in others.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0243-1
    Subjects: Sociology, Performing Arts, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Introduction Whiting Up Work
    (pp. 1-18)

    This book is about a dual Afro-Diasporic tradition of whiteface minstrels and stage Europeans that has operated for centuries just beneath America’s representational radar. From their earliest days in the New World, enslaved Africans and free blacks have carefully studied and re-created Euro-American culture in semiprivate social gatherings, illegal late-night cabals, and conventional theatrical spaces. I define whiteface minstrelsy as extra-theatrical, social performance in which people of African descent appropriate white-identified gestures, vocabulary, dialects, dress, or social entitlements. Attuned to class as much as race, whiteface minstrels often satirize, parody, and interrogate privileged or authoritative representations of whiteness. Stage Europeans...

  5. Chapter 1 Liberatory Whiteness Early Whiteface Minstrels, Enslaved and Free
    (pp. 19-49)

    On Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons in the early nineteenth century, major thoroughfares such as Broadway in New York City or Meeting Street in Charleston, South Carolina, overflowed with impeccably dressed and remarkably audacious African Americans out for a leisurely stroll. In a letter to the editor of theNew York Evening Post,one concerned citizen reported on this social ritual: “These people were all well drest, and very much better than the whites. The men almost without exception, wore broadcloth coats, very many of them boots, fashionable Cossack pantaloons, and white hats; watches and canes. The latter article was...

  6. Chapter 2 Imitation Whiteness James Hewlett’s Stage Europeans
    (pp. 50-72)

    During the War of 1812, British forces established Dartmoor Prison in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and from roughly 1813 to 1815, this facility housed nearly 1,000 captive African American seamen and close to 5,000 French, Irish, and Euro-American prisoners. In Number Four, a segregated section of Dartmoor, African American inmates devised stage European performances to entertain themselves. I define stage Europeans, theatrical cousins to whiteface minstrels, as black actors exploring whiteness through conventional white dramatic characters. Borrowing sets, makeup, properties, and costumes from French inmates, Dartmoor’s black acting troupe mounted one-to two-week runs of popular European dramas such as the Reverend John...

  7. Chapter 3 Low-Down Whiteness A Trip to Coontown
    (pp. 73-109)

    In November 1897, comedian and dancer Harry Gillam made a major career decision: he parted ways with Richard and Pringle’s Georgia Minstrels and turned his proverbial back on blackface minstrelsy. As a free agent, Gillam bounced between stage-managing colored road shows and developing an acrobatic dance routine with his younger sister Bessie Gillam, who marketed herself as the “only colored lady doing ballet.” Their act consisted of “Little Bessie” dancing on point for nearly five minutes while big brother Harry spun on his head. During this break from blackface, Gillam also cultivated a solo specialty act in which he embodied...

  8. Chapter 4 Trespassing on Whiteness Negro Actors and the Nordic Complex
    (pp. 110-155)

    Act 1 of Langston Hughes’s modern tragedyMulatto(1927) features a scene in which the title mulatto, Robert Norwood, is confronted by his Negro mother, Cora, and his biracial brother William about his recent transgressions. Robert, the unacknowledged son of Colonel Thomas Norwood, has decided to walk through the front door of the colonel’s house, like a white man, instead of through the back door, like a Negro. Cornered by a concerned family, Robert reveals his true feelings: “Back here in these woods maybe Sam and Livonia and you and mama and everybody’s got their places fixed for ’em, but...

  9. Chapter 5 Estranging Whiteness Queens, Clowns, and Beasts in 1960s Black Drama
    (pp. 156-200)

    An actor once asked Jean Genet to write a play with an all-Negro cast, and the French writer mused, “But what exactly is a Negro? First of all what is his color?” Susan Taubes, in a 1963 article onThe Blacks, answered Genet’s philosophical queries: “Negro” would be his color because that is how imperial powers identified enslaved or colonized Africans.¹ InThe Blacks, Genet constructs two competing worlds to explore his questions: an onstage, metaphoric “ritual masque” and an offstage world dominated by a court trial and an ongoing revolution. He effectively divides his dramatic action into public and...

  10. Chapter 6 White People Be Like . . . Black Solo and Racial Difference
    (pp. 201-248)

    At an April 2008 NAACP annual Freedom Fund dinner in Detroit, Michigan, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, retired senior pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, delivered a keynote address on the theme “different but not deficient.”¹ Wright explained how “in the past,” Americans were conditioned to view people who were different from us as somehow deficient; for example, people who did not worship like us were perceived as lacking in spirituality or even culture. To stage the worship differences, Wright’s rich voice leaped into a high-toned, hypercorrect cantata, singing “comfort ye in the glory, the glory of the Lord.”...

  11. Conclusion Problems and Possibilities of Whiting Up
    (pp. 249-264)

    Suzan-Lori Parks, one of America’s most innovative playwrights, has experimented with stage Europeans on at least two occasions. InThe America Play(1994) andTopdog/Underdog(2001), Parks features black men impersonating President Abraham Lincoln, complete with his iconic stovepipe hat, a black or sometimes blonde beard, and sometimes whiteface makeup. Parks has been asked why she keeps returning to President Lincoln, and she claims, “I don’t choose Lincoln. Lincoln chooses me. It’s a continual choosing, and I’m not sure why, but here I am.”¹The America Playis about a black man who so strongly resembles the sixteenth president of...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 265-298)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 299-318)
  14. Index
    (pp. 319-330)