Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture.

Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture. – book reviews

David Roe

Susan Grubar. Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997. xii, 327 pp. (including works cited), index, illus.

Reviewed by Donald Roe, Ph.D. Subject Area Expert, Motion Picture, Sound and Video Branch–National Archives

The recent Disney adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella for television, featuring an African American Cinderella and a multiethnic cast, could not have been made forty years ago. Many white Americans would have thought it a heresy to cast people of color in a “white” fairy tale. That the production generated little controversy reflects how much our views on race have changed since the elimination of state-sanctioned segregation. Yet, a new study documents our enduring curiosity, suspicion, and fear of race and color.

Susan Grubar, distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University, is the author of a new book about a fascinating subject titled Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture. Grubar defines “racechange” as crossracial impersonation and mimicry and explores its use in film, fiction, poetry, art and journalism from the turn of the century to the 1970s. She mentions the existence of “racechange” in music, but never fully explains why she chose not to investigate its importance since many white musicians and singers, from jazz to rock, have adopted the styles and jargon of black music. Obvious examples are Elvis Presley who borrowed heavily from the black rhythm and blues genre and young white “rappers,” like Vanilla Ice, who shamelessly copy the “hip hop” music that originated from black, urban youth.

Pointing out that both whites and blacks have engaged in “racechange,” Grubar contends that they have done so for different reasons. She shows that whites have historically used “racechange,” to mock, degrade, and humiliate blacks, and that blacks have found the clownish antics of white minstrelsy to be especially offensive. Thus, she notes that there was a predictable outcry in the black community following actor Ted Danson’s appearance in blackface at a 1993 Friars Club roast of Whoppi Goldberg, an African American woman. According to Grubar, whites have also used “racechange” as a form of racial envy. The inclusion in the book of a curiously suggestive photograph by the controversial Robert Mapplethorpe showing the body of a black man with unusually large genitalia seems to epitomize white envy of black sexuality. Documenting the centrality of the black phallus in Saul Bellow’s acclaimed novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet as well as other literary works, Grubar provides a provocative analysis of phallic envy and “racechange” in a chapter aptly titled “Psychopathologies of Black Envy.”

Unlike the rationale of whites, Grubar believes that blacks have used “racechange,” especially in “passing,” as a survival technique. However, one might easily argue that, more than survival, many blacks who “crossed the color line” did so simply to improve their socioeconomic status. Historically, light-skin blacks who did not “pass” have had access to more opportunities than other blacks. Thus, their survival was not as tenuous as their dark-skin brothers and sisters. Whatever the reason for “racechange,” the English professor argues passionately that it ultimately demonstrates the devaluation of blackness in a white-dominated culture.

Susan Grubar makes use of many fascinating illustrations of photographs, movie stills, drawings, paintings, and magazine covers to portray the various manifestations of”racechange.” Included are representations of an ancient vase adorned with black and white faces; the art of Richard Bruce Nugent, Robert Colescott, and Man Ray; and a magazine cover showing a computer composite of a multiethnic face. The author’s examination of these and other images and her analysis of racially-mixed children in fiction, the use of minstrel images and blackface in films like The Birth or a Nation, The Jazz Singer and Dixie, and the use of black dialect in the work of Vachel Lindsay, Nancy Cunard, Carl Van Vechten and others leads to a dichotomous conclusion about “racechange.” She suggests “racechange” has the potential to ameliorate our views on racial differences, but that it has often exacerbated and reinforced our negative perceptions of race.

Professor Grubar’s conclusions are based on no mere historical or sociological inquiry of the nature of”racechange,” but rather on a penetrating, psychological, cross-examination. Therein lies a major problem with the book. Grubar often opts for complex, psychological interpretations when a simple explanation might seem more believable. For example, her exacting examination of the racial meaning of a Janiform vase, dated about 510 B. C., depicting a black face on one side and a white face on the other is actually a post-mortem, psychological profile of the mind-set of an unknown artist. There is no existing evidence about the artist’s real motivation or thoughts on race. The artist may simply have wanted to create an interesting piece of art juxtaposing the faces of different racial types. Further, she states that “Michael Jackson’s infamous lightening of his skin was only the most obvious evidence of the ongoing evolution of passing traditions.” (xv) However, Jackson, an internationally-acclaimed African American entertainer, insists that he has vitiligo, a disease that destroys pigments in the skin.

Racechanges is replete with numerous examples of unnecessary psychoanalysis. Drawing upon the work and approach of Frantz Fanon, a Martinique-born black known for his revolutionary views on the psychopathology of race and racism, the author finds underlying repressed guilt or envy as the rationalization for most “racechanges.” This tends to obscure important points that she makes particularly that “racechange” has the potential to impact our culture in a positive manner. This book is a complex, academic work and a difficult read. It is not, as the author insists, a book for both the scholar and the “common reader.” At one point, for example, Grubar says of “racechange” that “[t]he ‘trick’ of racial metamorphosis participates in the illicit, the liminal, the transgressive, the outre, the comic, the camp. Not simply mimetic, racechange is an extravagant aesthetic construction that functions self-reflexively…” (10) While the “common reader” may find such a passage difficult, this is typical language in the book.

Despite its cumbersome presentation and forced psychological interpretations, Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture provides interesting insights, sheds new light and expands the debate on a provocative subject. Historians, sociologists, psychologists and other scholars will find much in this volume with which to disagree and argue about. Others with an esoteric interest in minstrelsy, “passing,” and related topics will find the book informative, but exasperating.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group