The Rap on Whites Who Try to Act Black

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By Stacey P. Patton
Sunday, March 16, 2008

It was a tale of sex, violence and a young girl crossing the color line. It was raw, gripping, sad and triumphant, tracing the heroine's successful escape from an environment of abandonment, abuse, poverty and gangs. It was supposed to be true.

Not a word of it was.

The recent media frenzy over Margaret Seltzer's "Love and Consequences," yet another hoax memoir published by yet another respectable publishing house, has subsided, but the perplexing questions remain: Why would a writer take the huge risk of publishing an easily discredited story, and what enticed a respectable publishing house to buy and promote it?

As a former foster child who actually lived the reality of some of the kinds of black dysfunction that Seltzer put forth as her own experience, I find the answer in a long history of white Americans' voyeuristic fascination with -- and perhaps sometimes even envy of -- black people.

The appeal of Seltzer's work lay in the way she positioned herself between America's two races, black and white: She claimed to be a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up poor in a dysfunctional black world. In fact, she is the daughter of a white, upper-middle-class California family. And her story is only the most recent in a long line of literary narratives, entertainments and ethnologies in which white people put on blackface to act as messengers to their white brethren, telling them what life is or was like in the 'hood or on the plantation. The messages they bring back are of black dysfunction, crime and violence, but also of black sexuality, athleticism and soulful musicality. These stories may then reaffirm white audiences' perception of black dysfunction and allow them to use blacks as a negative counterpoint for their own images of normalcy and to affirm their sense of superiority.

Stories written by blacks about blacks, on the other hand, don't seem to offer the vast white reading public that same sense of well-being. Like Seltzer, I write about dysfunction. My own memoir, "That Mean Old Yesterday," actually mirrors some scenes that Seltzer described in her bogus book -- being sexually and physically abused, carrying my possessions in trash bags from foster home to foster home, enduring painful hair-braiding rituals, handling illegal guns.

But unlike hers, my book was scrupulously vetted by my publisher. I was asked to provide police reports, medical records, witness statements and the names of social workers and foster parents. And unlike Seltzer, I actually had to sit down and meet my editor in person. Nothing I wrote was taken at face value.

When Seltzer lied about being a mixed-race foster child reared in a dangerous neighborhood by a black foster mother, she seemed to be revealing her own secret admiration of and desire for blackness while catering to prurient and voyeuristic consumer appetites. She tapped into that long-standing white fascination with blackness whose roots stretch back to the 1600s and that reached its apotheosis in the minstrel show.

Those shows, in which white performers with their faces caulked black sang, spoke and acted like African Americans, rose in popularity in the 1850s and '60s. As issues surrounding the abolition of slavery intensified, the performances allowed whites to portray blacks as stupid, lazy, sexual and unfit to participate in democracy, reinforcing and cementing dominant views about black inferiority. These racist spectacles played before mostly native-born and immigrant working- and middle-class white male audiences. They were most popular with Northern laborers, many of whom had never seen or interacted with blacks.

"Blacking up" as a widespread form of entertainment held sway into the turn of the 20th century but began to die out by the early 1920s. But the popular minstrel stereotypes -- the lazy coon, the dandy, the happy darkie, the mannish mammy, the wanton jezebel, the watermelon and chicken thief and the pickaninny -- all moved to comics, radio and film.

These images influenced the music and films of Al Jolson, who performed in blackface singing songs such as "My Mammy" and "Swanee." Listeners were captivated by the famous "Amos 'n' Andy" radio show, featuring the voices of white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. Singers such as Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland appropriated black cultural aesthetics into their acts.

The most familiar expression of white fascination with blackness was Elvis Presley. Though most widely known as "The King," he was also referred to as "The White Negro" by detractors who feared that his lyrics and bodily gyrations were a corrupting influence on white middle-class youths.

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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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